Grave of the Fireflies
Drawing upon a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Isao Takahata’s animated masterwork Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans caught in the middle of the firebombing that decimated the cities of Japan in the final months of World War Two.
Seita is in many ways an ideal big brother, adoring and protecting his younger sister Setsuko, but his best intentions are progressively overwhelmed by a cascade of horrible circumstances. After their mother dies in an air raid (their naval officer father is at sea and incommunicado), they are placed at the mercy of a bitter, resentful aunt, such that Seita imprudently decides that he and Setsuko would be better off trying to live on their own.
We as viewers know from the outset that Seita and Setsuko did not survive the war, as Grave of the Fireflies opens with the reuniting of the siblings’ deceased spirits. By thus choosing to eliminate a large measure of suspense, Takahata instead allows us to marvel at the multitude of details furnished to our senses: the scream of falling bombs, the jingle of prized confections in a candy tin, the jumble of corpses beside an open mass grave, the glow of captured fireflies reflected on Setsuko’s joyous face.
Repeatedly shown as small figures against a background of decimated buildings or nature’s vastness, Seita and Setsuko like the insects of the title are tiny, ephemeral, fragile, and lovely.
Remarkably, Grave of the Fireflies was first released in Japanese cinemas as half of a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s serene My Neighbor Totoro. On second glance, however, such a pairing makes sense, as both films contain the child’s eye view and watercolor-like imagery that one has come to expect from these two leading lights of Studio Ghibli.
In addition, each work urges a type of remembrance: in the case of Totoro by conjuring the gentle spirituality of a nature-centered bygone era, and with Fireflies an honoring of innocents lost. As shown in the final scene, Seita and Setsuko’s spirits still reside in the city, even if the rubble has long since been replaced by steel and glass.