Grave of the Fireflies

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

6 August

US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 1945

On this day in 1945, about ten days after the US, UK and USSR had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction”, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” on the port of Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb killed around 80,000 people immediately and a further 10,000-60,000 in the following months, through injury and radiation sickness. It destroyed around 70% of the city’s buildings. Three days later another bomb, “Fat Man”, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, causing an instant 22,000 to 75,000 deaths. Six days after that Japan surrendered. The Second World War was over.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir: Isao Takahata)

Animation is for kids, right? Not in Grave of the Fireflies it isn’t. Directed by Isao Takahata, it tells the story of the dog days of the Second World War from the viewpoint of two children who live in the port city of Kobe. Their fate is not to be caught up in the nuclear blasts that brought the war to an end. Instead they’re victims of one of the carpet-bombings of cities that preceded them, which produced firestorms that turned everything to cinder. Seita is a teenager and his young sister, Setsuko, is about five years old, and in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, which they have somehow survived, their first concern is what to do with their mother, who is covered in burns and in an emergency hospital. Nothing, is the answer, they can do nothing.

So they head off to the home of an aunt, who is far from happy to see them and reluctant to feed them. After some weeks, the increasingly-starving Seita and Setsuko leave her house and head for the hills. What happens next we already know much of – because one of the opening shots of the film is of Seita lying dead, the entire story being relayed by his spirit in flashback.

The original novel, by Nosaka Akiyuki, was based on his own experience of the carpet-bombings, when his own sister died of starvation, so there’s a strongly autobiographical element, as well as a determination not to yield to melodrama – here, the facts are strong enough. And the decision to animate has some relevance here too, universalising the characters to a great degree; though Akiyuki’s story is his own, more or less, there must have been many many more children in towns in Japan, and in wars before and since, who have been thrown into the simple struggle for survival – find somewhere safe to sleep, water to drink, food to eat. The animation isn’t a Pixar-style struggle towards a glossy realism, it’s flat, matte and stylised, clearly Japanese, the kid’s big saucer eye owing a lot to anime.

Takahata worked alongside the legendary Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli and is as aware of the power of the very simple moment to enthral and delight. He even has time for poetry in among some of the most harrowing scenes you’re ever likely to encounter in an animated film: the fireflies of the title dancing for Setsuko and Seita one evening delivering a moment of joy and optimism that’s short-lived.

But don’t get your hopes up about the future of these two unfortunates. They’re only drawings. The film, on the other hand, is surprisingly real.

Why Watch?

  • One of the best animated films ever made
  • Deals brilliantly with the aftermath of war
  • An outstanding example of great Studio Ghibli work
  • A reminder that the end of the war in Japan was about more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Grave of the Fireflies – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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