A story about family love by Tabea (Spoilers for Grave of the Fireflies)
For some time now as a self-proclaimed anime-lover I wanted to check out what all the fuss was about and finally watched a few movies made by Studio Ghibli. At first I wasn’t really sure if what they produced was something I’d be interested in so, not one to jump on a bandwagon, I had ignored it and got on with my weeaboo life. But I couldn’t help being intrigued by the huge fanbase their movies have garnered. So one night I searched the web – as we youngins call it – and looked at a list of their published movies, some of which I already knew or at the very least knew about like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro. But there was one movie whose synopsis especially caught my interest: Hotaru no Haka or in English Grave of the Fireflies. After reading that it was a movie about a young boy and his little sister living in the last period of WW2 I wanted to watch it, being the history buff that I am. So one afternoon on a very nice and sunny day I got over my fear that this film would completely ruin my mood because of the heavy subject matter and finally watched it (obviously in Japanese with subs because what am I, an amateur?). The movie starts with a young boy, Seita, telling us the date of his death which is actually depicted right at the beginning: a severely starved and sickly boy sitting in what I am guessing is a train station, barely breathing, busy adults passing him, looking down on him and treating him like a nuisance until he just stops moving entirely. The cleaning staff treating his death and the deaths of other homeless people at the station like a daily occurrence. Their deaths are looked upon with a cold and careless demeanor, the loss of life happening right in front of their eyes not really being seen. We, the audience, find out the only thing in Seita‘s possession at the time of his death is a tin can, that we will see throughout the movie and which has a significance that the viewer wouldn’t have expected at the beginning.
The movie continues with us meeting Seita’s sister, Setsuko, rising from a field full of fireflies and then being accompanied by Seita himself. It doesn’t take long to realise that they are both already part of the afterlife in this scene, which is also underlined by the red light shining on them as opposed to the more natural light we see while they are still alive. In this sort of death plane we can see the both of them boarding an empty train which takes them to all the places they spent the last months at. As they take this trip down memory lane we see an air raid happening from the train window, the bombs being dropped resembling fireflies. At this point the movie transitions and we learn their life’s stories through flashbacks. That’s when it feels like the movie really starts. We learn that Seita and Setsuko‘s mother dies of horrible burns caused by an air raid on their home town which the siblings thankfully survived with only a few scratches. Being a very considerate boy, Seita decides to lie to his sister about their mother’s death to spare her from any more emotional and mental anguish, leaving him to deal with the grief of losing a parent all on his own.
The two of them travel to live with their aunt and her family, in hope of finding a new home, seeing that their father is fighting in the war as a navy officer and thus cannot take care of them. Shortly after arriving at their new dwelling, Seita goes to have his mother’s body cremated and even lies about her death to his aunt in fear of his sister finding out the truth. For a while everything seems to be going well for the two of them, at least as well as can be expected in their situation, their aunt seeming like a very nice and helpful person. They are also seen spending a day at the beach and Seita teaches his sister how to catch fireflies. The siblings even contribute by bringing their new family food they dug up at the site of an air raid. This is where we see the tin can from the beginning again, and find out that it’s a container full of candy, which will later on be the only thing that’ll be able to really calm down or cheer up Setsuko when everything becomes, expectedly, too much for a little child. This seemingly idyllic life continues for some time, when we as the viewers begin to notice that Seita and Setsuko seem to get less to eat than their relatives. That’s how their mistreatment at the hands of their aunt starts. She becomes more and more demanding, calling Seita and later on also his sister lazy for not being more productive, since Seita’s place of work and school both burnt down during an air raid. She accuses them of taking everything her family does for granted and not being thankful enough. Furthermore, she keeps asking Seita why his father hasn’t replied to any of Seita’s letters, implying that she wishes for another adult to take them off her hands. This verbal abuse forces Seita and Setsuko to buy their own provisions like a portable stove and umbrella, which they can only afford by selling their mother’s clothes and because of a small inheritance. When one evening Setsuko has another nightmare and starts screaming and crying, their aunt yells at Seita to take care of it since no one is able to get a good night’s rest. Seita thus takes his sister outside when suddenly they hear bombs being dropped and run to find shelter. The next day Seita has enough of the abuse and decides that they should stay on their own at the main bunker in town since it’s hardly ever being used. They bid farewell to their aunt and relocate all their things to the bunker.
Like before it seems like things are looking up, the two having a lot of fun. With no adults around they seem to enjoy that there is no pressure to contribute and that there are no unrealistic expectations of them. Their food soon starts running low so they eat frogs and fireflies instead and ration their provisions more. We also find out that their aunt told Setsuko that their mother died. Seita is understandably shocked by this revelation and cries, finally letting out the grief he has been keeping inside. Gradually the situation is turning from bad to worse, which leads to Seita stealing valuable things and food out of empty houses during air raids for the first time. Soon even that doesn’t seem to be enough to get them by. It also becomes apparent that this lifestyle is taking its toll on Setsuko considering she is left alone most of the time, causing her to become lonely. She also falls ill and experiences diarrhea, fatigue and skin rashes. Seita not knowing what to do starts stealing directly from the fields until one night he gets caught by a farmer and is severely beaten and dragged of to the police. Luckily for him the police officer is very understanding of his situation and lets him go. Outside the police station Setsuko is waiting for her brother and Seita can’t keep his sorrow and pain inside anymore and starts crying, everything becoming too much to handle. After returning to the bunker Seita keeps going out during air raids to steal until one day when he finds Setsuko unconscious upon returning. He takes her to see a doctor, who tells them that she suffers from malnutrition and just needs food, furthermore dismissing them. This scene feels disturbing because of the obvious signs of starvation we can see in Setsuko (protruding ribs for example). At the same time it’s also kind of powerful because of Seita finally losing his patience towards careless adults out of despair and asking the doctor indignantly where he was supposed to find food for his sister.
Seita doesn’t want to leave Setsuko on her own anymore but concludes that he has to withdraw the rest of their inheritance so they can survive. After getting the money he overhears two people talking about the war and how the Empire of Japan has surrendered. Not believing he asks them directly only for it to be confirmed. Obviously distraught he grabs a soldier who tells him in a blasé way the navy was wiped out in the war meaning his father and therefore his last chance at a family life has long since passed away. Like in the rest of the movie the adults treat Seita with contempt and call him crazy for being distraught. They are unable to understand his distress and show no empathy towards a child. Seita again represses his grief for his sister’s sake. Upon returning he finds her barely coherent, not making any sense, the solitude and malnutrition having made a severe impact on her mental health. That night she passes away and with her the last of Seita’s real family. We see Seita lying next to her still body, he himself having a detached and blank look in his eyes. The next scenes are dedicated to Setsuko and show moments of her spending time alone at the bunker. These scenes are bittersweet since they are immediately followed by Seita buying a coffin for his sister’s cremation. He places her body inside with all her favourite things except for the candy can and watches as it all burns away. At night when the fire dies out he puts her remains in the can while all around him fireflies start to rise. He never returns to the bunker and the movie again transitions back to Seita and Setsuko being dead and having seen their last shared memory. Now again bathed in red light the siblings sit together and at the end watch over a city full of skyscrapers.
This movie was just as I expected neither easy to watch nor to forget. The devotion Seita has for his sister and the strength of character he shows by putting his physical, emotional and mental needs behind the wellbeing of Setsuko are truly impressive, considering he himself is a child, but most of all they are heartwarming. Even though I was obviously saddened by the loss of their mother and father and what consequences those deaths brought, Setsuko’s falling ill and subsequent death are what really made me tear up the most in this movie. I was pretty sure right at the beginning that I would see Setsuko die since she wasn’t with Seita when he passed away. At the same time though I was surprised to see her so soon with her brother in this other kind of world where everything is red, the colour, in a way, I think, symbolising war. Knowing from the start to expect her death had me kind of torn. On the one hand, if I hadn’t known about her dying I would have been caught of guard and been very moved. On the other hand, knowing she’d die, I was already prepared for that inevitability, but by knowing and having to wait more than an hour for her death, the tragedy of it all struck me even more. Personally, I was glad that they told the story this way and I loved the way it made me feel not just by showing hard to see and controversial images of war, death and poverty but also by showing, in a way, a beautiful story of the love between siblings. All in all, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is prepared to cry their heart out.
But just a tip: If you don’t think you can watch this movie because of the way it might make you feel, do it like me and play away your tears with a nice game of cards with your friends.
Thanks for the lovely submimssion!