If you ask most anime viewers, Isao Takahata‘s 1988 World War Two film Grave of the Fireflies is the saddest movie released by Studio Ghibli. While this is largely true – even if you sobbed through When Marnie Was There, it’s hard to top two young siblings dying at the end of the war for pathos – Alex Dudok de Wit’s analysis argues that to see the film as nothing more than an emotionally manipulative weepy is to ignore Takahata’s original vision for the piece. Takahata, he says, wanted modern viewers to understand that the children’s fates were in part a result of selfishness, and that the film was about how people function in a crisis – a wartime story rather than a war story.
To understand the difference between the two, we can turn to twentieth-century British author Elizabeth Bowen’s work. In Bowen’s 1945 short story collection The Demon Lover, she says that wartime stories are “studies of climate, of war-climate, and of the strange growths it raised.” A war story would follow the actual action of the war, with battles, bombings, and so forth. That makes Grave of the Fireflies a combination of the two – after the prologue with the children’s ghosts, the film opens as a war story with the bombing of Kobe. But once that is over, the action shifts to the ways people interact and function in wartime; the climate Bowen speaks of is what influences Seita to make the choices that he does and the strange growths could be the results of those decisions. De Wit quotes Takahata as saying that he never intended for the film to be an anti-war story because he did not feel that it could contribute to world peace. In this, he once again aligns with Bowen, who describes the pieces in The Demon Lover as “sparks” that she had to control rather than stories she consciously wrote – bits and pieces of an experience she lived with others in the strange climate of war that post-war society could not quite understand.
That Takahata’s film takes from both his own experiences as a child during the U.S. bombing campaigns of the 1940s and from those of the author of the novella the film was based on perhaps speaks to the idea of the sparks (represented as fireflies) Bowen referred to. Although the source material has some very different plot points than Takahata’s adaptation, both essentially discuss the deaths caused by living through wartime. In the case of novella Seita, that death is symbolic and emotional, and Takahata’s framing of the story’s action through the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko is meant to both reference that and to provide the viewer with insight into the war-climate that caused it. “Fireflies has the appearance of a victim narrative,” de Wit writes, “it is a story of Japanese pain – children’s pain. And yet it strives to be the opposite. Far from ennobling its characters, it shows them acting irrationally, selfishly, cruelly. None question the premise of the war that’s causing them such distress…They aren’t victims so much as their own enemy.”
To say that this is contrary to how many, if not most, war or wartime films are presented is to state the obvious. While we may see movies about adults framed in this way, it’s rarely, if ever, the case for a story with children at its center. Takahata wants, de Wit says, to present Seita as flawed, selfish, and ultimately the author of his and Setsuko’s own deaths, something that the film’s final shot of the two ghosts of 1945 looking out over a modern cityscape is meant to highlight. Had they stayed with their aunt, perhaps they would have been living in that city as adults rather than observing it as the dead. It forms an interesting callback to Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, wherein the refrain between characters known only as Him and Her is “You saw nothing at Hiroshima. Nothing,” and Her reply, “I saw everything. Everything.” Those lines could almost be spoken between Seita and the audience, with Kobe substituted for Hiroshima, and it is our insistence that we saw, that we know, that undermines the message de Wit says Takahata intended to send. We may have observed what he has put on the screen before us, but as far as Takahata is concerned, we haven’t really seen what he was trying to show us.
De Wit’s framing of Grave of the Fireflies as a work of naturalism (an offshoot of realism that can mean a depiction of life rooted in both reality and the idea that everything arises from natural causes without a spiritual or supernatural component) is one that at first appears to deny the ghosts we see in the film or the spiritual connotation of the fireflies. But what this reading really does is encourage us to rethink how we engage with not just this film specifically, but wartime stories in general. They aren’t all weepies or trauma porn; through the lens of wartime, we can rethink our interactions and relationship with the world and the people in it. Watching is not seeing, and the truth of a story is rarely on its surface. Grave of the Fireflies, de Wit reminds us, is no exception, and if we can’t understand that, then maybe we aren’t really seeing its story at all.
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