I have a friend who is equally obsessed with Studio Ghibli but refuses to watch Grave of the Fireflies.
And I totally get it.
It’s depressing and it depicts a time in history that we’d rather not think about, but this is why the movie was made — so that people who are detached from this event, can see and feel just how devastating it was for people to go through.
This film haunts you.
The Imbalance of War
Long after it’s over, you find yourself thinking about the characters and what a complete state of hopelessness must feel like.
It allows you to feel compassion for two children whose lives couldn’t be more different than your own.
Seita, a boy who is meant to be a typical ninth grader, dies from hunger in a train station at the start of the movie.
We watch him sit there, and no one comforts him or even tries to feed him. He’s regarded as someone lazy and undeserving, even though he’s only a teenager. Then he just dies all alone. So from the beginning, we know what we’re getting ourselves into.
The film flashes back to when Seita’s hometown, Kobe, is bombed and nearly destroyed. His family loses his home, and he takes his four-year-old sister Setsuko, out of town as the bombs fall.
He’s meant to meet his mother at a safe haven. But when they arrive, the mother is badly burned. She dies and Seita lies to his younger sister about it, and he lies to us too.
We don’t realize that she’s dead until a flashback later in the film.
Why It Matters
In a lot of war movies, war is glorified. We see the heroes, the brave and the bold. But here’s a story about a scared little boy, who has to take care of his sister, and who doesn’t know what to do.
He’s not brave at all, in fact he’s frequently depicted as a coward since he won’t help with the war effort. And towards the end of the film, he and Setsuko make a home out of a bomb shelter.
We know that things don’t end well for Seita and Setsuko, despite having money for food and shelter, there isn’t anywhere that they feel they can go.
They try to buy food, but there’s nothing left to buy.
Seita tries to steal from a farmer when Setusko gets sick and ends up getting badly beaten. I know the director, Isao Takahata, has repeatedly said that the film is not anti-war, but it does the most magnificent job of showing the personal lives of those impacted by such a tragic event.
Without parents, the brother and sister are left without any protection, but still they are alive. It’s interesting to see how something so traumatic can become normal for the people living it.
Seita and Setsuko play games and they laugh, and they make that bomb shelter into their home. We see that children especially can find ways to make themselves feel better to comfort and support each other.
We see that society failed to protect these children.
There were no resources available to them, and even in their darkest hours, no one came to their rescue. And unfortunately, that’s what’s real.