Movie Night #10: Grave of the Fireflies
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Isao Takahata
Run Time: 89 minutes
Last year, I talked about Grave of the Fireflies in my analysis of Isao Takahata. Grave of the Fireflies was released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s much softer and gentler My Neighbor Totoro. Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the story follows two orphans as they struggle to survive the hardships of World War II and its aftermath, eventually dying. The movie has a powerful antiwar message, though Takahata refused to label it an antiwar film.
I didn’t want to talk about Grave of the Fireflies again. I won’t watch it again, but I do appreciate it. I have a sister, and our age difference is almost the same as the one between protagonists Seita and Setsuko. Maybe that adds a little extra poignancy for me, maybe not, but I don’t like to be sad the way Grave of the Fireflies makes me said.
Nonetheless, while writing last year’s piece and in the interim, I’ve seen a strain of criticism that I really want to address. The criticism has as much to do with Nosaka’s original story as it does with Takahata’s movie, but to be perfectly honest, I think most of the points are true to an extent and totally invalid as criticism.
There are several arguments being made including that the movie intends to manipulate the viewer into feeling sad, that the movie’s plot is too simple and its characters aren’t characters, that Nosaka was writing to make himself feel better, and that Nosaka (and Takahata by proxy) looked down on younger generations. There are other criticisms, but I don’t have time to get into all of them today so I’m sticking to the ones I find most egregious. Youtuber Bennett the Sage has a video that encapsulates all of these criticisms, but he’s not the only source I’ve seen making them. Studio Chōjin has a direct response to Bennet’s critique that goes fairly in depth.
I’ll start with the simplest problem I have. Nosaka is part of the Generation of Ashes who came of age in Japan during and immediately after the war. He, like his contemporaries, saw human suffering that most American audiences would have difficulty wrapping our heads around. This included watching as his younger sister starved to death. Nosaka blames himself for being selfish and immature, so yes, of course, the story, which he has portrayed as an apology to his dead sister, was written in part as an exercise in healing.
Nosaka has been open about his shortcomings. He’s not trying to trick us into thinking that he was a hero. Seita dies in Grave of the Fireflies. That a man who watched his baby sister die when he was only a teenager himself feels guilty and seeks healing through art is not a flaw in the story. There’s no trickery here.
Tied into that point, yes, the movie about two children dying is supposed to make you sad. Art is manipulative. Fiction is a lie designed to inform, invoke emotion, and impart truth. I have tried to avoid waxing philosophic on what I believe the purpose of art is, but to address this properly, I think I need to.
Art is meant to convey possible truths, to let us see from other perspectives, and I believe the best art is also beautiful in some aesthetic fashion. Nosaka and Takahata portray the very possible, semi-autobiographical truth of two children whose world has failed them, struggling and ultimately failing to survive. Art doesn’t have to be pleasant or life-affirming or give you an adrenaline rush or make your hair stand on end. Art just has to take you on a journey that delivers its message, and the message of Grave of the Fireflies is not one with a happy ending.
Nosaka was telling a profoundly personal story, but Takahata takes that same story and reapplies it to his own core theme, communities. It seems that Takahata views war as a failure of communities. After Seita and Setsuko’s mother dies, their family fails them, their neighbors fail them, their country fails them, and by bringing about these circumstances, the world has failed them. The message is crystalline, and it’s delivered with Ghibli’s signature poetic visuals.
There isn’t much plot, that much is true, but plot is overrated. Not every story of value needs a complex skeleton of cause-and-effect with twists and turns and a driving force. Indeed, that’s counter to a lot of Japanese art. The characters are as much characters as most other young children in realistic art. Seita is prideful, short-tempered, but cares deeply for his sister. Setsuko is a curious, sometimes temperamental child. Bennett argues that we’d feel sad if it were any other child dying, and yes we’d be sad. But we’d only be as sad if we’d spent the whole 89 minutes getting to now them, watching them play, watching them starve, watching them cope with loss.
Maybe this movie didn’t really effect you. I suppose that’s possible, but that doesn’t make it bad or manipulative, only something you didn’t connect with.
There are certainly movies and stories that are simply wallows in misery for the sake of misery itself, but Grave of the Fireflies very clearly has a point beyond “gee, isn’t this sad.”
Lastly, I want to address the belief that Nosaka and Takahata believe that the Generation of Ashes was somehow superior to later generations. Nosaka may have believed this, though certainly not about himself. He paints Seita as spoiled and selfish, and it seems like Nosaka saw himself as a failure because of the death of his sister. Nosaka may have believed that his contemporaries were sturdier, more stoic people, even as teenagers.
Takahata certainly didn’t. I think some of the misunderstanding comes from a 1994 interview with Nosaka and Takahata in the magazine Animerica. Takahata points out that the typical wartime protagonist, be they teenagers or not, tends to be stoic and endures the hardships without question, and he talks about how Seita certainly isn’t like that. He says audiences should have an easier time relating to Seita who does have emotional responses and doesn’t just endure whatever is thrown his way.
Takahata also says that his generation believed you should be stoic, but that younger generations don’t think that way. There’s no value judgment there. Instead, Takahata seems to believe Seita is a better protagonist than the stoic, perfect wartime teenager because he’s more realistic and audiences can relate to him. Takahata seems to have some disdain for the wartime teenage hero character and the pedestal it’s placed on because he’s concerned young audiences might feel inferior and unable to relate to such characters.
Essentially, Takahata says that he wants to erase the notion that past generations were somehow inherently heroic young people. Teenagers were teenagers, even during the firebombing of Japan, and the story Takahata wanted to tell is more effective when you can actually relate to the protagonist rather than be forced to look up to him.
All that said, once again, I’m not sure that what Nosaka and Takahata think about younger generations has much influence on the quality of Grave of the Fireflies.
It’s a painful story. It’s meant to be, and it’s a story that’s as relevant now as ever.