Grave of the fireflies is a poignant war tragedy from Studio Ghibli, renowned for their animated films. It was directed by Isao Takahata and is based on the semi-autobiographical story by Akiyuki Nosaka. It was initially released on 16th April 1988, in Japan and since then, it has become a widely watched critically acclaimed animated movie.
The anime follows the story of two siblings, Seita (14) and Setsuko (4) who try their best to survive but are unable to do so. The story is set against the background of World War II and depicts how war affects the common citizens. Setsuko and Seita lose their mother to an American air raid and go on to live with their distant aunt, hoping that their father who is in the navy will soon return from the war victoriously. With no words from their father even after several months, the siblings are seen as nothing but extra mouths to feed by their aunt. As a result of constant verbal abuse and discrimination that they face in that house, one day after a quarrel, they leave and make an abandoned shelter their home. Only much later do they find that their father’s fleet had been destroyed in the war.
Studio Ghibli is a Japanese film studio that is known for an extra bit of magic in its movies and shows. Well renowned for classic anime like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle, Studio Ghibli’s detailed and beautiful animation style has always been astounding. Studio Ghibli has earned many accolades, including an oscar award. Perhaps the magic of Studio Ghibli lies in its apt visual imagery, or maybe it lies in its ability to capture human emotions in the rawest of forms via its visual imagery. Whatever it may be, watching Studio Ghibli movies is always delightful and provides a fresh perspective in a world that has the tendency to be very eurocentric.
I had my encounter with Grave of the Fireflies when the world was under lockdown. In retrospect, it was not that I was completely unaware of the movie. This was an anime that my Otaku friends had recommended to me time and again, but I had never watched it. And then, one fine day, the entire movie showed up in my YouTube recommendation. Without much thought, I clicked on it, unaware of the emotional roller coster it was going to be. In the next one and a half hours I discovered and learned so much about the unravelling chaos of life that in the following days, I could not get the imagery of the anime out of my head – a mixture of gore and melancholy, of happiness and despair, and of hope and death.
Themes of the anime
Due to the setting of the movie, war plays a central role and it may seem to overshadow the other themes of the movie. However, there is not just one monolithic idea in the film but rather it explores a variety of ideas, each one of them significant in its own right.
While Studio Ghibli has established its name for the breathtaking magical world that it creates, the world of Seita and Setsuko are far from perfect and magical. They live in
war-torn Japan after the US have joined the Allied force. Grave of the Fireflies carefully depicts the tragedies of the war and how the siblings become a victim to it.
It is marked by constant scenes of air raids and the protagonists also lose their house and mother to a napalm air raid. The whole movie revolves around the idea of how utterly devastating war really is, for a country’s prestige- yes, but even more so for ordinary citizens. In the first half of the anime, one can actually notice Japanese people beaming with pride at Japan’s role in the World War. But towards the end of the anime, a change occurs. People become disillusioned with war and they begin to resent the various problems such as food shortages, inflation, and loss of lives and property that the war brings.
2. Fleeting Happiness, Fragile Beauty.
The anime is loud and clear on how momentary everything in life is. Through the changing seasons, the living conditions of the siblings deteriorate as well. Their childhood is snatched away from them and they are constantly reminded of how war affects society. Despite their deplorable living conditions, Seita and Setsuko experience momentary joy every now and then.
The Fruit Drop Can is the perfect example of fleeting happiness in the movie. Every time Setsuko cries, Seita offers her some fruit drops which helps calm down and diverts her attention to the delights of the fruit drops. This can of fruit drops plays a central role throughout the movie, the protagonists never let go of this can which only provided them with fleeting moments of happiness.
In addition to the role played by the fruit drop can, fireflies also become an integral essence of the film. After Seita and Setsuko shift to an abandoned shelter, when Setsuko complains about it being too dark in the night, Seita gathers fireflies in order to illuminate the area. This moment symbolises a new hope in their life which, however, is short-lived. The fleeting and fragile beauty of the fireflies hits Setsuko hard the next morning when she notices that all the fireflies are dead. Setsuko then tells Seita that she knows their mother is in a grave and that she wants the fireflies too, which although only provided them with fleeting moments of happiness, to have a proper burial. This event sets the heavy tone of melancholia in the film and shatters the innocence of Setsuko that Seita had been trying so hard to protect.
3. Callousness of the Society
The anime starts with the now-dead Seita narrating the events leading up to his death. When Seita is found dead on the subway, people are not bothered and just casually call him a “goner”. Death due to lack of food had become so common at that time that people were unfazed by it. Just like Seita, there are many others who are “gone” in the subway station but nobody is bothered by their death.
Grave of the Fireflies constantly plays with the idea of the innocence of children. When Seita and Setsuko are treated unfairly by their aunt and they decide to live in an abandoned shelter, the viewers can notice the pure innocent joy on Setsuko’s face. She’s happy to have a place of her own, ready to decorate it and is unbothered by the dilapidated condition of the shelter. She does not complain about the prickly heat or the rashes, and all in all, she’s happy to be with her brother. While constantly playing with innocence, the anime does not shy away from depicting gore scenes as well. Death is visually represented time and again in the movie.
When the situation worsens and food becomes even harder to come by, they are suggested by a farmer who often traded food for other items with them to go back to their aunt as it is “not possible to survive outside the system”, telling the viewers clearly that there is no space for anyone who chooses to go against the system of society. When Setsuko is examined by a doctor, he informs Seita that his sister needs food. However, the police officer offers Seita nothing but a glass of water. This underpins the dark truth of humanity – the callousness and the complicity of all humanity in the making of this broken society.
The beautiful display of human emotions in animation by Studio Ghibli can be seen most vividly in Grave of the Fireflies. The raw and unfiltered animation style of this anime lingers on even after several hours. Viewers may be tempted to blame Seita for making bad decisions and how that resulted in his sister’s death, and later his own death too. It becomes easy to blame someone, but could Seita really have done things differently? Could he really have survived in that unforgiving and broken society in the end?
Romik Sai is a third-year student pursuing bachelors in History from Lady Shri Ram for Women. She hails from Arunachal Pradesh and takes pride in her cultural heritage. Her interests lie in art and culture, gender studies, tribal and minority affairs. She can be found on Instagram.