Re-assessing Grave of the Fireflies

Should a work of art be assessed in isolation, without considering its creators, the process behind its making, and the wider cultural, historic and economic context in which it was made? Should you refrain letting your opinion and enjoyment of it be affected by it? (And I mean only for the work itself, as any judgement of its impact or the creators’ skills should obviously cover this.) I am tempted to say it should: an ideal that art stands on its own merit and transcends its circumstances. Yet in practice I have come across cases where I simply cannot apply this. And having seen this video by Sage on That Guy With The Glasses, I have to reconsider my opinion of Studio Ghibli’s most famous film not made by Miyazaki (at least until The Borrower Arrietty): Grave of the Fireflies, 1988, directed by Isao Takahata, from a novel written by Nosaka Akiyuki.

Grave of the FirefliesMy opinion upon seeing this film was in line with everyone else’s: it’s a masterpiece of credible characters, simple storytelling and showing not telling to convey the horrors of war. It focuses on two children, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko, escaping the bombing of Kobe, being sent to a severe aunt with whom they fall out, after which the little sister dies of starvation and the teenage brother seems to lose the will to live. The film is minimalist: no other names are given, and the plot can be summed in a few sentences.

I still think the film is a masterpiece; but I have to accept that, strangely, it is so by accident and against the director’s intentions.

Stories are not just subject to interpretation; we have to interpret them at some level to make them stories and not just streams of words, images or sounds. (And we do this to real events, to make sense and help remember them.) Everyone interprets in their own way, and deviating from the author’s intents is no bad thing, though it helps to recognise when it happens.

Nowadays, when we read the Bible as having an overarching narrative, we tend to see the story of a people suffering under a cruel and abusive deity whom they follow because He is their best guardian in a world He set up as punishing to everyone living in it. The development over the centuries is that as the Hebrews become more humane as a culture, He is forced to become gentler in response as He feels the threat of losing followers. By the New Testament He seems to be leading the trend. But this might not be how it was read at the time.

Now to Grave of the Fireflies: the incredible fact is that Takahata never intended it as an anti-war film. He made this very clear in an interview with Animage magazine in 1988. The film was instead aimed at instilling some respect among the teenagers of the time. It is a difficult fact to swallow. It’s as if Fahrenheit 451 was about literary culture and not government censorship. Or if Niccoló Machiavelli were a republican committed to limited government power and the rule of law. Or if Tolkien’s writings did not have political allegories. It just goes against our most basic understanding of these works. Yet taking this into account, a number of odd things about the film started to make sense.

When I watched it, I wondered why, towards the end, a group of rich teenagers find that their home and possessions were spared by the bombings, and celebrate without noticing that Setsuko is dying from hunger nearby. The two situations are obviously being contrasted, but if the message is anti-war, why set up a contrast between two groups of people who must have both suffered, however different in scale? Why does the film end with the ghosts of the children looking over modern Kobe? I took it to be a final note of hope about Japan’s recovery, but the city in the early fifties would have suited the point much better. Why does Seita look directly at the audience right at the end? Above all, why is the tone of tragic predestination when it seems that they would have lived if they had returned to their aunt?

Here’s the background: Japan underwent a prosperity boom after the war that would only end in the early nineties. The generation reaching adulthood in the eighties had grown up on this wave of wealth, and as with much of the West twenty years earlier, this new freedom and independence was pushing these people to be more forward-looking, willing to experiment, dreaming of a different life. They resented their conservative parents keeping them within traditional social bounds – these being the generation who had lived through the war and had to rebuild a destroyed country afterwards. Juvenile crime was high (by Japanese standards; most American cities would have killed for that murder rate).

Now back to Sage’s video that I linked to. He is correct to say that Setsuko and Seita are not real characters; they are representations of anyone caught in that situation. The only decision they make in the entire film is to leave their aunt and try to make do on their own. The lack of names is part of this anonymity. The children act convincingly, doing things we would expect children to do, but are not given a distinctive personality. Sage fingers in particular the death of Seita at the end; had he lived, he would have a future before him and even with the film ending there, he would have become a survivor with baggage, the basis of a character, rather than the everyman of a generation.

However, Sage is mistaken in thinking that these result from the adaptation. Seita dies in the original novel, even though Nosaka Akiyuki based it on his own experience and the death of his sister (he called it an exorcism of the memories). Akiyuki admitted Seita was an idealised version of himself; it somehow seems more fitting that he also dies. Otherwise, Sage seems entirely correct in his analysis. (And I can add: in the novel actually Seita is clearly shown stealing habitually towards the end, taking crops from the fields and later looting homes during air raids; this is not so prominent in the film.)

The two children fill a dual and oddly opposite role in the intended reading: on the one hand, they represent the generation that lived through the war in their childhood (but survived and laboured in the subsequent recovery); on the other, in leaving their harsh aunt (and being advised by others to return), they play the part of the young who disdain their elders’ guidance and pay for it.

When you look at the film this way, the pathos start to look a lot less legitimate. The film is indeed emotionally manipulative (but then, isn’t every work of art some form of emotional manipulation?): as Sage points out, the montage at the end of Setsuko doing things in the shelter is entirely from the audience’s point of view, not that of Seita, putting it outside the story proper. But I can take some manipulation from a film that is based on real events, and is making a real-world point. I took the film as having a pacifist message, telling future generations of how innocent civilians on all sides suffer in war, and I forgave its “artificial” pulling on heartstrings.

But for Takahata, the anti-war message was incidental, and the main point was to make the youth of the time feel, well, guilty. The happy-go-lucky rich family represent teenagers not taking into account how much their parents suffered. Modern Kobe is not a symbol of hope but a warning: its bright lights are being compared to the fireflies, beautiful but short-lived. Seita’s glance to the audience is accusatory.

The problem I have is not so much with Takahata’s message (three years later, Japan’s “lost decade” would start, but this was more due to the country not having reformed enough after the boom), rather it is that whilst I can accept these artifices for evoking sympathy in a tragedy of universal applicability, they are not appropriate for evoking guilt with a narrower message (and a rather short-sighted one; seeing Japan’s juvenile crime rates from an international perspective, one could say it was not the teenagers who should have been told to be appreciative of what they had in 1988).


And yet, something remarkable has come out of this: the film is an accidental masterpiece, much better seen outside of its intended context and message.

When I watched it, I thought the film’s greatest strength was how it manages to portray the suffering of Japanese civilians under the bombing, not looking at the wider historical context, without making it look like an anti-American nationalist apology whitewashing Japan’s war crimes. This is mostly because the bombers are only present for the first few minutes, with the focus being on the consequences, making them look more like a natural disaster than a vindictive enemy. No American pilots are ever seen, making the threat impersonal and non-national. The message, it seems, is not that Japan is being oppressed, but that this is what happens to nations at war, no matter what side they are on.

Another reason is that the children’s suffering is not directly due to the shortages of war, but rather to the falling out with their aunt that results from that. So instead of glorified heroic Japanese labouring under duress, we see normal, relatable people pushed to turn on each other in the dehumanising aura of war. What happens to them could happen in any country.

And of course Seita occasionally spouts war propaganda, drilled into him by the military academy, that cannot help but sound chauvinistic and ignorant of the wider situation. (They only hear of Japan’s surrender days after the event.) So it’s not difficult to see them as victims of a government and military which does not care for civilians even on its own side.

But all this now seems mostly accidental. Takahata was not going for a theme of civilians everywhere suffering in wartime, he was specifically portraying this generation. While the genuine pacifism of Studio Ghibli must have shaped the film, the impersonal nature of the bombing and leaving out the war at large might have been to avoid any historical questions from distracting from the intended message, and to narrow the resonance rather than make it universal.

The antagonism with the aunt is to tell the young to follow their elders no matter how harsh they may seem. The same course of events is present in the novel, but there is more emphasis on how unjust she is towards children not of her family, and her paranoid suspicions as the rations diminish that they are getting a bigger share.

Perhaps the biggest question: would the children have survived had they stayed with her? I was tempted when watching the film to say that they wouldn’t; the root of the problem was that the country was not producing enough food. This comes out somewhat in the novel, which repeatedly mentions shrinking rations, but less in the film. Takahata took a portrayal of an inevitable conclusion and turned it into a morality play, which makes the tragic tone out of place.

And I have to agree with Sage that it is somewhat reprehensible that Takahata took someone’s autobiographical account and used it for a correctional message that is not present in the original. In a way the novel did not deserve to be adapted by Takahata, though it did deserve the adaptation.


So Grave of the Fireflies is a strange case. There are plenty of works that are best seen in context, either to understand how innovative they were at the time (what labours under the dreadful name of “Seinfeld is Unfunny” on, or to make some flaws more excusable (any film produced in wartime), or to know that they were in line with contemporary knowledge (science fiction especially), or just to see how they resonated with audiences at the time (Doctor Strangelove). A few works go the other way. Most often, these are ones written as quirky and cartoonish but relevant, which become downright surreal when removed from their context (satire is especially prone to this; pick up an issue of Private Eye from a time for which you do not know thoroughly what was on the news). But this is a work that just looks much better with no knowledge of the author’s intentions.

So the film is a masterpiece, partly because of the strength of the original work, and partly because Takahata’s intended message goes wrong in the best possible way.

5 thoughts on “Re-assessing Grave of the Fireflies

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