“The Grave of the Fireflies” is an anime film directed by Isao Takahata, copyright 1988, produced in English in 1992 and reproduced in 1998. In keeping with the fine characteristics of anime, the producer presents the final months of two young children trying to survive in the final U.S. bombings on the mainland of Japan near the conclusion of World War II. The writers and director use the basic tools of anime expertly to create an emotional connection and empathy with the children and to leave an impression of Japan’s innocent victims during the war.
The film starts, oddly enough, with wa, or the conclusion of the conflicts that will inevitably exist in the movie, with all issues resolved in harmony. In the opening scenes, the main character, Seita, dies all alone in a busy, urban train station. Even in death, no sympathy is shown for him or the others who are nearby. He and the others, all children, have sat in the train station until death has taken them, unaided by any passersby, and then left to a sanitation workers who throw their possessions to the wind, and presumably take less care than that with their bodies. The worker throws a can that Seita had outside, and it lands in a field near Setsuko, his little sister who is playing with fireflies in the field. Seita, dressed differently, comes and joins his sister in the field, and they walk away among the fireflies, hand in hand. They are at peace, together, in a magical type ending, which is revealed in the opening minutes of the film.
The film demonstrates mono no aware, or the very transitory nature of life as the producer uses an extensive flashback throughout the rest of the film to reveal the final months of the children’s struggle to survive. As the flashback starts, Seita seems to be burying the family food and valuable possessions. He playfully takes time from his chore to interact with his sister, Setsuko, in a loving and caring way. He talks with him mom about normal everyday things. Then an air raid warning helps the viewer realize why he was burying their things, and the mother sends the children off together to go to the shelter. The mom puts a great deal of responsibility on the boy who only moments before had seemed so young in his actions with his sister. As the napalm bombings create an inferno in the town, Seita makes very adult decisions and is able to avoid the fires and dangers. He protects himself and his sister. He comforts her when she is scared, as a parent would. In very short order, their entire lives are changed forever.
The anime characteristic of amae, or care for those who cannot care for themselves, is also presented to the viewer. Setsuko is so young. She is potty-trained, but still so small that Seita carries her with a strap on his back. Seita assumes the role of caregiver, finds them rations, housing, a relative to live with, then makes a decision to set up their own housing. He steals food for them when they are desperate. He bathes her and tends to her wounds. He tries to keep her under the mosquito nets. He takes her to the doctor. All the while, he also is her playmate, find ways to keep life cheerful for her, protecting her innocence.
Hanne and tatemae, or maintaining face, is evident many times during the film. The viewer finds out that Seita has known all along that his mother died after the bombings and never left the village. In another embedded flashback, he recalls her body being thrown on the pile of other victims to be burned. The viewer does not see him mourn outright for his mom. He seems to have accepted the given reality, and it’s revealed later as something he has known all along. Additionally, he stares without a hateful response to his aunt’s accusations as she scorns the burden of the children and tells Seita that he is lazy and not contributing to the household; this after she has enjoyed the food that trade of Seita’s family possessions has provided.
But Seita is not wholly without flaw. He is represented as an ordinary older boy, perhaps around age 14, with strengths and flaws, or Yujo doryoku shori. He is an average person who does incredible things because circumstance brings that out of him. Certainly, the viewer of the film will see a strength of character in the care he gives to his sister and the effort he makes to maintain a happy environment for her. But the viewer may also see pride as one of his flaws, when he decides to move out of his aunt’s house because of her scorn. By doing so, he cuts off his ability to get food rations, he moves Setsuko and himself into a cave structure along a river that helps keep them safe, provides fish for food, but also may have led to some more physical problems as they get jungle rot and more mosquito bites. The producer wrote into the film a secondary character who even tells Seita to humble himself and move back in with his aunt.
I believe that this film could be used in a middle school classroom as a very relevant tool for helping students develop sympathy for the awful plight of children who have always been victims in times of war. Time and attention might need to be given to have students discuss their perceptions of identifying with the hardships of the characters being hungry daily or by the perception in the film of the children being marginalized by the adults around them who fail to provide care. With discussion, the students may be able conclude that the adults in the film are also traumatized by the extremes of the conditions in which they are living. As the editorial review stated on one Amazon listing, “…in a world that lacks not the care to shelter them, but simply the resources,” (no author, www.amazon.com/Grave-Fireflies-Isao-Takahata). The effects of war certainly include personal physical and as well as psychological trauma which would impact people’s affect (emotional appearance, or flatness) when they are faced, in this case, which starving and sick children and the choice to disregard them so that they can personally still survive and care for their own children with the limited resources. I believe middle school children could also participate research through the internet to find first person accounts about the war with Japan. There are many resources which could supplement the student experience of this film. I also believe that a middle school teacher could help the students take a look at anime as a popular entertainment tool with significant cultural meanings embedded by the developers, so that the students learn the primary characteristics of the art and the value of those as tools in forming public opinions.
For older students who are in high school, the film could lead to discussions about the bombers actions, the military’s objectives, orders that led to civilian casualties, the decision of Japan to continue to participate in the war at the cost of civilian lives. Extended time and attention could be given to actual research regarding the actual historical accounts of World War II’s Pacific Theater, including the declaration of war, the possible causes of the war, other significant military actions including the nuclear bombings, as well as the conclusion of the war which include the establishment of an Allied Occupation Force which provided aid to Japan as they re-established their infrastructure and the decisions of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East and the Allied International Military Tribunals which tried individuals for war crimes after the war’s conclusions. Research could also be completed to show the regions of the world which were involved in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the casualties of the participants, the costs of recovery to Japan and the Allies, and lastly any significant Treaties or United Nations decrees that might have come about as a result of lessons learned from this War.