Friday, August 19, 2011

Grave of the Fireflies

Japanese animation, both in film and manga has garnered a wealth of attention and praise outside of Japan over the past ten years. The impetus, for animated film at least, stems mainly from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which reached American audiences in 2002, won an Academy Award and became the most successful film in Japanese history with earnings topping even the Titanic blockbuster. The film was well directed, beautifully animated and most important of all, produced by animation film studio, Ghibli. Spirited Away was just another of many feathers in the cap of Studio Ghibli.

Fourteen years before Spirited Away, one of Studio Ghibli’s founders made an animated feature with the strangely lyrical name, Grave of the Fireflies, or Hotaru no haka (1988). Using his own script based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel of 1967, director Isao Takahata made a movie that film critic Roger Ebert called ‘an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.’

Grave of the Fireflies is the story of a brother and sister in the last months of World War II, at a time when cites were being fire bombed and life for most was a day to day struggle. The film opens on an evening in 1945 in Kobe’s Sannomiya Station, where the boy Seita lies dying, succumbing finally to starvation. The movie shifts to a flashback telling a story of how things have come to this boy’s death. Seita and Setsuko are brother and sister, fourteen and four years old, growing up in the waning days of World War II. To Seita's great pride their father is a Japanese naval officer, and mother and children live difficult but fairly happy lives despite rationing and the other privations of war. When their mother dies from burns suffered during an American fire bombing raid, the two children are taken in by an aunt. This situation soon sours and the children are driven to move out and find their own way. For a few short weeks, Seita and his little sister enjoy what seems a happy and bucolic existence in the country, but the reality of their plight soon becomes clear to both Seita and his little sister. Food is scarce and costly when available and the stress of war and loss has hardened the compassion of most people Seita appeals to. He struggles to care for his sister while on another level coming to terms with the war and with the fate of their parents. The tragedy is both inevitable and unstoppable.

This animated feature is at the same time both poignant and agonizing, a powerful statement about the human condition, war, loss and death. Twenty-three years after its release Grave of the Fireflies stands as perhaps the most heartbreakingly human animated film ever made. On its surface the story is a simple one, but underneath are moments of such humanity that its simplicity is rendered golden. In this film we see how minimalism in the hand of a skilled director is used to create a gripping narrative that is close cousin to visual poetry.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is in its powerful imagery. Setsuko’s tin of fruit candies that empties so quickly, a metaphor for vanishing hope; fireflies dying too quickly, symbol for the falling soldiers of Japan, and the train in red sunset, a passage from life to death. There is much to consider in the firefly images that color so many of the night scenes. The short-lived insects have in Japan traditionally been a symbol of impermanence. Fireflies are also symbolic of human souls, characterized in the film as floating, flickering fireballs. In Western Japan (the setting of the film) are the Heikebotaru fireflies which hover near lakes and rivers and are considered to be the souls of a perished family in Japanese history.

The characters chosen for writing hotaru (fireflies) in the title are also particularly meaningful. Rather than choosing simple kana or kanji characters for the word, the writer combined the character for ‘fire’ () with the characters for tareru (垂る), a word meaning to dangle or hang. The combination 火垂る suggests senkô hanabi, a sparkler of fire droplets. The senkô hanabi also evokes the notion of families enjoying fireworks together in summer, perhaps a fond memory for the the boy and his sister. Further, the image of dangling fire describes how the fire bombs fall in the film. During the war many Japanese referred to the incendiary bombs as “fireflies.”

In Grave of the Fireflies no punches are pulled in showing the impact of war on the lives of Seita and Setsuko, yet the focus is primarily on the daily lives of the two children, and especially on a brother willing to do anything to spare a little sister. Life is tragic for these children but as director, Takahata balances the dark with bright colors and buoyancy. Setsuko plays with happiness untainted by the hopelessness of their condition, their lives.

The name Studio Ghibli alone is guarantee enough that the visual production is outstanding. Look for the small touches in the animation that reveal the details of a sigh, a child’s clumsy gait, the impersonal drone and flight of overhead bombers. Some will argue that in the years since Ghibli has produced better animated features, but I would argue with that, contending that Grave of the Fireflies is their masterpiece.

Another perspective in graphic format on the effects of war on young people is a 2003 book called Town of Evening Calm. Have a look here for a story that fits comfortably in the same hand with Grave of the Fireflies.

The Roger Ebert video clip below is long at eight minutes, but an excellent commentary and preview of the film.

1 comment:

  1. Art--whether words on paper or figures in stone or on canvas or images caputured on film--is man's highest achievement. While putting a man on the moon is quite an achievement, it holds no candle to the moving of emotions through human experience depicted on a piece of paper or a frame of film.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America