The first time I saw Grave of the Fireflies I was 16 and my Chinese language teacher screened it for the class (why, I’m not sure). Sometimes he would put on movies for us while we were working; movies that were funny and strange but largely served as background noise. He never warned us when he was about to show us a movie unless it was for an educational purpose, but on this day a little warning would’ve been nice. None of us were prepared for what we were about to see.
In a nutshell, Grave of the Fireflies is a movie about two young siblings, Seita and Setsuko, who try to survive in war torn Japan after an incendiary bomb raid destroys their home and kills their mother during the latter part of WW11. They, in fact, do not survive; and I’m not spoiling a single thing by telling you that. The graphic novel the movie is based on is slightly autobiographical as its original writer created the story as an apology for not being able to care for his younger sister who past away during the war under similar circumstances. So clearly, it is probably one of the saddest movies ever made, but it is also one of the most important.
When people think about Grave of the Fireflies as a work of cinema they often don’t know the following…
*That it isn’t about the bombing of Hiroshima.
*That it isn’t an anti war film about the tragic impact that war has on children.
*That it was played as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro (and I have a theory that they’re the same movie directed by two different people).
When writing this I didn’t intend to re-watch this movie. It is said to be the best movie that you can never see again because it is so painful to watch these two children fight to survive when you know that they won’t. So I decided, with my memories from my first viewing in tacked, to do some research on it beforehand. I find that learning more about how and why a movie was made makes it easier to watch if said movie is too emotionally off-putting. And I have to say that all the research I did made me suck it up and re-watch it again, and made me cry even harder afterwards.
Isao Takahata, the film’s director, has stated that Grave of the Fireflies is NOT an anti war film, and it seems that the war is just the back drop for a very important social message that Takahata took it upon himself to address. See, in Japan at the time Grave of the Fireflies was made (1988) there was an incredible rift between the youth of the time and past generations; juvenile crime rates had sky rocketed and the economy was booming. It seemed that young people were not very appreciative of the traditions and values that the people that came before them upheld and at times even harassed and disrespected their elders, especially veterans. Grave of the Fireflies was a message to this generation of young people; a message reminding them that those who came before them went through incredible struggles and hardships so that the lives they had could be more fruitful. And that even though life is fruitful now it is all very temporary and can be taken away in an instant.
Such prosperity is temporary, like fireflies and like the lives of the children in this movie. They live and shine for a short while and then they pass away. And because such things are so short live we need to keep perspective and remember what’s important in life. As for Japan, 3 years later that fruitfulness ended in 1991 as the economy declined and what has been termed “The Lost Decade” began. Takahata had his finger on the pulse of an entire society with this film and I’m touched that he felt he needed to impart this message at a time when it was so necessary. That’s what made me want to watch it again; I felt I had a social responsibility to. Grave is a fantastic movie, but this knowledge gives it this extra layer that makes it a masterpiece.
Grave of the Fireflies (like Roots and Schindler’s List) is one of the most important movies I’ve ever seen and probably the most well made. It has incredible intent behind it and it’s clear that it’s director felt passionately about the subject matter he was addressing. All of this is shown in the films purposeful and powerful imagery (especially the firefly symbolism). I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that you’ll see it despite its gut wrenching sadness and despite the fact that you’re heart will be broken after viewing it.
Watch Grave of the Fireflies with friends and family so that you can talk about it with them and cry together, and maybe what I’ve told you about this film can help you get past the heartache and see this movie in a different light. I hope you will overlook the fact that this film is essentially a story about the death of young children and watch it because it’s trying to share with you a lesson that far too often goes unheard and desperately needs acknowledgement.