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“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” - Dr. Seuss

Grave of the Fireflies

I was in the mood to feel sad a few weeks ago, and I realized I’d never seen this. So I went to Youtube and watched the subbed version. (Ignoring the OP’s comments. I can cry and treasure a good movie just fine without your help, but thanks anyway, dude.)

Afterwards, I went looking for some reactions and reviews. so I could put the sadness I was feeling into context. Robert Ebert has a good one, where he talks about visual “beats” and the fact that these must actually be drawn into an animated movie:

He also talks a bit about why Grave of the Fireflies works better as an animated movie – basically, no movie featuring violence can avoid making it look exciting, and no movie where a young girl starves can avoid the audience worrying about the actress.

I didn’t find much else. Either no one has written any critical reviews in English – which I find hard to believe – or they wrote them back in 2000, and the internet forgot about them.

Therefore, below the cut, please see MY THOUGHTS.

This is a sad movie, and knowing the backstory makes it even sadder: it’s based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, whose little sister really did die of starvation, and who wrote the novel hoping to finally apologize to her. Nosaka felt so guilty that he’d survived (at her expense?) that in his book, he killed the character based on himself. The movie opens with the older brother starving to death, and joining his sister in the afterlife.

Auuuugh. Shivers. I was crying before the movie even began, thinking about this real person who felt so guilty for living that he had to symbolically commit suicide to atone.

I was also asking myself, where does this guilt come from? From Nosaka’s feeling that his sister was his responsibility, and her death was his fault? In real life, the author says she died because he couldn’t control himself when he found food, and ate most of it before giving any to her. In the movie, though, she has diarrhea, which compounds the malnutrition. So what is there in the movie to feel guilty about?

Yes, I know that it is survivor’s guilt. I know it’s not rational, and that Nosaka was 13 when all this happened, and that it’s not really his fault. Nevertheless. What contributes? First, the fact that he decides to leave his aunt’s house because she treats him and his sister like cancerous sores, drains on resources, good for nothings, ingrates.

There’s a scene where a farmer – who has no extra food to sell him – says: “everything is rationed now. you can’t survive outside the system. be a man, and go back to that woman’s house.”

That was a very interesting scene, I thought, because by running away with his sister, he /was/ being a man. He was leaving a house where he was told that he contributed nothing, and going to a place where he provided everything: the food, the housekeeping, the cooking, the cleaning, the entertainment, and the food (very important). But the farmer tells him he needs to swallow his pride – his manly pride! – and go back to living with his horrible aunt, for his sister’s sake.

The way he is a provider is also interesting. The aunt has sold off all of their mother’s possessions they brought with them, for food – this is why she doesn’t argue much when Seito takes his sister and leaves, because they are no longer a source of income, and are now just mouths to feed. But she doesn’t know that Seito has access to his mother’s bank account, and is using that money to buy food.

Eventually, though, the money isn’t enough, and Seito resorts to theft. There was a part of me, when I watched this scene, that thought that there was probably something hugely, psychologically satisfying about thinking that the whole system (represented by the aunt) was rotten, and that Seito was living by his wits in a mad world. And that the psychological satisfaction may even have outweighed Seito’s actually getting help for his sister in any way that he could – for instance by taking out ALL the money in the bank account and paying usurious rates for food, or by asking his aunt for help.

Or – let’s be fair – it could simply have been that Seito simply mistimed it and held on to the money too long, expecting more trouble in the future. By this way of thinking, the scene where Seito brings his sister the watermelon, but it is too late, is there to make the sister’s death /even more tragic/. But I think it’s important that Seito goes to the bank – rejoins society – after he’s shocked out of his me-and-my-sister-against-the-world thinking by the army policeman who treats him kindly.

Or, you can say, he’s shocked out thievery after he’s arrested. But I don’t think that’s it. I think the power of this scene is that he is treated as… drumroll… a child! For the first time in the entire the movie, actually – even his Mom expected him to be the man of the house – though you see other kids not much younger than Seito who seem to be making it through the war with their childhoods intact.

Speaking of childhood… something youtube commenters hold against the aunt is that she wants him to “contribute” to the household when he’s just, you know, a kid. But in the context of that time period, is he really a kid? All the 15 to 35 year old Japanese men from the cities are recruits in the army. His aunt thinks he should take responsibility, the farmers think he should take responsibility – everyone thinks he should take responsibility. But the army policeman, who’s probably been sheltered from the worst privations of the war, treats him like a kid. He’s still living in the old world where those kinds of indulgences could be made.

And so it’s being forgiven for not being a fully-fledged adult — and being treated kindly by a member of the establishment — which allows Seito to do the adult thing and empty the bank account. So if his aunt wanted Seito to contribute, you know, she would have gotten a lot farther by not being cruel to him.

Because I’m contrary, I suppose I’ll defend the aunt a little bit here. She lets her niece and nephew walk away, knowing on some level that they’ll probably die. In fact her constant, querulous talk of how they contribute nothing may be a deliberate bid to get them to go. And yet, it’s hard out there. We’ve already seen many dead bodies at this point. She’s looking out for her own. (Literally looking out for her own as if her family consisted only of herself, her daughter, and her daughter’s fiance – not the kids.)

The other factor at play is, probably, the fact that Seito’s father is not just in the Navy; he’s an officer in the Navy. It’s not reading too much into it to say that Seito’s aunt resents soldiers for getting more than everyone else – she says this in their first scene together. It MIGHT be reading to much into it to guess that she resents the officers for dragging Japan to war in the first place.

Okay, now that I’ve questioned the brave older brother who does the best he can under terrible circumstances and the horrible evil aunt who turns kids away after selling off their dead mother’s things to buy rice – that she doesn’t even want to give to the kids! – I’ll talk about the politics of this movie.

It’s an apolitical movie. Ebert talks movingly about how the Americans are just “the enemy” – they’re just these plains flying overhead. But somehow, I don’t think this really fully encompasses Grave of the Fireflies. There’s no America-bashing, it’s true, but Japan was an occupied country for years after the end of the war: America-bashing was verboten. It’s not a sign of moral mastery if your very survival depends on not casting aspersions on your destroyers/rescuers. Also, you’ll note, that the movie is not anti-Japanese-Imperialists either. Seito loves the Imperial songs and he believes, all the way until the end, even though people are starving all around him and he’s starving too, that Japan is going to win the war.

Well, although you could say that the movie condemns the war roundly just by showing what it shows.

Still, I think the fact that most of the people who grew up during this time period were still alive when the movie came out (if Seito was 13 then, he’d have been 56 in 1988) means that it can’t really be viewed as an apolitical movie… the viewers bring their politics to the movie.

I know there’s been a lot of Japanese movies made about WWII, so it’s not as if the Japanese public only had this one. Nevertheless, Nosaka’s book is “semi-autobiographical” — meaning that he took his story, and combined it with other people’s stories, to make a novel that is more representative of a shared experience than any individual’s story could be. Everything in this movie really happened. It didn’t all happen to a single brother and single sister.

In short, I think this movie means something different in Japan, and is therefore more than universal story of loss and grief that is equally able to make old Japanese people and young American film critics weep.

Lastly, I think one reason that the reason the movie is so sad is that the Japanese countryside is so beautiful and productive. Seito and his sister live in a wonderful cave, there are farms all around – yet the countryside is full of starving people. Where is the food going? I know Japan at this time (and historically) imported a lot of food, and that those supply routes had been cut off. Nevertheless, the food is being taken from the country side and sent somewhere else. Where is it being sent? To the cities. To the army. To the houses of rich people who still, while Seita and sister are starving, can afford to have ice brought to their house – the look Seito gives that house! You can only imagine his expression, because there’s not a lot of room for facial expressiveness in anime. Reproach? Loathing? Longing?

At the end of the movie, three sisters return to the house to talk about how it’s just as they remember it from their childhoods. Where were they? Who are they? Daughters of someone higher ranked than Seito’s dad, who spent the war in comfort somewhere?

I have to say, that despite how much everyone suffers, that the movie is weird in one way, and that is how much it shows some people who seem to be virtually untouched by the war occupying the same space as people who have starved. Everyone is hungry, and life nevertheless goes on, of course, but when people are doing okay they seem to be in a real way living on a different planet from those who are suffering.

This might be illusory, though. When Seito and his sister first come to the country and are living with their aunt, they go to the beach to wash off and escape the house, and they run around in the sun quite recklessly, expending a lot of precious calories. There’s an old woman and her grandson gathering sea salt who just watch them. They might be thinking, jealously: those two don’t know what it’s like for us.

But Seito and his sister are already hungry and in a precarious position in that scene. They’re not as far apart from the old woman and her grandson as it appears.

Finally – and this is probably the primary reason the movie is a tearjerker – the little sister is the bravest, cutest, most adorable, most perfect little girl ever committed to film. Her presence in this movie tells you that it is truly a Studio Gibli film – the dark Gibli classic, in contrast to Hayao’s dark but more optimistic movies – and it is really, really sad when she’s dying and she goes “ni-chan, ni-chan, ni-chan” in that weak little voice. That is the kind of thing that could haunt you for the rest of your life – until you wrote a novel where you died and were together again in the next one.