Japan; anime; virtues; family

Grave of the Fireflies

On 9th December at age 85 died Akiyuki Nosaka (野坂 昭如), an author of story Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓), which earned him a prestigious literary award Naoki. Born in 1930 in the former imperial capital of Kamakura, not far from Tokyo, Akiyuki Nosaka lived through the death of his mother and then of his adoptive parents, who perished during the 1945 American air raids. He and his younger sister were firebombed out of their homes, and she then died by starving to death. Writing Grave of the Fireflies, Nosaka said, was his way of making peace with his past and overcome guilt over some less worthy aspects of his wartime behaviour.

Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList
Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList

Probably unknown to many a European, this captivating tale has much to say, precisely during such merry time as Christmas holidays. The story of two orphans struggling through the penury of wartime Japan is based on Nosaka’s own childhood experience. Yet, it transcends its historical moment and shows that virtues and solidarity hold the greatest significance in harsh times. That is when they are put under test and that is when they have to play themselves out not just in words but also in deeds. Why not to remind ourselves of the importance of noble acts precisely during Christmas?

Most accessible introduction is in the book’s adaptation into a highly appraised anime of the same name from Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. Animation may at first seem like an odd choice for a ‘serious storyline’, but that is explained by the author himself. Nosaka thought that Grave of the Fireflies places such high expectations on two young protagonists, that an acted film would not fully capture the story (Shoten 1994, p. 8). The quality of the animation itself is spectacular, demonstrating smoothness and detail perfected in later Ghibli films as Secret World of Arrietty. In the first-ever such experiment in anime, most of the film’s illustrations are drawn with brown outlines and not in the customary black. While more difficult technically (brown does not provide such a good contrast as black), it fulfilled its purpose in giving Grave of the Fireflies very soft visual feel. On the one hand, that contrasts with the wartime havoc everywhere on the scene, on the other, it highlights the vulnerability of each of the characters. Fireflies are the story’s symbol for a reason: just as they brightly sparkle only for a while before vanishing, a similar fate might await the main child protagonists.

The fourteen-year old Seita and his four-year old sister Setsuko live in Kobe with their mother, while their father, a navy admiral, fights for Japan on the high seas. Yet, the whole city is soon burned to ashes as B-29 “Superfortress” bombers make a raid on their town. Separated from their mother, Seita discovers her afterwards in a school that serves as a makeshift infirmary, her whole body covered by bandages and with horrid, fatal burns. She dies soon after, but Seita decides not to tell his sister, not to cause her any pain. With so many dead, for the assistants in the infirmary, the mother is just ‘another rotting corpse’, which they make clear when they put her on one pile with other bodies destined for mass burial.

Isao Takahata, © Zimbio
Isao Takahata, © Zimbio

The siblings make their way to a distant aunt. But food is scarce, so Seita reluctantly parts with his mother’s last kimonos, to exchange them for rice. That only causes distress in the four-year old Setsuko, who holds to the clothes as they are the last tangible reminder of her mother’s warm and reassuring presence. Soon the aunt who was initially welcoming (particularly after they shared rice with her family), starts reminding them they are a burden on the household budget. They find themselves without rice and called lazy bums for not working to aid the war effort. A proud son to a navy admiral, Seita decides that a life will be better on their own and the siblings part to a cave not far from their aunt’s village. They are able to grow some plants and exchange some of their possessions for food, but that does not last long as the strain on local farmers pushes them to keep the provisions for themselves. Seita resorts to stealing, but even then Setsuko becomes increasingly more malnourished.

Without revealing the full story, the scenes above reveal a deep connection between the two siblings. That attachment is strengthened, not weakened in the wartime, and they both are forced to grow up very soon, which mirrors Akiyuki Nosaka’s own experience. The only person Seita can exchange words with is his sister, while Setsuko eventually becomes affected by the change in the environment as well as in her brother and assumes more motherly role at times. The story shows that Seita’s and Setsuko’s life is also full of bright moments – whether when playing on piano or when we see how Setsuko joyfully awaits her brothers return from ‘a food hunt’.

On the other hand, the ‘outside world’ becomes increasingly more hostile as people close up but to themselves. The pressing need for survival, thinning food rations and looming death pushes everyone to egoism and cynic neglect to the suffering of others, even to children. We see that many times in the film, whether in the opening scene when a dead child lying at the train station is ‘just another corpse,’ or an examination where the doctor shows complete ignorance as to the ability to survive of his young patient.

Nevertheless, the above does not make Grave of the Fireflies an anti-war film. In a way, the Japan’s war – which none of the characters in the film ever questions – possesses the capacity to bring both the best and the worst in people. Commenting the story, Nosaka spoke about his hate for the films ‘where the main character is placed into cruel situations for no other reason than to provide a cathartic focus for the audience’s sympathy’ (Shoten 1994, p. 10). For Seita and Setsuko, it is a very harsh journey, yet one which makes them extremely close. Most of other characters demonstrate almost complete lack of solidarity, although they might behave differently when it comes to their closest ones.

While the film happens in a wartime setting, its purpose is not to criticise war as such (which is distant, seen only in the form of falling bombs), but to show how people behave within it, together with the capacity for better and worse. War itself might be an inevitable human condition, but our individual behaviour within in – or during any strenuous times in general – depends on ourselves. Nosaka and Takahata are idealists in the sense of having high expectations for human comportment, even when they put their child characters in front of total misery, a force majeure. Symbolism of fireflies is apt. Life might not last long, the settings might be harsh, but it is the way each person takes up own behaviour, that makes up for its brightness. Akiyuki Nosaka’s Grave of the Fireflies and its anime adaptation by Isao Takahata give us exactly that reminder.

-Stanislav Máselník



Shoten, Tokuma (1994) Two Grave Voices in Animation. In : Animerica, vol. 2, n° 11, p. 6–11. Online : http://ghiblicon.blogspot.cz/2011/04/animerica-interviews-isao-takahata-and.html.