June 28th, 1945. Okayama, Japan. In broad daylight, flocks of B-29 bomber planes drop a barrage of cylindrical napalm canisters over the city. Scores of people in the streets are desperate to flock to local shelters, watching on in horror as the canisters light up the sky in yellow sparks. Among those people is the late Studio Ghibli animator Isao Takahata.
Takahata was well known in the anime industry for his willingness to rethink and push the boundaries of animated storytelling, in due part to his personal experience. In a time when Japan had undergone economic recovery, the glaring truths of the country’s wartime demise are either being deliberately glazed over or forgotten. In his response to those growing sentiments, his 1988 piece Grave of the Fireflies came about, utilizing his realist methodology to speak to the mistakes that led his country askew, while simultaneously delivering perhaps one of the most haunting and unorthodox anti-war pieces of all time.
Based on a 1967 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies takes place during the United States air raids on the Empire of Japan during the closing stages of World War II. In the film, a young boy named Seita and his sister Setsuko navigate life in post-war Kobe, Japan, on their own terms in a time where survival means a lack of generosity and support.
The children lose their mother to the air raids, while the father has gone away in the navy. With both parents out of the picture, Seita tries his hardest to follow in his father’s example and leaves his aunt to care for Setsuko himself, albeit in an act of arrogant self-sufficiency. But as an older brother, he is burdened with the duty to keep his sister’s playfulness alive and her health stable. The sea becomes a giant bathtub, Setsuko’s collection of marbles and flowers exemplifies fortune, and fireflies quell Setsuko’s fears of the dark. But that happiness can only be temporary, as food grows scarce, along with little Setsuko’s lifespan. Her health grows frail before quickly escaping her like the short-lived fireflies she treasured in the darkness, before circling back to the present with Seita’s death from the opening sequence.
In Grave of the Fireflies, the story does not shy away from the neorealist intentions of its creators. Both Takahata and Nosaka waste no time in embellishing the storyline with melodramatic struggles laced with heroic dialogue, because they understand the cruel sadness of those days as survivors themselves. Each and every frame is crude and silent in its appearance, giving the audience the time to watch and to process the private moments—whether it be the children watching the fireflies flutter around them or Seita’s attempts to sustain his withering sister with watermelon.
Takahata is also unyielding in his demonstration of the duality between responsibility and victimization through symbolic references, as is reflected in both the brother-sister pair, and modern-day affairs. Seita’s pride and insistence to survive, combined with his infatuation with the army is a sharp criticism of nationalist sentiments. Takahata himself was one of Japan’s staunchest critics of such sentiments, those of which were revived under former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Known for his desires to recast Japanese pacifism, Abe managed to bring forward a security bill that proposed to remilitarize the country, which both Takahata and his Studio Ghibli colleagues vehemently opposed. In an interview with The Japan Times, Takahata remarked, “You cannot keep the peace by picking up a weapon.”
Setsuko’s innocence reflects the horrors of war impacting the guiltless and pure-natured. The eponymous fireflies exemplify the impermanence of brightness, while at the same time, delivering a haunting resemblance to those canisters that ravaged their lands. The visuals presented before the viewer are reminiscent of the old films of desolation that spanned across the Japanese mainland. Even now, the destruction and plight Setsuko faces hark to the present with the humanitarian crises faced in post-war Sri Lanka, Syria, and Darfur. Takahata himself has refuted the sentiment of Grave of the Fireflies being an anti-war film. But even this could not outweigh the declarations of the late film critic Roger Ebert, who said of the film, “yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Grave of the Fireflies tells a moving story outside of the safe confines of the average tear-jerking animated feature—to inspire deep grief compared to surface-level sadness. Not for a second does the film give a hint of heroism in the actions of any character. It is not heroic to survive, it is a desire of the human condition. To live stably and peacefully is a desire we are all inclined to strive for, even when we know for a fact that it is most certainly not likely. And for such a story to not once be considered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that would be beyond any viewer’s comprehension.