Within the first moments of Grave of the Fireflies, our protagonist, Seita, dies. What follows is a harrowing account of his life during World War II Japan leading up to his untimely demise. While director Isao Takahata has denied that this is an anti-war film, that it was instead meant to convey an image of a brother and sister living a failed life caused by societal isolation. However, in this tale, the two are acutely intertwined. Grave of the Fireflies, by focusing on just the lives of of two siblings, shows the immense toll that war puts on people who aren’t actively fighting, but just trying to survive. It illustrates how immense conflict changes people, what they need to do to rise to the occasion, and how people’s best efforts aren’t always enough. There are no happy endings to be found here, and as such, this is as strong of an anti-war tale as you can find.
Released the same year as My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies showcased the wide range of personal tragedies that the studio was able to convey masterfully. The former is Miyazaki’s timeless work about how a child copes with the sickness of her mother. She creates the fantastical character of Totoro as a coping mechanism to deal with the uncertainty and hardship that her family is currently facing. Conversely, siblings Seita and Setsuko are afforded no such luxury in war torn Japan. There fight is a daily struggle for survival, having to deal with such things as air raids and the scarcity of food and acceptable shelter. Yes, they do try and find means of escapism, one needs to cope with the horrors of that reality somehow, but it never strays into the wondrous. Theri survival is always first and foremost on the mind of older brother Seita.
War changes people, and not just those doing the fighting. When your home is being constantly attacked and food and other basic necessities become scarce, people change. They do what they need to do to survive. Grave of the Fireflies is a story of how the war forces Seita to adapt to his circumstances, and how those circumstances eventually lead to his demise. People who he thought he could trust end up putting themselves first and foremost, leading him to make some tough decisions in order to best serve the needs of himself and his young sister. While he may not always make the correct choice, he is only a child after all, everything he does comes from a place of love, which makes the tough moments even more poignant.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine famously wrote. Many of us do not know what it is like to live through such trying times, or what true sacrifice really means. Grave of the Fireflies is a moving look at what such circumstances can do to a person and those around them. While the tone is much darker than most of Ghibli’s other bodies of work, it is refreshing to see the medium of animation tackle a subject like this in such a meaningful way. As such, it not only is an important part of the Ghibli canon, it transcends it’s animated exterior and remains essential viewing as a great example of dramatic war time storytelling.