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Grave of the Fireflies: Class and hierarchy

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    Ugetsu

    One of the things I found curious about Grave of the Fireflies was what appear to me to be a focus on the upper levels of Japanese society. I would normally expect a story such as this to focus on the protagonists as ‘average’ kids, but in many respects they are clearly not. My knowledge of Japanese does not extend to the subtleties of accent, but there seem to be plenty of indications that Seita and Setsuko come from a very privileged background. Their house is obviously wealthy, and appears (from the depiction of the neighbourhood) to be in a very upmarket area. Their father is a naval officer serving on what was one of the ‘glamour’ ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Maya, and they seem to have had access to foods that ordinary Japanese never got to see. From my understanding of the period, Naval officers were an elite who were drawn mostly from the higher levels of aristocratic or bushi families. Their aunt seemed much less wealthy, but her house was still substantial and seemingly in a nice area. In short, they were clearly members of a substantial, upper middle class family of privilege. What I found curious about the film is, with the exception of two farmers, they had very little contact with anyone outside that particular layer of society. Other characters were just background, and mostly unkind (the farmers pragmatically so, others more cruelly). The only kind person seemed to be the police officer.

    At the very end, when they leave the shelter, for the first time we are shown its context – it seems to belong to a huge, expensive house, and we hear two young women – seemingly very rich, delighting at moving back in – while meanwhile Seita moves out. It seemed to me to be a curious directorial decision to contrast the two, especially considering Seita’s family background.

    I don’t know whether I’m reading too much into this – obviously as the story is partly autobiographical so it may just be a literal retelling of what what really happened to Nosaka.

    I’m no expert on the history of the period, but at least one book I’ve read on the topic stated that one of the crucial facts needed to understand modern Japanese government and society is that the Occupation Authority essentially scapegoated the land owning aristocracy as the guilty element of society – either unaware, or uncaring that since the Meiji period this element of society had essentially lost its political power to the Bushi (samurai) levels, who essentially ran the key bureaucracies in the name of the Emperor before and during the conflict, and continued doing so after the war, with scarcely a missed beat. In particular, under the guise of land reforms, the older aristocracy was impoverished quite deliberately. One theory set out in the book (and others I’ve read) have suggested or implied that this unbalanced Japanese society in a way which which was never fully understood – removing one of the counter balances to a ruthlessly pragmatic, monomaniacal and somewhat philistine ruling class.

    Now perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I’m wondering if one element of the film which perhaps is overlooked, is that as well as a tragedy of one family, the film (rather like Seven Samurai) is also intended as a requiem for a particular element of Japanese society for which the war was a fatal blow. Seita in particular seems an exemplar of a particular kind of nobility – strong, educated, independent, loyal and utterly committed to his direct family – similar to the way Kambei was depicted as one of the last exemplars of a more noble strain of Bushido. In the opening scene, we see him not just dying, but dying surrounded by what seems a scene not of wartime Japan, but of ‘modern’ japan – a busy commuter railway station, filled with people too busy to care about the dying men in the corners, explicitly stating that they are a disgrace who should be disposed of. There seems to be an explicit disgust in the film makers in that they twice focus on people talking about the surrender and the Occupation as if they were something to be welcomed, a business opportunity, rather than a source of shame (I’m thinking of the scene in the bank where the man laughs at Seita for not knowing the war was over, and the comments in the very opening scene, where people seem excited at the coming of the Americans).

    Is it overstating it to interpret Grave of the Fireflies to be more than just the tragedy of two children, but a requiem for the death of a more noble, gentle and high-minded element of Japanese society?

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    Shintsurezuregusa

    Really great points!

    There seem to be plenty of indications that Seita and Setsuko come from a very privileged background. Their house is obviously wealthy, and appears (from the depiction of the neighbourhood) to be in a very upmarket area. Their father is a naval officer serving on what was one of the ‘glamour’ ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Maya, and they seem to have had access to foods that ordinary Japanese never got to see.

    I can’t recall whether it is stated that the house they are living in at the beginning is actually theirs? I imagine that, if the mother was ill and her husband was at sea, she most likely would have returned with her children to her family’s home, and most rural family homes are larger than houses in the city. But, then, why don’t we ever see the grandparents?

    If it was Seita’s home, if they were genuinely upper class, they would have had a maid – especially if the mother was ill. Or, perhaps if they had a maid with some medical experience she would have been called away to help during the raids? Their status is somewhat ambiguous, but they are not portrayed as being poor. I don’t know if this is due to a tendency in Japan to romanticize the childhood home – the “furusato” – and how, by contrast to the experiences of the war, how idyllic the childhood home was, or because the film was made in the post-war period when the majority of Japanese identified as middle-class (even if they weren’t).

    As well as a tragedy of one family, the film (rather like Seven Samurai) is also intended as a requiem for a particular element of Japanese society for which the war was a fatal blow. Seita in particular seems an exemplar of a particular kind of nobility – strong, educated, independent, loyal and utterly committed to his direct family – similar to the way Kambei was depicted as one of the last exemplars of a more noble strain of Bushido.

    Part of the wikipedia article for this film states that although Takahata considered Seita to be “a unique wartime ninth grader” he wanted to dispel the mindset of “people in wartime eras as being more noble and more able than [contemporary people] are” because this mindset tends to make “the audience believes that the story has nothing to do with them.” I think that Takahata wanted to show that Seita was not perfect – he stole from people’s houses whilst they were hiding in the air raid shelters, and he wasn’t able to fight back when he was captured by the farmer for stealing vegetables (contrast this with the Miyazaki’s romanticized version of Jiro in the Wind Rises who is saving people from bullies with his aikido skills and carrying injured women to safety after the earthquake without stopping to hear their thanks, etc.).

    In the opening scene, we see him not just dying, but dying surrounded by what seems a scene not of wartime Japan, but of ‘modern’ japan – a busy commuter railway station, filled with people too busy to care about the dying men in the corners, explicitly stating that they are a disgrace who should be disposed of.

    This film was made in 1988, before the economic “bubble” burst, so in some ways this scene is prophetic – the workers who were the pride of Japan during the bubble years did not want to be thought of after restructuring when many were unable to regain employment and became homeless.

    I don’t think this is a specifically Japanese trait – more than a third of homeless people in the US are returning war veterans; despite how much the public claims to “love the troops” not many people want to have to deal with a homeless beggar – but this reminded me of my first trip to Okinawa in 2010. My wife and I visited the Himeyuri memorial. Okinawa was originally a separate state, the Ryukyu Kingdom, the people having their own cultures and languages. During the Meiji period Okinawa was officially annexed and made a prefecture of Japan. The people were thought of second class citizens but as sovereigns of the Emperor had to learn Japanese and adopt Japanese culture, swearing allegiance to the Emperor. But although Okinawa was slowly being assimilated as a part of Japan, once it was realized that Okinawa would be lost to the Allied forces, there was a change in attitude among the military elite: Okinawa isn’t part of Japan anyway, it isn’t worth fighting for. But the young school age nurses – the Himeyuri – weren’t aware that they had been abandoned by the empire they had sworn allegiance to and continued to treat the retreating Japanese soldiers whilst being shelled by the Allies. They were then told that suicide would be better than being captured by the Americans and that they should die for the Emperor. Their sacrifice was then not recognized officially for decades and still isn’t referred to explicitly in Japanese text books. I was reminded of this sort of in-group/out-group dynamic (uchi-soto in Japanese) during the scene in the station at the beginning of Grave of the Fireflies, but throughout the whole movie generally where Seita and Setsuko are regularly treated as a burden within there in-group but are unable to survive as a members of the out-group either. This is still the case today as well, of course…

    Is it overstating it to interpret Grave of the Fireflies to be more than just the tragedy of two children, but a requiem for the death of a more noble, gentle and high-minded element of Japanese society?

    There have been a number of Japanese films recently that have idealized the pre-war period – The Wind Rises, The Small House, Zero – but I think that Takahata seems to be showing in Grave of the Fireflies that such a time has never existed. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness I think Miyazaki made the comment that while he remembers moments of kindness during the war – like his father helping some orphan children – Takahata remembers walking for days without anyone helping him. This experience perhaps coloured Takahata’s film.

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    Longstone

    I wondered if reading the source novel would shed any light on your points Ugetsu, but it seems there isn’t an English translation. At least I couldn’t find reference to one. as you say it’s supposed to be party autobiographical.
    Takahata was born in 1935 so would have been 9 or 10 at the time so maybe has his own memories to draw on ?

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    Ugetsu

    Longstone:

    I wondered if reading the source novel would shed any light on your points Ugetsu, but it seems there isn’t an English translation. At least I couldn’t find reference to one. as you say it’s supposed to be party autobiographical.
    Takahata was born in 1935 so would have been 9 or 10 at the time so maybe has his own memories to draw on ?

    All I know about Nosaka is from wikipedia – he was born in 1930, apparently to a wealthy family in Kobe. He would, therefore, have been the same age as Seita at the same time. His sister did apparently die of malnutrition in Fukui. I did notice that the firebombing of Fukui was specifically mentioned by one of the characters (the police chief I think), which doesn’t make a lot of sense narratively, as Fukui is a long way from Tokyo, so why mention it specifically? I was thinking that this was a small reminder within the film of the autobiographical background.

    Shintsurezuregusa:

    I can’t recall whether it is stated that the house they are living in at the beginning is actually theirs? I imagine that, if the mother was ill and her husband was at sea, she most likely would have returned with her children to her family’s home, and most rural family homes are larger than houses in the city. But, then, why don’t we ever see the grandparents?

    The house was within the city, as it was part of a city block hit with incendiaries. I assume it was their house, as Seita was busy burying a food hoard. It is interesting of course that they had no family at all around, apart from the ‘distant aunt’. I assume its not impossible that both parents could have been only surviving children, with no surviving grandparents (or at least, not within reach of Tokyo), but I assume this is mostly a narrative convenience to explain why the kids had nobody to go to.

    This film was made in 1988, before the economic “bubble” burst, so in some ways this scene is prophetic – the workers who were the pride of Japan during the bubble years did not want to be thought of after restructuring when many were unable to regain employment and became homeless.

    I was thinking more that the reaction of the crowd was less representative of ordinary workers, but a class of society which wanted to reject reminders of the war – including dying homeless men. Its not so much that the people are callous, its that they didn’t want to deal with what the homeless men represented. I just feel that there is a significance in Seita dying in a post-war, ostensibly ‘normal’ Japan, rather than during the actual conflict.

    There have been a number of Japanese films recently that have idealized the pre-war period – The Wind Rises, The Small House, Zero – but I think that Takahata seems to be showing in Grave of the Fireflies that such a time has never existed. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness I think Miyazaki made the comment that while he remembers moments of kindness during the war – like his father helping some orphan children – Takahata remembers walking for days without anyone helping him. This experience perhaps coloured Takahata’s film.

    As Longstone implies, I think its difficult to know whether the film is ‘Takahatas’ film or Nosakas, without knowing how close it is to the source material. It seems to me that there are enough strong echoes within it of Nosakas life to indicate that the script very much represents his views (yes, I know we tend to think of the director as the ‘auteur’, but I think its reasonable also to think that the scriptwriter is equally important in some respects). I agree with what you say about the tendency of some works to romanticise the pre-war era, but the point I’m wrestling with (I’m not sure of it myself) is that the film is actually romanticising not a period, but a specific class – i.e. the wealthy, cultured aristocratic class to which Seita and Satsuko seem to come from.

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    Longstone

    I have the Blu-ray of the film, I’ve just found time to start checking out the extra features. There is a filmed interview with Takahata possibly from 2002 so maybe it’s on the DVDs too. He says a couple of very interesting things, firstly he was 10 years old when he experienced firebombing first hand and he put these details in the film, he says it was the worst experience of his life, his house burned and he ran away with his immediate older sister, they made a mistake and ran towards the centre of the town. He explains some detail about the way the bombs fall and the fires start and points out it took him two days to find his family again.
    He also says he had read the novels a couple of times ( he used plural? ) before the project was started.
    Another interesting point he makes is that the film was shown as a double bill with Totoro and if they showed Totoro first people walked out during Grave of the Fireflies but if they showed them the other way round the audience stayed to the end. Then he explains the Japanese audiences sympathised with Seita which he hadn’t expected, he thought Seita was mistaken in his belief that they could survive alone and so it was effectively Saita’s fault they ended up in such a bad situation.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Is it overstating it to interpret Grave of the Fireflies to be more than just the tragedy of two children, but a requiem for the death of a more noble, gentle and high-minded element of Japanese society?

    I think that there is definitely something more going on than the unfortunate suffering and death of two children, and you make a really good argument for what that might be.

    In this very carefully laid out film, the opening and closing scenes seem especially carefully thought out and meaningful. As the film begins, we are told that it was 21 September 1945 when Seita died, and we see Seita’s ghost looking at his own dying body. Passersby call him disgusting and remark that this is something that the Americans shouldn’t see. We hear a call for mother, and Seita then refers to the date again, asking what date it currently is. He dies thinking of his sister and is then reunited with her on a field of fireflies.

    The title of the film appears, with the word “fireflies” written not with the typical kanji for the insect (蛍 or 螢), but with 火垂, which is a combination of the characters for “fire” and “droop, suspend, hang down”, offering a range of possible meanings. The story proper begins, told as a flashback by Seita’s ghost.

    At the very end, after burying his sister, the two siblings are reunited again, sitting on a bench. They seem happy and peaceful. In front of them, we see what looks like modern (1980s) Japan.

    For me, the beginning and end raise four questions:

    1. Is 21 September 1945 somehow specifically meaningful?

    2. What does the film intend to communicate with the mention of the need for the approval of American occupying forces?

    3. Why is the significance of the date specifically underlined with the repeated question about the current date?

    4. What is the significance of the modern urban cityscape in the last scene?

    I cannot find any significance for September 21 specifically that would really fit any interpretation of the film. The closest candidates for sources of meaning could be the International Day of Peace, the September equinox or the resignation of the United States Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, on that exact date. But I don’t think that any of these are in the end meaningful within the context of the film.

    What is probably more meaningful is that, as Ugetsu mentions, Seita’s death happens after Japan’s surrender, just as the American occupation is starting.

    This leads us to the second question. Why are the Americans mentioned right at the beginning? If, as Ugetsu suggests, the film deals with the post-war death of the old aristocratic social class that also Seita’s family belongs to and which the Americans helped to do away with, it would appear fitting that the dying Seita is seen as disgusting and something that needs to be done away with before the Americans see him.

    As for the last two questions, I believe that they have the same answer. When Seita asks what date it is now, the answer is not September 1945, but rather April 1988, or possibly whatever date it is that you as the viewer are watching the film. This is also why the film ends with the image of modern Kobe. Whatever it is that the film is talking about, it argues is relevant also now.

    As Shintsurezuregusa pointed out, the film was made at a time of economic prosperity. If we follow Ugetsu’s interpretation, perhaps it could be argued that the film is commenting on the new commercial aristocracy that had developed but which lacked the values of the old one, having been given birth not by the traditional Japanese society, but a society built on foreign ideas and traditions? This is an interpretation that we have argued to be relevant also to many films by Kurosawa and Ozu.

    There are, of course, also other ways to interpret the above. Shintsurezuregusa’s suggestion that the film is really about the difficulty or impossibility of surviving outside of society, whether by choice or not, sounds very fitting as well, and is something that also I explored earlier today in my post in the other thread. In this case, as Shintsurezuregusa suggest, the film appears to be stressing that as horrible as the fate of these two children was, this is something that is still happening, every day.

    It of course doesn’t have to be either one or the other. I think both ways of approaching the film seem very appropriate.

    Longstone: Another interesting point he makes is that the film was shown as a double bill with Totoro and if they showed Totoro first people walked out during Grave of the Fireflies but if they showed them the other way round the audience stayed to the end.

    I can imagine why! 🙂 Watching Grave of the Fireflies after Totoro would be like someone first giving you cream cake and then, while you are still savouring its sweet taste, hitting you with a cold and wet towel. You don’t want that. You rather receive the treatment in the opposite sequence.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    1. Is 21 September 1945 somehow specifically meaningful?

    2. What does the film intend to communicate with the mention of the need for the approval of American occupying forces?

    3. Why is the significance of the date specifically underlined with the repeated question about the current date?

    4. What is the significance of the modern urban cityscape in the last scene?

    I don’t think I can add anything to these questions or the potential answers you have raised. But they are fascinating questions, and I can’t help thinking that the film is littered with little questions of that nature, intended to raise larger questions about Japanese society and the war.

    I do think that one aspect of the film that seems clear is that there is an expression of disgust not at the war or the surrender, but of the nature of the surrender. The manner in which having taken decisions which caused so much human agony and destruction, people simply switched into a form of denial, leading to the success or otherwise of modern Japan (which I assume is behind the depiction of 1980’s Kobe). Ironically, of course, Kobe itself became something of a symbol of the failure of post-war Japan following the earthquake – Haruki Murakami has written eloquently on this point in his book Underground.

    A number of writers, some of whom I linked to in my original post, have stated that they consider Japan to have suffered a form of psychic damage in the post war years – not because of the defeat, but because of how they handled defeat (essentially, by pretending it really didn’t happen). This is a topic way beyond my knowledge of Japanese post war society, but I do suspect that this is something the beginning and ending of the film is deliberately touching upon.

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