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Film Club: Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988)

Grave of the Fireflies
Welcome the April 2015 edition of the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club. This month, we will be discussing the Studio Ghibli produced animated film Grave of the Fireflies, which was released in 1988. The film concludes our series of bombing themed films, following our viewing Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain in February and Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August in March.

Grave of the Fireflies was written and directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli with the studio’s figurehead Hayao Miyazaki, whose Princess Mononoke we watched last August. Takahata adapted the story from Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, also titled Grave of the Fireflies and published in 1967. The book has since also been adapted twice as live action films, first in 2005 and again in 2008.

The powerful story follows two orghaned siblings, Seita and Setsuko, in their struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War. The brother and sister pair need to depend on each other to find shelter and keep themselves fed and alive, while Japan is slowly succumbing to a military defeat.

Grave of the Fireflies is universally acclaimed, and it is typically considered not only one of the finest examples of animated films, but also one of the most powerful films of any kind that deal with the subject of war. The film is widely available in home video formats.

In May, the film club will be continuing with Kurosawa’s final film Madadayo. For the full film club schedule, see the film club page.

The floor is now open for your thoughts and comments on Grave of the Fireflies!


Discussion

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Shintsurezuregusa

I watched the film today for perhaps the second time. The first time that I watched it was after it was released on DVD, at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq – operation shock and awe (I remember thinking that it was a brave film to release in the west given the climate at the time.) I hadn’t watched it since then because I found it far too upsetting. I found the film more upsetting this time because I now have a young son.

I won’t say any more about the film and will wait until others have a chance to see it before I offer my thoughts.

One thing: Grave of the Fireflies isn’t actually about the atomic bombings (I’m not sure if that’s what the actual connecting theme of the three films was, or just the bombing of Japan in general). I’m not sure that war is even the main theme of this film. For an animated film related to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki maybe Barefoot Gen is a better choice?

Looking forward to hear what others thought of the film.

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Ugetsu

I’ve heard so much about what this film does to people that I find I can hardly bring myself to watch it. But I will, as soon as my dvd arrives.

I’m just back now from seeing Takahata’s most recent (and maybe, as he’s 78, his last), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Its absolutely stunning – one of the most gorgeous animated films I’ve ever seen, and a beautifully understated and subtle story. As usual with Studio Ghibli, it refuses to pander to the audience, but in doing so, provides a depth of feeling that most mainstream animation simply can’t achieve. Certainly the audience at the screening I was at (which included a small number of sub-teen kids) was riveted the whole way through. I think you can always tell a film has had an emotional impact when nobody moves until the final credits are nearly finished.

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Vili Maunula

I have seen Grave of the Fireflies a couple of times — my wife actually even translated it for a local screening — but I confess to mistakenly remembering that the backdrop is nuclear devastation. It was only when typing up the above introduction about a week ago that I realised that this was not the case.

But with or without the big bomb, the thematic connection between Grave of the Fireflies, Rhapsody in August and Black Rain (and perhaps also the later later episodes of Dreams) stands, I think. They all deal with responses to war, and the way that the conflict affected people who weren’t directly involved in it. The time spans are of course fairly different, Grave of the Fireflies being a more direct account than the two other films.

I still need to find the time to watch the film again. I am also really curious about Takahata’s other works. I may or may not have seen Pom Poko and My Neighbours the Yamadas, and definitely haven’t seen the rest. All these anime films get a little mixed up in my head.

If I get into the anime groove and manage to find it, I might also check out Barefoot Gen.

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Shintsurezuregusa

To be honest, Vili, I also misremembered for a long time that it was about the atomic bombing – The “black rain”, Setsuko’s rash and subsequent sickness, etc. but I’d watched a lot of Ghibli documentaries over the Christmas so the general plot and context of the film was fresh in my memory.

Speaking of documentaries, has anyone else here watched The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness yet? It documents the making of The Wind Rises and to a lesser extent The Tale of Princess Kaguya and coincides with the period between the triple disaster of March 2011 and the growing media censorship after the election of Shinzo Abe. It’s an important time capsule of a critical point in Japanese history if nothing else. For fans of Ghibli and film making in general it offers real insight into the creative process and the inner struggle of the director. Miyazaki is a far darker figure than I’d originally thought.

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Ugetsu

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness looks fascinating, I hadn’t heard of that film. I’m very annoyed to see from imdb that it was actually showing here in Dublin last week at a film festival, and I overlooked it.

I have always thought there is a darkness behind Miyazaki, but I’ve found it hard to put a finger on what exactly it is. I think The Wind Rises is in many ways a far more pessimistic film than is often thought. I do think it is very much his ‘final statement’ as a film maker, rather like Kurosawa seems to have thought Ran was his. In both cases, of course, it would seem that their final conclusions on life and the world are very pessimistic indeed.

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Shintsurezuregusa

Ugetsu, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness has been released on DVD in Europe – I got mine as part of the Wind Rises special edition box set. I didn’t expect much as there have been a lot of “making of” and “inside Studio Ghibli” documentaries included as special features with previous Ghibli movie releases and while I’ve enjoyed them I didn’t think there was much more to learn about Miyazaki or Takahata. Dreams and Madness is so interesting because you see Miyazaki during some very personal moments. Also, the way that it is structured and edited and the way certain scenes and dialogue are juxtaposed is really well done.

When I watch Miyazaki’s or Takahata’s films I often think to myself, “These guys have got it figured out. They know how to live.” The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness wiped away that illusion. The theme of Mononoke and The Wind Rises is “to live” (ikiru) – this phrase was on the posters for both films. “You have to go on living,” is the last line of The Wind Rises. But Miyazaki seems to suggest in the documentary that he doesn’t really believe that.

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Ugetsu

Shintsurezeregusa:

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness has been released on DVD in Europe – I got mine as part of the Wind Rises special edition box set. I didn’t expect much as there have been a lot of “making of” and “inside Studio Ghibli” documentaries included as special features with previous Ghibli movie releases and while I’ve enjoyed them I didn’t think there was much more to learn about Miyazaki or Takahata.

Thanks for the heads-up on that – I went to pick up my copy of Grave of the Fireflies and saw the shop had one copy of Kingdom so I bought in on an impulse. I just watched it and its fascinating. Miyazaki is quite a character, although there are plenty of indications in the film that he’s a nightmare to work with, if not quite as much of a nightmare as Takahata. The film gives a great insight into Ghibli, although if anything it leaves even more questions than answers. It certainly seems to that part of the reason Ghibli is possibly been wound down is that Miyazaki simply doesn’t think there is anyone good enough to take his or Takahata’s place. The fact that Goro was never filmed with his father present seems to tell its own story. It also seems pretty clear that Takahata wasn’t willing to co-operate at all with the documentary. He does seem quite an oddball, but if it results in films as wonderful as Princess Kabuya I don’t think many people will complain.

Miyazaki certainly seems to have quite a dark view of the world, although I can’t help wondering if the grumpy old man thing is a bit of an act. But I think there has always been a streak of darkness in nearly all his films, but especially in The Wind Rises. Although perhaps significantly we see in the documentary that he changed the ending to a marginally more optimistic one than originally storyboarded (and what a fascinating detail it is that he never writes a script).

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Ugetsu

I finished watching Grave of the Fireflies last night (I watched half the night before), and *whew* what an emotional ride it is. It didn’t help that I watched it immediately after the gripping final episode of Better Call Saul. It really is both beautiful and relentless in the overwhelming sense of tragedy and doom that hangs over it. As one reviewer I think aptly put it, most war films are about the triumph of the human spirit – this film is about when thats just not enough.

There are a number of issues I’m curious about and will perhaps post more when I’ve done a little more research. One thing that strikes me is that it seems quite historically ‘real’ – it clearly references specific events such as the escalating firebombing of Tokyo and Fukui, even the depiction of the firebombing appeared quite accurate from my reading (specifically the use of napalm bomblets which exploded severe seconds after striking). The military history buff in me also couldn’t help noticing that the children’s father was on the Maya – this was a real vessel, one of the best heavy cruisers the Japanese had. The Maya was sunk several months before the main firebombing of Tokyo (I’ve no idea if this is relevant, but perhaps the writer wanted alert viewers to note that their father was probably long dead before their mother was killed). I know the writer lived through the period and lost a sister to malnutrition, although I assume its only partially autobiographical. I think it is striking though that there are traceable facts in the film and they do seem to be accurate – perhaps to give the film a ‘grounding’ in reality.

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Shintsurezuregusa

Is it a film that you think that you will watch again, Ugetsu? For me, this was probably the third time that I have watched Grave of the Fireflies and I don’t think that I will watch it again for a long time – perhaps because it is too real.

There is a scene after Seita and Setsuko leave their aunt’s house where they try to negotiate some food from a farmer. The farmer tells them that they should go back to their aunt – they need a fixed address in order to receive the food rations. Seita doesn’t want to return to the aunt (who is a much more sympathetic and nuanced character in the original Japanese than in the English dub) and the farmer warns him, “You can’t survive outside of the system.” Even whilst the “system” was falling down around them, it was still a better option to stay within it than to try to survive outside of it. Seita tries to challenge this fact buoyed by the false hope that he just needs to endure until his father returns home. This theme, for me, was what coloured my interpretation of the film this time.

I think that this theme is why the film has such resonance today also. If it was “just” a war film – or an historical account – then perhaps the audience would feel, “That was terrible, but it was in the past. People wouldn’t be so cold or allow those two children to die now.” But even today, this dilemma that we face when trying to survive in the world, of living within a system that is alienating and dehumanizing, or trying to survive outside of the system without any connections or support network, still exists. And we probably all to some degree cling on to some irrational hope, and put on a brave face for those around us, like Seita tried to.

For me it isn’t a historical movie or a movie about the war, it’s a representation of how we live now – I feel that in that way it is very real – too real. I don’t feel that it is an anti-war movie so much as a critique of contemporary society, or human nature.

Mamoru Ishii has said that the thing he found so compelling about Grave of the Fireflies was the “incestuous” undertones. I don’t see any of that, personally (on a similar note, I do recall that when I saw My Neighbour Totoro at a film festival in Australia there was a gasp of shock from the audience during the scene when the father is in the bath with his two daughters…)

(There are other things that I want to say about this film but I am digressing too far from the topic!)

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Ugetsu

Shintsurezuregusa

Is it a film that you think that you will watch again, Ugetsu? For me, this was probably the third time that I have watched Grave of the Fireflies and I don’t think that I will watch it again for a long time – perhaps because it is too real.

I think I will watch it again – to be honest, I watched it in two sections because I was too tired when I started to really do the film justice. But I regret that, I think its a film that needs to be seen in one sitting. I’m normally quite flint hearted when it comes to films involving cute kids, animated or not, but it is an emotional watch – much more so than, say, Ikiru, a film which always reduces me to tears, but in a ‘good’ way. This one is definitely not in a good way, there is nothing uplifting about it.

I think that this theme is why the film has such resonance today also. If it was “just” a war film – or an historical account – then perhaps the audience would feel, “That was terrible, but it was in the past. People wouldn’t be so cold or allow those two children to die now.” But even today, this dilemma that we face when trying to survive in the world, of living within a system that is alienating and dehumanizing, or trying to survive outside of the system without any connections or support network, still exists. And we probably all to some degree cling on to some irrational hope, and put on a brave face for those around us, like Seita tried to.

An interesting idea, although that isn’t really what I was thinking watching it. There is certainly a critique of Japanese society in it – I think its very significant that Seita died after the war ended (I think its ambiguous as to how long after it ended, its not clear to me from the opening scenes whether his death took place days, months or years after his sister), implying that his death was less due to the Americans than his fellow Japanese. I think the film is somewhat contradictory (not necessarily in a negative way) on this point. Seita and Satsuko earned a sort of freedom – quite a beautiful freedom, by isolating themselves from society. But this did, after all, kill them. I think you can look at the ‘meaning’ of this in completely contrasting ways – you can see that survival depends on every one pulling together and doing their social duty, or you can see it as saying that there is something nobel about giving up life in exchange for moments of freedom. Satsuko may have died tragically young, but she died free and loved. I’m not sure the film is clear on this point, except that the point may be that there are unresolvable paradoxes at work when you have a choice of conformity or freedom, especially in such a rigid society as Japan. This is of course a theme which is found throughout Japanese literature and cinema – you could describe at a central theme of many films by Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse.

Mamoru Ishii has said that the thing he found so compelling about Grave of the Fireflies was the “incestuous” undertones. I don’t see any of that, personally (on a similar note, I do recall that when I saw My Neighbour Totoro at a film festival in Australia there was a gasp of shock from the audience during the scene when the father is in the bath with his two daughters…)

I remember a similar gasp watching an Ozu film where the husband casually tosses his jacket on the floor for his wife to pick up! I don’t think there are any incestuous overtones at all, unless I’m completely misreading some aspects of the film. Its usually western critics who (in my opinion incorrectly) read incestuous undertones in Japanese films with such scenes (I’ve read more than one suggesting such an undertone in Ozu’s Late Spring, on the basis that the father and daughter share a tatami in a hotel room, which is surely entirely normal for a Japanese family). I don’t know much about Ishii, but I suspect that a comment like that falls under the category of trolling.

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Vili Maunula

I finally found the time to watch the film last night. I actually originally planned to “do the Ugetsu” and watch just half and leave the rest for Sunday, but the film sucked me in and I couldn’t press stop.

Ugetsu: I’m normally quite flint hearted when it comes to films involving cute kids, animated or not, but it is an emotional watch – much more so than, say, Ikiru, a film which always reduces me to tears, but in a ‘good’ way. This one is definitely not in a good way, there is nothing uplifting about it.

I don’t know if it’s because I more or less knew what to expect as I had seen the film a couple of times earlier, but I would disagree with this. I mean, obviously it is a very emotional ride, but I think that it is also a very uplifting film. Awe-inspiring and beautiful rather than depressing and tear-jerking, joyous rather than tragic.

For one thing, the beginning of the film prepares you for the end. It immediately tells you that the brother is going to die. If you then don’t pick up the suggestion that by dying he is reunited with his sister, as you probably wouldn’t if you watch the film for the first time, the question as the film progresses becomes what will happen to the sister when he dies. In that context, her dying before him and the two reuniting constitutes in my view a happy ending. I actually find it a very clever way to begin the film, as it has such a strong impact on how the ending can be interpreted, and how it also makes the ending not feel manipulative.

Another reason why I think that Grave of the Fireflies is an uplifting film has to do with something that Shintsurezuregusa already touched on:

Shintsurezuregusa: But even today, this dilemma that we face when trying to survive in the world, of living within a system that is alienating and dehumanizing, or trying to survive outside of the system without any connections or support network, still exists.

Seita could definitely have taken a different path that would have helped him and his sister survive the war. His aunt repeatedly suggests that he is old enough to join the war effort, at least as a firefighter to help prevent the city burning down. The aunt could, conceivably, take care of his sister while he is away working. But Seita doesn’t appear to be interested in taking part in the war in any way.

At the beginning of the film there is a scene where Seita is carrying his sister as they depart their house to go to a shelter. The bombs are already falling. As Seita gets to the street, the house is hit by fire bombs that give birth to small fires which will soon turn into big fires. Seita sees a bucket, a mop, and water. He could, in theory, try to put out the fires, but he chooses not to. This, in hindsight, is the right decision as there is soon an explosion, but nevertheless his decision has been not to fight but to run and carry his sister to safety. This one scene almost sums up the whole film.

Later, by deciding to live in the cave, Seita relocates himself and his sister physically out of the wartime society. Obviously, this decision is influenced by them not getting along with their aunt and not having other relatives to fall back on, but again we see the character(s) move further away from what Shintsurezuregusa called the “alienating and dehumanizing” wartime system.

Having thus removed themselves from the wartime society, Seita next starts to go against it by stealing food, although he does not do so as an attack but as a matter of self-preservation. Nevertheless, this is the third level of removal: first he has rejected the society’s ideology, then its physical and social structures, and now finally its laws. They have become true outsiders and outlaws.

This is made all the more meaningful by the fact that his father is in the army, and it would seem not simply as a conscript but something more, since the aunt uses the term “military family” to describe them. Seita’s path then seems to be that of a gradual distancing from a starting point that should, at least in theory, be very pro-war, to an end point where all of the warring society’s core structures and values have been rejected.

You could say that the film shares its theme with Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth. The question posed by the two films is similar: is it better to remain true to your beliefs even if it means death, than it is to survive under the leadership of someone else’s dehumanizing ideology. The major difference is that in No Regrets Noge is dead and buried, and unable to change anything. Grave of the Fireflies, on the other hands, allows its hero an afterlife where he can continue to live the life that he in his heart believed to be the right one. This makes it, for me anyway, quite an uplifting and beautiful ending.

You could also say that death has allowed Seita the fourth and final level of removal: as ghosts (or our memories of them, however you wish to interpret it), he and his sister are now quite literally outside of the life and society which they rejected.

Ugetsu: its not clear to me from the opening scenes whether his death took place days, months or years after his sister

I think that it must be mere days, or weeks at most. Seita hears about Japan’s surrender just before his sister’s death, so she cannot have died before August 15 1945 when Hirohito gave his famous radio address. Seita, meanwhile, dies on September 21 1945, according to the first line of dialogue spoken in the film.

Shintsurezuregusa: Mamoru Ishii has said that the thing he found so compelling about Grave of the Fireflies was the “incestuous” undertones. I don’t see any of that, personally (on a similar note, I do recall that when I saw My Neighbour Totoro at a film festival in Australia there was a gasp of shock from the audience during the scene when the father is in the bath with his two daughters…)

That indeed sounds either like an attempt at intentional provocation or just a very close minded approach to the film. Then again, as your experience in Australia and Ugetsu’s in Ireland show, it is also a matter of cross-cultural awareness. It goes the other way with me. Having grown up in Finland, a country with a culture where nakedness is not really a social taboo, the way some cultures attribute shame and sexuality into simple nakedness seems strange. So, sometimes I can miss those cues.

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Ugetsu

Slightly off-topic, but it does reference Grave of the Fireflies, there is a very interesting essay on Medium here on the anti-war themes throughout Studio Ghibli films. I find it quite interesting that the writer comes from quite a right-wing libertarian perspective, but would probably agree with a generally left wing and liberal interpretation of the films.

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Vili Maunula

I finally had the time to read through the essay that Ugetsu linked to. It argues that Ghibli’s war themed films are far more nuanced than what we consider the canon of western fantasy cinema and literature, where “wars are traditionally depicted as worthy struggles between unalloyed good and pure evil, with the protagonist firmly on the side of the angels and against the devils”.

It certainly isn’t true that there aren’t western authors writing or filming nuanced meditations on war, and I don’t think that this is suggested by the author, but I do agree that what rises to the surface for mass consumption in the west is almost exclusively very two-dimensional, black and white. You can at times see this even in translations, which can overplay certain elements from the originals in order for a story to better fit this mould. Obviously, it is not only in the west that these narratives of “unalloyed good vs pure evil” are created, but I have a feeling that when it comes to works which reach global audiences, Asian works have historically been more nuanced, sometimes to a point of vagueness.

I wonder why this might be the case. Is it because our most recent global conflict, World War II, has in the west traditionally been narrated in almost childishly simplistic terms even outside of fiction, whereas it is discussed from a rather different vantage point in the east, as much as at it is really discussed at all? Is it because most western countries emerged from the war as victors, making the good vs. evil narrative a very convenient social and political tool to use even after the war, especially when western democracy and capitalism was seen as being threatened by the rise of communism around the world? Or is it more a case of confirmation bias, with us being more forgiving as well as more readily noticing excellence in works which come from a cultural background not out own?

I suppose if there is an answer, it probably is a combination of these and other factors.

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kennyg

I am very late to this discussion, I know. I watched this film for the first time maybe 2 or 3 years ago. I’m not sure I will ever watch it again. That I have young children of my own makes it too much to bear again. I project too much while watching these emotional films.

That being said, I feel that this is maybe one of the most important contemporary animated films ever. I never doubted that animation could evoke strong emotional responses. Throughout history there are several animated films that are very good and relevant to the human condition in a way that they have made them part of a social conscience and awareness. But Grave of the Fireflies may be the only animated film that is too much for me to watch again.

It is a fantastic film and parts of it are permanently burned onto my soul. Just thinking about this movie makes me very emotional. It is one of the rare, great, movies for me that I just can’t handle a second time. But I think everyone should watch this. I don’t want to make it seem like it is difficult to watch either. It is not. It has a certain charisma to it that makes you want to watch it. But it will leave a weight upon your soul and I think you will be better for it.

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Vili Maunula

I finally managed to get hold of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, which Shintsurezuregusa recommended earlier. I watched it last night. It’s a really fascinating look into Ghibli’s processes, although like Ugetsu I too thought that it actually raises more questions than it answers. In any case, Miyazaki is an interesting character and one that I found difficult to take seriously, as you never seem to know where you stand with him, what is a joke and what isn’t.

It was great to see his creative process and the seemingly open ended manner in which he works. Meanwhile, Takahata remained a total enigma, present mainly through his absence.

I absolutely need to find and watch the Ghibli films that I haven’t seen yet!

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Ugetsu

Vili

I wonder why this might be the case. Is it because our most recent global conflict, World War II, has in the west traditionally been narrated in almost childishly simplistic terms even outside of fiction, whereas it is discussed from a rather different vantage point in the east, as much as at it is really discussed at all? Is it because most western countries emerged from the war as victors, making the good vs. evil narrative a very convenient social and political tool to use even after the war, especially when western democracy and capitalism was seen as being threatened by the rise of communism around the world? Or is it more a case of confirmation bias, with us being more forgiving as well as more readily noticing excellence in works which come from a cultural background not out own?

I do think its primarily comes from western countries being (mostly) the victors. Of course, it varies from country to country, but I do think that the absence of unambiguous defeats has meant that in most of the English speaking world there has been a failure to really face up to the nature of war. There certainly can be confirmation bias (there are plenty of sentimental and stupid war films from many other countries, including of course Japan – 24 Eyes comes to mind – but I do think that if you objectively look at Japanese films about WWII they do have a much more nuanced approach than almost any western films I can think of. Its not just a case of course of having been defeated – most American films about the Vietnamese war, for example, insist, even when being overtly anti-war, on dehumanising and denying the humanity of the Vietnamese (apart from a few token cute refugees). You would never guess watching any Vietnamese war films made in the US that there was such a grossly disproportionate casualty count, with numerous civilians dying for every US soldier. And unfortunately, it is been repeated with the Iraq war.

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