Written (screenplay) and directed by: Takahata Isao
‘Why do fireflies have to die so soon?’
Tombstone of the Fireflies as it’s known in Japan begins as a ghost apparition of the teenage boy Seita looks over his dying body. Slumped in a subway among other belittled boys of his age by the indifferent passers-by, his lips dry, his body exhausted, his head falters to the floor as he finally collapses. A warden pries a fruit drop tin with a faded label away from his dead hands and throws it into a field.
Here, Seita is joined by his sister Setsuko. She clutches his hand as they walk off together among a field of emerging fireflies. A red hue occupies the screen as we join the siblings on a train. Setsuko eats a fruit drop from a tin, the label as new as the pair embrace in each others company. It’s unclear if the train is going to war or an afterlife.
Abruptly we’re taken to Kōbe, a Japanese city under attack from passing American B-59 bomber planes. All too often we are shown the atrocities of the Second World War, the horrors of Hiroshima, however here we’re shown the wooden and gentle suburban homes engulfed in flames from dropping bombs. There’s no atomic devastation here but a thousand paper cuts, a bleed out that would lead to the death of the Great Japanese empire.
Seita and Setsuko ride the train to an unknown destination.
The bombing leaves Seita and Setsuko’s mother mortally wounded. Her body wrangled and badly burnt, bandaged and left without professional care. In a pop-up hospital in a nearby school, Seita looks over his mother before her death, her fatality is confirmed by a maggot trailing her face. Two men carry her into a large pile of dead. Nonchalantly disposed of by incineration by the desensitised villagers, her ashes to be intertwined with strangers for eternity.
Seita and his little sister Setsuko are made to live with their relative, an aunt who takes them in. Her generosity soon wavers and slowly the relationship breaks down. Encouraging Seita to sell his mothers Kimonos for a one toh of rice (toh is an old measurement which has something to do with the amount of rice that a property is worth.) The rice gradually goes and soon so does the love and tenderness of the aunt. Eventually, she becomes frustrated with Seika’s laziness and his lack of contribution to the household. This leads to a conflict where they no longer eat together, and soon after Seika abandons his aunts household altogether in favour of an unused bomb shelter. Taking Setsuko along with him they create a new home together.
This is an integral scene and a turning point in the film. A nameless aunt (assuming this is intentional as to help edge the already hardened approach she take on Seita), takes the rice for herself and then expects more from Seita. Nothing in her assertion is wrong however she is rude and abrupt and is often hostile towards Seita. Showing no let-up of allowing their innocence to prosper. This is shown is a small scene before Seita eventually decides to abandon his aunt’s haven. While playing piano she comes along and shouts at Seita. Begrudging him for his happiness while a war is afoot.
Collecting fireflies for Setsuko they illuminate their bedsit. Seita imagines a show from the flies, creating a military parade with their lights. Leaping up with imaginary canon fire he takes his shots into oblivion. He turns to see Setsuko, sleeping; the daunting reality of guardianship still lost on him. It feels as if the film deliberately wants to show us just how immature and how out of depth Seita is in this situation and how little he truly understands the impact of his actions.
It’s clear Seita is irresponsible. Watching as he refuses to swallow his pride and apologise to his auntie makes Seita an ambiguous protagonist. While we want to root for his pride and feel happy for him and his sister fleeing their cruel aunt, the eventual neglect he shows for Setsuko, despite his good intentions makes for an irredeemable character. His reckless actions, showing no remorse for the other victims of war in his village as he pillages their homes during raids shows just how self-centred Seita is. His lack of compassion for his community reflects this.
But it must be remembered that Seita is only 14 years old. A boy who has had his home taken away, his mother burned in a pile of ash, and given guardianship of his little sister, all amid the chaos of a losing war. Seita’s choices come from panic and confusion and a lack of world wisdom. Which ultimately shows the micro tragedies that are often overlooked in the grandiose war. While buildings explode and economies crumble the people and community implode and cease to function the way they wish to.
While good intentions are meant, war places those in situations where they have little means to handle their environment. Some actions will end up with regret. Seita‘s actions were irredeemable and led to the death of Setsuko, but his actions could arguably be understandable within the confines of war and whether or not we should believe he can be redeemed depends on how we believe war can affect the judgement of a young man.
But sometimes when unhappiness is so great it’s difficult to appreciate a good thing and be grateful for what you have. This can be seen with Seita. Despite having a place to stay and a roof over his head his anger and unhappiness about his situation ultimately led him to seek independence, his pride overcoming rationality in the face of adversity.
Grave of the Fireflies was based on a novel written in 1967 of the same name. The author Akiyuki Nosaka wrote it as a semi-autobiography for his sister Keiko after she died from malnourishment. To him, it was a form of an apology after feeling responsible for her death. This can be seen throughout the film in the portrayal of Seita. His pride turns into arrogance to the point of disbelief but within the portrayal of a teenage boy it’s almost natural he would act in such a way. He would believe in his heart he would be doing the right thing, just as Nosaka would have believed he would have been doing the right thing.
Nearing the end of the film Seita tries to buy more rice. However, the farmer struggles to feed himself and the amount of rice Seita is given is sparse. This leads to Setsuko to tears. She’s hungry and the sores on her back have worsened. Gone are the days where they can use the salt of the sea to ease the pain. Food is needed, and urgently. All Seita has to calm his sister down are the fruit drops. As he passes them over Setsuko calms down until she believes there’s none left. Starting the waterworks all over again. Seita, the big brother, grabs the tin from his little sister and bangs the bottom until the hidden fruit drops fall on his hand. Setsuko licks the fruit crumbs from her palm and puts the last drops away. And so the tears vapour. A key element of the fruit drops is the relationship between Seita and Setsuko. They’ve been the calming balance that’s brought them peace throughout the turbulence in the film. It’s only later after there is no food left, and Seita fails in feeding his sister that she resorts to sucking on marbles and eating balls of dirt in a delusion of real food. Moments later. Soon after her death when Setsuko’s body is burnt we discover Seita stores Setsuko’s ashes inside the fruit tin that brought her and her brother together. The sweetness that brought them together in hardship inevitably became Setsuko’s tomb.
The fireflies create a light show in the airraid shelter.
Grave of the Fireflies message is clear. War is bad. War will make you do stupid things and not because you are a soldier. You do not need to be on the battlefield to lose your common sense. Interestingly enough, Japan had been at war before, but this was the first time they had been attacked upon so vigorously, and it is why they often see 1945 as their year of ‘war’ and its horrors. And what is often overlooked in Japans aggression within the war prior to this. But with that in mind it’s important to keep in mind that bad decisions can often be easier to spot with the fortune of hindsight.
When I first watched Grave of the Fireflies I wondered how the use of fireflies would be used other than aesthetics. And the answer was given plainly. Upon their first night in their new home of the air raid shelter, Seita and Setsuko gather fireflies and set them loose in their bed for light. The next morning the fireflies are dead. Setsuko gathers them up and places them in a makeshift grave and asks her brother ‘why do fireflies have to die so soon?’ In the closing scenes of the film we see the mirage of Setsuko play along the grave. Her question is answered. Some creatures are just too bright to live so long in a world that’s so dark.