Grave of the Fireflies Is a Manipulative But Haunting Anti-War Film
By Alex Cranz
Gillian Anderson lured me into a love of anime. I’d always had a fascination with Eastern Asian* cultures. I took taekwondo for years and became obsessed with South Korea. Tried to learn Korean and turned every assignment I had into a “why South Korea is the best” tirade. This particularly delighted my grandmother who’s three brothers and husband fought in the Pacific theater. She loved South Korea but would cut a person for saying kind things about Japan.
But then in 1998 Gillian Anderson was announced as a member of the cast of Princess Mononoke. As I’d once recorded a soliloquy to Mulder in the voice of Scully on a tape recorder (found years later by a friend to my mortification–NOW SHE CAN’T HOLD IT OVER ME ANYMORE) I clearly had to see that movie ASAP.
Being it was North Texas in 1998 that meant no downloading it, or ordering it from Netflix or picking it up at Best Buy. I finally procured it for 40+ dollars from Suncoast, those overpriced bastards I’ll be seeing in hell…where they’ll be lounging on all the money I paid them over the years.
Watching it was a revelation and the beginning of an addiction. I’d seen anime before, but as previously established outside of the work of Kurosawa (whom my parents were fanatics for) I wasn’t allowed to really watch Japanese entertainment. I’d seen a little Pokemon. Some Sailor Moon and Escaflowne. But nothing really quite like Studio Ghibli’s ode to industrialism versus environmentalism. It blew me away.
And soon it blew my wallet away too. I grew obsessed. My mother threatened to disown me when she realized I’d spent over 200 dollars on a Magic Knight Rayearth set and my grandmother sat me down to explain the atrocities the Japanese had committed in World War 2 and why I could never, ever like them.
She painted an image of Japan that was wholly unfamiliar to a teenager in the 90s. I knew anime and samurai and my Sony Walkman. I didn’t know about Nanjiing or Bataan or my great-uncle watching the light flicker out of Ernie Pyle’s eyes. Not until she explained it all to me in excruciatingly graphic detail.
I was, of course, repulsed. But then I’d remember reading all those books about the atomic bomb and the paper cranes and the dark outline of people on a wall evaporated in an instant. Seemed to me that it was not as black and white as presented by my history classes or my grandmother.
It turned from an obsession with cartoons into a passion for a culture and its history and it’s what eventually led me to Grave of the Fireflies, an excellent intersection of political culture, art and activism.
This was Studio Ghibli’s second film and released concurrently with their third, My Neighbor Totoro (they were actually featured as a TERRIBLE double billing that understandably did not do well at the box office). Director Isao Takahata based it off the novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka.
Nosaka lost his younger sister during World War 2 due to malnutrition and his semi-autobiographical tale was penned as an apology to her. But Takahata saw another purpose in Takahata’s work. He saw the potential to lecture the youth of 1988 Japan, who were riding a financial wave of wonder that was about to crest. Wanting them to understand just how awful it had been for their parents and grandparents he crafted this movie. Not to condemn war, but to appeal to and guilt a generation untouched by it.
It was only then, an accident that Isao Takahata created one of the most perfect anti-war films every produced.
It begins with the firebombing of Kobe. Yes, the place from which the really wonderfully marbled beef originated. During the war Kobe was a primary port for the nation and it was also far less developed than Tokyo or Kyoto. Instead of buildings of brick and steel and concrete Kobe was all paper walls and wooden roofs. This made it a prime target for firebombing–which in the end would take more lives than either atomic weapon. In the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo over 100,000 people would lose their lives and sixteen miles of Tokyo would be lost; with over 1.5 million people losing their homes.
Kobe was a much smaller city and not as densely populated, but a week later they were struck. Fires raged and fourteen square miles–more than 20% of the city–was destroyed. 8,841 people lost their lives.
And in Grave of the Fireflies Seita and Setsuko’s mother is among the victims. The film doesn’t shy away from her death. Rendered in 2D animation her slow descent into death is gruesome. Maggots in live action film are bad enough, but there’s something about the exaggerated movement of them in animation that makes them writhing over her still warm corpse all the more nauseating. It’s easier to watch and therefore much easier to be sucked in and revolted.
The animation is an asset of the film–exaggerating 4-year old Setsuko’s cherubic innocence and highlighting the humanity of all the characters. Only some seem as two-dimensional as the art form. The fanatic soldier chanting for the glory of the emperor before the burning ruins of Kobe, the dead and dying forgotten children of the city wasting away in a subway station, the surrounding population–who are have been inoculated to the poverty and starvation that linger long after a ceasefire is declared. These people watched their friends and families burn in ten-mile wide fires. They heard their screams. To them the starving children are nothing more than the final unavoidable casualties of a misbegotten war.
There’s a real undercurrent of cynical pragmatism in Takahata’s film. In many ways he’s exploring the difficult relationship between Japan and the militant oligarchy that led it into war. Fourteen year old Seita displays a frustrating adolescent hubris that is taken to extremes. Like a good little soldier he refuses to bend to the demands of others. But where the militant oligarchy that led Japan into World War 2 refused to bend to the demands of the Allied powers, he refuses to bend simply to the demands of his aunt. He is the nation distilled down into the starving body of a child and through him we see just how complicated, foolish and complex war is.
And through his sister–an innocent girl forced into a battle for survival she never anticipated–we see the effects of this cultural hubris on the civilians. They’re dragged into battles they may not want, but are driven there by a nationalistic pride perhaps on par with the love of a little girl for her big brother.
Takahata’s symbolism is big, bold and in your face, and the maudlin melodrama is gut wrenching and manipulative. Only sometimes it’s okay to be manipulated. There are some topics explored in film that all but demand it–chief among them the is war and the anti-war sentiment. Perhaps that’s why my favorite anti-war films aren’t M*A*S*H* or All Quiet On The Western Front or Platoon, but Grave of the Fireflies, and the German language The Bridge.
When you’re being manipulated in a foreign language it’s a little easier. There’s a distance automatically enforced that allows you to engage with the film on a slightly more cerebral lesson. In Grave of the Fireflies this is compounded by it being animated. Your attention is focused by the stillness of the frames and the conservation of movement. So you can see the horrors of the bombing of Kobe, and the militant leadership that led the nation to its near death and actions of the faceless American planes that burned to death thousands of civilians in the name of “ending the war”, but you can also step back and allow yourself to fall a little in love with a girl and her brother camping at the riverside and finding joy in something as mundane as a field full of fireflies.