CHECK : Tomb of the Fireflies (1988)
Why do fireflies have to die so quickly?
The Tomb of the Fireflies (1988), based on the 1967 autobiographical novel of the same name, is Isao Takahata’s first film at Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki’s work often surpasses that of his late collaborator. Yet I find Takahata’s filmography just as impressive and interesting, albeit not as iconic. I haven’t read Akiyuki Nosaki’s source material, but I shudder to think that someone actually went through this. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most heartbreaking movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s even harder to grasp when you know it’s a true story. Like many Studio Ghibli films not included in my list of favorites, I saw Grave of the Fireflies once in high school with a friend. I would say it was a rewarding experience, but not a pleasant one. In his first journey under the Ghibli banner, Takahata explores many of the same themes as Miyazaki’s films, such as the futility and hopelessness of war. But the perspective and outcome are completely different – Miyazaki’s signature optimism is not present in Tomb of the Fireflies. Let’s see.
Grave of Fireflies follows a young boy named Seita and his younger sister Setsuko during and shortly after World War II. When their home city of Kobe, Japan, is bombed, they are sent to a storage bunker. Her mother fails to reach the shelter and is seriously injured in the attack; her children will never see her alive again. Because her father is in the Japanese navy, Seita and little Setsuko are sent to live with a distant aunt who wants to take care of them. At first everything goes well, Seita gives her aunt groceries and sells her mother’s clothes to buy food. But as the rations dwindle and Setsuko becomes increasingly restless, her aunt becomes increasingly irritated by her reproaches. She blames Seita and Setsuko for not working for a living, even though Seita’s school and workshop were destroyed during the attack. The situation gets worse when Seita buys an oven and starts cooking for her and Setsuko. Eventually he decides to take Setsuko to an abandoned shelter and free her aunt, to which she does not resist. At first, the siblings lead a life of freedom and fun, but things soon turn sour when Seita can’t find enough to eat for her younger sister. Setsuko weakens and develops an outburst of anger, causing her to steal from local farmers to support them. When he desperately takes Setsuko to the hospital, the doctor tells him that she is malnourished and only needs food. Seita takes the last of her mother’s money from the bank and buys food for Setsuko. When he returns to their makeshift home, Setsuko has hallucinations and delirious. As Seita prepares the food, Setsuko doesn’t respond.
Grave of the Fireflies is absolutely stunning visually and unlike anything Studio Ghibli has done before. It’s a quiet, understated story that feels uncomfortably real. The glow of the fireflies the siblings release and their adventures on the beach offer immediate relief from the unrelenting gloom of their situation. They do a really great job with lighting and color in this film, and it’s also the most stunning and brutal film Ghibli has made to date. For me personally, it’s hard to watch something so desperately acted, especially when children are involved. But this movie is visually appealing, and that’s a big part of the fun, just like the color choices in Schindler’s List. In fact, I think Grave of the Fireflies has a lot in common with this film, even though they explore very different perspectives on World War II. Isao Takahata has stated that Grave of the Fireflies is not an anti-war film, and I suspect that Akiyuki Nosaka wrote his original story more to explore his own guilt and apologize to his late sister. However, it is difficult to separate the film from the war in which it is set. We can question some of Seita’s choices in the film (and I certainly would), but a child shouldn’t be asked to make those choices – and outside of the tragic circumstances of war, they shouldn’t have to. Like his friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli Miyazaki, Isao Takahata survived after his town was bombed during the war. I find it hard to imagine it not affecting someone’s work, even if it is unintentional. Grave of the Fireflies is a small, intimate tragedy, but the war is more than just a set piece; it is the film’s setting and, in my opinion, its real villain.
Seita’s missteps throughout the film are rather disappointing, especially the way he treats his aunt. She’s really bad with two kids who just lost their parents and have nowhere to go, so I’m not defending her in any way. But I also find it interesting that their attitude becomes increasingly unreasonable as things get more complicated, namely providing war rations to a large family. I would have liked to know more, but I couldn’t help wondering why Seita didn’t try to find work with her aunt’s husband or daughter, who went to work every day. She scolds Seita and compares him to her hard-working family, and while that’s unfair and cruel, I wondered why he didn’t offer to help in the household. He takes responsibility for Setsuko, but it seems strange that he would go out of his way to take care of her without finding a job or helping his aunt in exchange for better treatment. For example, she never refuses them food, she just says that her husband and daughter work for her and Seita does not. I’m not saying the aunt is right, because she’s not right, and Seita is just a kid. I just find this complicated situation interesting. I also agree with the locals who suggested that Setsuko apologize to her aunt and ask her to come back, especially since Setsuko’s health is deteriorating before her eyes. This is not a fault of the film, as it shows both Seita’s costumes and her idealized image of a free life with her younger sister. He was really too young to take care of a small child, and that’s part of the tragedy.
Tomb of the Fireflies is not one of my favorite movies. On the contrary, I’ve spent a decade between watches, and I think that will be the case again. But it’s an important film, and you have to experience it for yourself. Films like this give the American public a new perspective on the war, on ordinary, innocent people living under the rule of the Axis powers. It is above all a portrait of a torn family, a reminder of the senseless losses of war. This movie haunts me because it’s heartbreaking to see Setsuko turn into an empty shell and eventually die. This movie is a tearjerker, but not in the cathartic sense that you feel good afterwards. Why do fireflies have to die so soon?
Location – 9
Management/publishing – 9
Music/Sound – 9
Animation – 9
Tomb of the Fireflies is not one of my favorite movies. On the contrary, I’ve spent a decade between watches, and I think that will be the case again. But it’s an important film, and you have to experience it for yourself. Films like this give the American public a new perspective on the war, on ordinary, innocent people living under the rule of the Axis powers. It is above all a portrait of a torn family, a reminder of the senseless losses of war.
frequently asked questions
Why is the grave of the fireflies so sad?
3. There are small moments of beauty that make the carnage even more heartbreaking. The grave of the fireflies is punitive, but it is not merciless. There are brief, beautiful moments in this film that remind us that even in life’s most horrific moments, we are still capable of joy and wonder.
Is Grave of the Fireflies worth watching?
Grave of the Fireflies is a great movie. It’s very sad. … Like the popular cartoon Children of the Wolf: Ame and Yuki is one of the most touching, heartbreaking and just the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The dubbing is also fantastic, so I recommend you watch it that way.
Is The Tomb of the Fireflies historically accurate?
The film is based on a true story. Akiyuki Nosaka lost his younger sister to malnutrition during the war and blamed himself for her death. To cope with this loss, he wrote Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) in 1967.
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