Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 3: Grave of the Fireflies

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Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) was released in 1988, in hindsight, a surprisingly sober film from Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought the world such wondrous animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

I watched it for the first time this week.

Destruction in war time, no matter which side of a conflict you’re on, is hard to comprehend in times of peace, or in the security of your living room, in front of a large flatscreen TV. And yet, in Grave of the Fireflies, the director, Isao Takahata, transports us to Kobe, Japan, in the waning days of World War II – a time of routine air raids, frantic dashes to air raid shelters, and fruitless attempts to extinguish the fires of napalm bombs dropped from American B-29s.

Over 60 cities in Japan were bombed in the months leading to the war’s end on August 15, 1945, including Kobe, a port city that was a major industrial center, particularly for shipbuilding.

Takahata, based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brother, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned when their mother dies from full-body burns in a air raid, and their father in the Imperial Navy perishes in the Pacific. They stay at an aunt’s home, but as the days pass, the siblings feel they are an unwelcome burden, and leave to survive on their own in an abandoned cave. Their resources dwindling, the two make do, but eventually, Setsuko, and finally, Seita, succumb to the slow death of malnutrition and starvation.

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John Dower, who wrote the book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, wrote of the stigma and the challenges that returning soldiers, war widows, and war orphans faced, driven in part by the culture of the country.

Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm, despite Confucian homilies about reciprocal obligations between social superiors and inferiors, and despite imperial platitudes about all Japanese being “one family” under the emperor, Japan was a harsh inhospitable place for anyone who did not fall into a “proper” social category.

In the early stages of the post-war period in mid-1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated there about 4,000 war orphans in Japan, but that number climbed to over 120,000 eighteen months later.

According to Dower, the war orphans lived by their wits doing anything they could to survive, “shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging,” with teenage girls ending up prostituting themselves to get by.

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Grave of the Fireflies powerfully brings the war orphan experience alive – a desperate experience – and one in the thoughts of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert that speaks to the unfairness of war in its lack of precision, by showing the innocent nature of these two children, and the agonizing specifics of their circumstances.

I’ve seen a lot of war films. Many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic or artistically effective. And a few of them reach you at an emotional level and not just at an action level. I was amazed the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I was actually moved just about to tears by this film. This film has an emotional breadth involving war, and the results of war, and two victims of war that is astonishing.

I think this movie is saying that firebombing is not a very precise way of going after the enemy. It’s a way to destroy morale, a way to break down a nation’s will to resist, but at the same time, are we really thinking about people like this little brother and his even smaller sister, when we drop these bombs. Or are we managing to objectify the Japanese as an evil race who deserve to have this happen to them.

So many decades later, in the 21st century, many around the world have little visceral understanding of the immediate post-war period, their understanding based on text books and dry historical explanations. But Grave of the Fireflies, considered one of the best animated films ever produced, brought that difficult time in history to life, a powerful reminder of what the stakes are when we go to war, and what depths Japan emerged from to get to where it is today – a nation where some of the most beautiful and touching animated works of art have been created.