Wednesday, 8 October 2014

[Retrospective] Grave of the Fireflies

Starting this week here in Australia, Madman Entertainment are presenting a showcase gala dedicated to the works of Studio Ghibli. For two weeks only, Australian Ghibli fans will have a chance to see no less than four classic Ghibli films on the big screen. Amongst this small selection of classics is Isao Takahata's devastating war film Grave of the Fireflies. 

I think it is of no surprise to anyone that I am a fan of Studio Ghibli. However, there was a time when I had no clue as to who or what Studio Ghibli even was. Most people usually point towards Miyazaki's runaway success story Spirited Away as being their entry point into Ghibli. However, for myself, it was Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies that marked my first Ghibli experience.

Set in Japan during the closing days of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two children living in the aftermath of the bombing of Kobe. With their mother fallen victim to the air raids Seita and his much younger sister Setsuko find themselves stranded without a home nor a family to rely upon. The brother and sister call upon a distant Aunt, who begrudgingly takes the orphaned pair into her home.

However, tensions soon arise in the household between Seita and his Aunt. With his pride and ego bruised, Seita makes a hasty decision that it would be best for he and Setsuko to leave the household. Together they seek refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter. With their new makeshift home in place, the brother and sister attempt to make the best of the dire situation. However, time is against them as their food rations steadily run dry.

When I first saw Grave of the Fireflies many years back, it left such a profound impact on me. I am in no way ashamed to say that this film moved me to tears. It was the film that would change my outlook towards animation and what animation could be. Before I watched Grave of the Fireflies, the 16-year-old version of myself would have never thought that an animated film could tackle such a subject as World War II with brutal and devastating honesty. Grave of the Fireflies proved me wrong in every way possible.

What continues to fascinate me most about Grave of the Fireflies to this day is the fact that there are two distinct ways of viewing it. Here in the West, we tend to view it as an Anti-War film. And yet, in Japan, if you were to ask the director Isao Takahata as to what the film represents. Then he would tell you that his intentions were, in fact, not to make a statement of Anti-War. Rather, the film was designed for the purpose of speaking directly to the disaffected youth of Japan during the Eighties. Whom Takahata had felt was a generation that needed to straighten up and show respect towards the suffering endured by their elders.

Perhaps it is an example of the dissonance between cultures at its most base, but personally I'm still not entirely convinced that the pacifist leanings of Studio Ghibli wasn't a factor considered while making this film.

For myself, I've always viewed the film as being Anti-War inclined. The central theme of the movie is about how war changes people and how those changes can severely affect the people for whom we most care. The war itself is but a mere backdrop to the film. However, the effects that such conflict brings with it are fully realized throughout the movie.

The desperation and paranoia of such conflict tend to bring out the worst in humanity as we ultimately lose sight as to what matters in this lifetime of ours. That being our humanity. Empathy towards others becomes but a thing of the past as we struggle for individual survival. As these two children struggle in their desperate plight for survival, they receive very little in the way of help from a society that has the blinders on.

For Seita, life as he knew it had burnt to the ground before his feet. Being the proud son of a Navy General, the proud nation that he once looked towards for answers has all but forsaken him and his family. We witness this as he reacts in stunned disbelief to the news of Japan's surrender late in the film. It's a further bruise towards his already bruised ego.

And yet, one can't help but feel nothing but compassion for Seita even with some of his questionable choices. For better or worse, Seita is just a teenage kid. A stubborn teenage kid who is but a mere product of the desperate environment surrounding him. Invoking the obvious metaphor of the fireflies. These two kids are nothing more than fireflies living on borrowed time as the world surrounding them turns its back.

However, let us not forget that Takahata's original intended viewpoint is also entirely permissible. Considering the film takes place entirely in the form of a flashback as seen through the perspective of the deceased Seita. One could state that the film is nothing more than a deeply personal journal of reconciling one's regret and guilt over the questionable actions that resulted in the untimely death of a family member. Certainly the book for which this film takes its inspiration is based on the true accounts of author Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the book as a personal apology to his sister who died during the war.

Whichever way you choose to view the film is fine as neither viewpoint robs the film of its staying power. Grave of the Fireflies is by far the darkest of all Ghibli films. When first released in 1988, it played as a double bill with the far lighter in tone Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro.  The two films couldn't be more opposed in tone. But in a strange way, it is a compliment that is entirely befitting of Ghibli. That on one hand, they can endear us with a feel-good family film, and on the other, they can also make a film that speaks so profoundly to adults as well.

Grave of the Fireflies is a devastating, haunting and strangely uplifting masterpiece. For as dark and oppressive as Grave of the Fireflies can be, it has to be said that it also shines with an endearing quality as it draws towards its conclusion. Yes, the path put before these two children is one of prolonged misery before inevitably facing eventual death. But the aftermath of watching the brother and sister meet again in the realm of an afterlife surrounded by the haunting glow of deceased fireflies is as comforting as it is ultimately devastating.

-Daniel M



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