Grave of the Fireflies
May 28th, 2012
Grave of the Fireflies is the subject of the 28th episode of Anime Abandon, hosted by Bennett the Sage. It was originally posted to That Guy With the Glasses on May 28th, 2012, and was later posted to YouTube on February 26th, 2013.
In this somber episode, Sage tackles a movie that has been lauded as one of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies. Sage gives us an alternate take on the message of the 1988 Studio Ghibli classic, and his critical analysis therein.
(The usual Anime Abandon opening sequence is scrapped in favor of a black wall with white text that says "ANIME ABANDON and transitions to more white text that says "GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES." It then cuts to Sage pondering quietly before turning to the camera.)
Sage: This is not gonna be easy.
(Cut to footage of the film)
Sage (V.O): "Grave of the Fireflies" is one of those films that leaves a certain, indelible impact on you after seeing it. Few films can leave someone so emotionally drained like "Fireflies", yet it has been lauded from top to bottom by seemingly everyone. I believe Spoony said it best when he told me it was "The greatest film he never wanted to see again." And considering it's the story of Seita and his toddler sister Setsuko as they struggle to survive in war torn Japan during the final stages of World War 2, once is all you need.
(Cut back to Bennett holding a DVD of the film)
Sage: The overall somber and sobering tone of the film is one of the reasons why this is going to be so difficult. The other reason is, considering how universally acclaimed and lauded this film is. Any kind of dissenting opinion would just be regarded as "Trolling" or just being contrary. I guess this is my long-winded round about way of saying that, I really don't like this film. At all.
Sage (V.O): Yeah, I said it. I really don't like it. And no it's not because it's a sad movie, and no it's not because I'm trying to stir the fan base up. I don't like this film for reasons that are much more detailed than just pettiness. But we'll get into that soon enough.
Sage: I think it's important that we cover why people revere this film so much, and give a little history and background to the people that are still not in the know. Plus it will give angry commentors more time to write out their angry comments. (Beat) Win, win.
(Cut to a montage of various pictures and clips)
Sage: "Grave of the Fireflies" was based off a 1967 novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the book as amends for his guilty consciense. To this day, no english translation of the novel exists. The film was released in 1988 by Studio Ghibli, the only Studio Ghibli film that Disney never held the rights to. The film didn't reach mainstream audiences until the early 2000's when Roger Ebert declared it one of the greatest war films ever made, and even agreed to do an interview for the special features on the DVD.
(Cut to Roger Ebert's interview on "At the Movies")
Ebert: You know I've seen a lot of war films, and many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic, or artistically effective. Uh, and a few of them can actually reach you on an emotional level and not just at the action level. Uh, I was amazed the first time I saw "Grave of the Fireflies" to find that I was actually, moved, just about to tears by this film.
Sage: Even Roger Ebert, who has seen pretty much every sad film that has ever existed, was moved by "Grave of the Fireflies". That is the defining characteristic of this film: it is unabashedly, unrelentingly sad. And the audience has no choice but to connect with the film, unless they're completely dead inside.
Sage (V.O): The depressing nature of the film is nigh inseperable from its legacy. Hell the very first scene of the film is the ghost of Seita looking at himself dying on the streets, shortly joined by the ghost of Setsuko. From the very first minute to the very last, the viewer knows that they're in for an inevitably sad end. Honestly, there isn't much to the movie outside of it being a sad movie. When you break down the story to brass tacks, you begin to realize how simple the plot is. While the movie is your standard 90 minutes, the entire story can be completely summarized in a paragraph. Even the majority of the film's dialogue is Setsuko and Seita talking to each other like how we expect older brother and baby sisters would. Seita being condescending and comforting, and Setsuko being naieve and endearing.
(Cut to a clip of Seita cleaning Setsuko's face)
Seita: Are you okay Setsuko?
Setsuko: I lost one of my shoes.
Seita: I'll buy you even better ones.
(Seita then gets up to rub the sweat off his neck)
Setsuko: I have money.
(Setsuko then reaches into her shirt and pulls out a purse, handing it to Seita)
Seita: (Giggles) Open this.
(Seita opens the purse, and Setsuko dumps out the contents, revealing buttons and some pieces of yen. Seita then crouches as Setsuko sorts the money.)
Seita: Wow Setsuko, you're rich!
Sage: Almost no one's dialogue drives the plot forward, what little plot there is too drive. So how does the film reach the hour and a half mark with a story this barebones? Lots of padding.
Sage (V.O): After their mom perished in an air-raid, and are sent to their aunt to live with. Setsuko and Seita spend most of their time frolicking on beaches or playing out in the woods. Unlike with most films, the padding here actually does serve a purpose other than to stretch the runtime. But it's that same purpose that I take issue with, and is really the crux of why I really do not like this film.
Sage: That purpose? Manipulation.
Sage (V.O): These scenes where Setsuko plays in a tub with her brother or plays with a crab on the beach have little to do with the plot. But they do portray what the audience perceives as actual child-like behavior. In every sense, Setsuko acts and talks like a real child would, and Seita acts (For the most part at least.) like how a responsible older brother would. However, do not take this to mean they have character, or that they're really characters at all. Setsuko and Seita are more, constructs than characters.
Sage: What do I mean by all of that? Well it's hard to articulate, but consider how the film treats the two.
Sage (V.O): Both Setsuko and Seita are thrust into the worst sort of situation imaginable, and it slowly erodes them over the course of the film, which is standard for any kind of sad story. However, unlike other films where the audience sympathizes and connects with the characters that they've come to know and perhaps identify with, the audience sympathizes with Seita and Setsuko especially, because the idea of their situation is inherently sad. In the big picture, it doesn't matter if it was Setsuko and Seita suffering, or if it was two other children. So long as they retain verisimilitude.
Sage: We're not sad that Seita and Setsuko are suffering, we're sad because we're watching kids die. And that ties into what I was saying about the film's manipulative purpose.
Sage (V.O): Considering the emaciated plot, there's no real purpose to its story. Neither character learns anything or takes anything away over the course of the film. Even when it sets up that possibility by having Seita swallow his pride and return himself, and his starving sister to the care of his mean-spirited and passive aggressive aunt, if it meant that Setsuko could have proper food and shelter.
Farmer: Don't you have any other relatives?
Seita: I don't know how to contact them.
Farmer: Then take my advice and go back to that woman son. Everything's rationed now, you can't survive outside the system. Just swallow your pride and apologize.
Seita: Thanks anyway, I'll just go and ask someone else.
Sage (V.O): However, the film never follows up on this. As if Seita never had a moment's doubt that staying away from his aunt was the right choice. What could have been a defining moment of Seita's character is instead treated as just another unfortunate happenstance along to an inevitable, and unavoidable end. However though Fireflies lacks a stated moral, for lack of a better term, it does have a stated goal, according to the director Isao Takahata in an interview back in 88. Takahata intended for the film to provoke sympathy from its audience, especially teenagers.
Sage: If Takahata's goal was to tell a story that reached people on an emotional level, that's one thing. But if the entire point was to reach people on an emotional level, story or no, that's entirely different.
Sage (V.O): You could say that most every sad film is guilty of manipulation in this way, but the best sad films don't make you aware they're manipulating you. Fireflies on the other hand, couldn't be more obvious if it tried, and no where is it more apparent than after Setsuko dies. The film goes into a montage of Setsuko doing little girl things for no reason other than to make the audience sad, all to the tune of a wistful operatic aria.
(Footage of said montage is shown, with Setsuko playing with an umbrella, looking at the audience, eating mud on a stick, and running around with a blanket over her head like a cape, while said opera music plays in the background.)
Sage (V.O): What's worse, this montage is from the audience's point of view. This isn't Seita remembering her, because he's not anywhere to be found, so how could he remember something he wasn't there for? This is just what the film thinks the audience will find sad. The breaking point however is when Setsuko uses a bowl as a helmet and snaps a salute, to no one. This is contrivance at its purest.
Sage: Simply put: The more you try to force an emotion on the screen, the harder it is to hide the artifice, and it's no longer about telling a story. Now some of you might be asking 'What's so wrong with Takahata wanting to make a film that connects with its audience?' Well, remember he said that he had a focus, on the younger generation in teenagers. This, is where it gets a little bit more devious.
(Cut to a montage of various pictures and graphs as Sage talks over it)
Sage (V.O): If you do the math, the teenagers and 20 somethings of 1988 would've born between the early 60's and mid 70's. So their parents would've been the children that had grown up during World War 2. So we have this generation gap of parents, who lived through arguably the darkest period of Japan's history, and the children who grew up in an era of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. Parents were understandably upset with their children who had been spoiled by society's abundance, and the youth were as equally frustrated with outdated and authoritative parenting. This rift was the root of Japan's social problems regarding juvenile crime rate and delinquency. Starting in 1979, the number of arrested juveniles per 1,000, had rapidly increased to the highest it had ever been since at least forty years, and stayed there for the entire decade, eventually petering off in 1993. And its peak in 1984, there were 300,000 made arrests. This trend is reflected in a lot of anime and manga at the time, as numerous stories dealt with teenage rebellion and gang violence. Where do you think Katsuhiro Otomo got the inspiration for the motorcycle gangs in Akira when he created it in 1982?
Sage: What does this all mean? It means Takahata intended to wrangle this trouble-making generation into parental compliance, through guilt.
(Back to footage of the film)
Sage (V.O): True, he didn't word it quite like that. But when Fireflies juxtaposes a scene of affluent happy go lucky young people relieved to find all their stuff had survived a bombing, with that previously mentioned montage of Setsuko. It becomes quite clear what Takahata meant and why the film specifically targets the younger generation. The real defining moment however, comes at the very end. As the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko are sitting on a park bench over-looking modern Kobe. Already the message is clear enough, but right before the cut to the cityscape shot, Seita breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience a grave, accusatory, look. As if to say 'This is what happened to your parents, you ingrates!'
Sage: Am I the only one who finds this kind of, awful? I mean even if Takahata only intended for the best and truly wanted to inform the younger generation of the hardships of the aftermath during World War 2. Co-opting someone else's personal tragedy, and fabricating events to suit this intended goal, is straight up duplicitous!
(Cut to an interview with the original novel's author, Akiyuki Nosaka)
Sage (V.O): As I stated Grave of the Fireflies was adapted off a novel, a semi-autobiographical novel. Nosaka based the book on his own experience growing up during wartime, and how he felt responsible for letting his sister die of starvation. He talked about purging demons from his past that had haunted him for decades, dedicating the book to her when it was published in 1967.
Sage: His story is understandably tragic, and it's a good starting point for a film with this kind of goal in mind. But, why did the film have him die?
Sage (V.O) Well if Seita had survived, just like Nosaka, then he would've stopped being a construct, and started being a defined character. He would've had to deal with survivor's guilt and be damning his pride that kept him from going back to live with his aunt, the only moment by the way that Seita exhibits a character trait that doesn't revolve around being an older brother. However, this also would've made the story too insular and personal, making it harder for the intended generation to project their own parents into the film. It would be Seita's story, not their parents'. So Seita dies, and whatever guilt he may have felt and would've struggled with, dies with him.
Sage: I know adapted films often change details from their source material, but they're usually changed because of accessibility reasons, or for reasons regarding their respective differences between mediums. But when they're changed because they wouldn't have fit the director's intended vision, that's usually when the adaptation goes off the rails.
Sage (V.O): Still I want to make it very clear that there is no evidence that suggests that Nosaka was dissatisfied or even slightly miffed with these changes they made to his story, or if he took issue with the film using what happened to him in the way they did. I'll be the first to admit that I'm reading a lot of thought into what went into this film and forming my own conclusions. But I hope that you're able to see how I came to these conclusions and better understand my problems with the film.
Sage: To an American audience in the 21st century. This talk of wanting to manipulate Japanese teenagers in the 80s, is sort of a moot point since the film was never made for an American audience in the first place. So from our perspective, we can see the film as an anti-war film that brutally depicts what war reduces humanity to. But even that has been taken away from us by Takahata.
(Cut to an interview with Takahata)
Sage (V.O): Unlike his previous statement with wanting to invoke sympathy with teenagers, Takahata was extremely clear about how Grave of the Fireflies was never meant to be an anti-war film. (Shows the following quote from Takahata) 'The film is not at all an anti-war anime, and contains absolutely no such message.' There's no wiggle room in that statement, and no other way to interpret that but literally. So does that mean that every critic who ever lavished praised on the film and called it (Shows more quotes) 'An important anti-war film, or 'One of the most devastating anti-war films ever made, animated or otherwise' are provably wrong?
Sage: While Takahata has no control over how people sees his film, he does have control over its intent. If people want to see an anti-war message in the film, that's their right to. But it's incidental, and to insist that there is an anti-war message, would infer ignorance.
Sage (V.O): I'll admit, the first time I ever saw the film, I did cry, and I enjoyed the film overall. but the more I watched the film and thought about it, and the more I learned about the history of the times and social context, the more it irked me on a moral level. The obvious playing into people's emotions, the underhanded nature of its intent, and the manipulation just angers me personally.
(Back to Sage holding the DVD again)
Sage: I said at the beginning of this review that I did not like Grave of the Fireflies. But, I can't bring myself to hate it. Because at the end of the day, I can recognize that it's a very well made film. But it ethically repulses me and I can't get around that fact. Well I'm sure that none of you out there wanted me to take this show in this depressing area. So next time around, we're going to have a return to form. Lucky me.
(Holds up a copy of Devil Hunter: Yohko)
Til next time.