Original release: April 16th 1988
Running time: 88 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Isao Takahata
Cast (English dub): J. Robert Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor
In spite of the Geneva Conventions having outlawed the deliberate targeting of civilians at war time after World War II, debate about a number of atrocities in the past is far from over.
As recently as April 2006, Christopher Hitchens debated A. C. Grayling at the German Cultural Center in Washington DC on the subject with a particular focus on the Allied bombings of Dresden in Germany in 1945. While Hitchens spoke of Victor Klemperer, who was able to avoid deportation to a concentration camp because of the bombings, Grayling’s reasoning was so powerful and flawless that it finally pushed me to one side of this issue for good.
Grayling demonstrated that the practice also known as ‘terror bombing’ has never been an effective way to overcome the enemy. He showed that the “kill some to save more” argument is fundamentally flawed from the practical standpoint of winning wars; and this is something that neither the Axis powers nor the Allied forces understood or accepted in World War II.
Isao Takahata’s animated feature, Grave Of The Fireflies, based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, makes its own powerful contribution to the debate, by telling the story of 14-year-old Seita (J. Robert Spencer) and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko (Rhoda Chrosite) during the Kobe firebombings in Japan.
With their father serving in the Japanese Navy, the two siblings are separated from their mother when incendiary devices start falling onto Kobe, setting the city on fire. Seita, a strong and down-to-earth boy – but a boy nevertheless – soon finds out their mother was horribly burned in the bomb raid.
Within days, she passes away leaving Seita to look after Setsuko. They move in with a distant aunt (Veronica Taylor) who doesn’t treat them really well from the start, but the relationship only gets worse as she grows increasingly resentful of the two children.
The story is told to us by Seita’s ghost after the film opens with him dying alone of starvation in the city’s train station, so the impending tragedy is hovering above every scene throughout. We are worried about Setsuko, who is nothing more than a little person wanting to play and have fun and who has no idea why so many people die around them and why food is scarce. She really likes fruit drops (popular Japanese hard candy), but they only have a few left, so Seita sometimes gives her one when she’s really sad.
After their aunt convinces Seita to sell their mother’s kimonos for rice, she takes every opportunity to make them feel unwanted. Seita eventually decides to leave with Setsuko and they move into an abandoned bomb shelter. They go to the beach to swim, they play and at night they watch the beautiful display of hundreds of fireflies glowing in the dark.
Sometimes they also see their city in flames in the distance due to the continuing air raids. Although they have plenty of money, it no longer means much when farmers have nothing to sell. The rice they have doesn’t last for long.
It’s hard to come even close to doing justice to this film with written words. Watching Setsuko’s condition deteriorate is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on screen. Her childish innocence within the dark reality of war is unbearable. While I’m engulfed in emotions, remembering the words of A. C. Grayling makes the experience all the more difficult. To have my emotions underpinned by reason, ‘knowing’ the tragedy in Grave Of The Fireflies was not necessary to overcome fascism 70 years ago feels like a harsh lesson we should remember.
When Seita learns of Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, we attempt to link the victory to the deliberate mass killings of civilians in vain. There isn’t much talk about the war in Grave Of The Fireflies; the dialogue hardly addresses the conflict.
While war is happening, farmers go about their daily business, doctors receive patients and Setsuko is asking for her next fruit drop. War is defined as an armed conflict between two sides and Isao Takahata’s film is therefore not a story about war. It’s the story of grave excess and a prime cinematic example of why the deliberate targeting of civilians by military forces has since been made illegal with the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions.
Most importantly, Grave Of The Fireflies shows the consequences of these crimes as we follow the struggles of Seita and Setsuko. For their sake, I hope we can learn from past mistakes.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.