Isao Takahata’s tragic and poetic Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) is a war film detached from the heat of battle, focused on innocent people living in war-torn cities. The film is a warning that bullets and bombs are not the only deadly forces in wartime; even among apparently innocent victims, blind patriotism and selfishness wield an equal capacity for killing.
This is the message Takahata constructed for 1980s Japan, a culture that had emerged from a massive post-war reconstruction effort to become one of the world’s most powerful economies; a sleeping giant awakened. This rejuvenation concealed Japan’s failure to properly confront a past in which it was both the victim of the most destructive wartime acts in human history and also a perpetrator of unimaginable pain and suffering on others.
The duality of Japan’s wartime history is personified in a boy, Seita, and his sister, Setsuko, who attempt to survive together during the aftermath of Kobe’s destruction by American forces. As fire rains on the wooden city, they scrounge for food wherever they can find it, setting up a makeshift living quarters in a cave by a river. Free from adult supervision and responsibility, they delight in each other’s company—the opportunity for independence and freedom transcending the overwhelming and incomprehensible threat of war.
Setsuko is an avatar for innocent victimhood, a manifestation of purity, humanity, and pre-war normalcy callously thrown into desperation by a conflict she cannot even understand. She giggles and screams when riding on Seita’s back as they flee the burning city, as if it were a game, and by the river she forms rice balls and dumplings out of mud, her childish creativity turning malnutrition into make-believe.
Her brother, young but prideful and eager to prove his adeptness, is Japanese nationalist pride and military obsession personified. A pre-war flashback shows him wearing a uniform and emulating his father’s stern expression and stiff posture for a family portrait; a young child already striving to fulfill the ideal of the Japanese soldier. When he and Setsuko capture fireflies and use them to illuminate their cave—the dim, flickering lights swirling above them in the darkness—Seita imagines the pageantry of a naval review and the bright, stunning lights on the side of warships, like the one captained by his father. He imagines himself shooting at imaginary planes, winning the war against Japan’s enemies and protecting his nation and his family.
The firefly is a multivalent symbol in Takahata’s film, signifying the firebombs that rained down on Japan’s cities, the siblings’ joy and hope for survival, the transitory nature of young Setsuko’s life, and the regeneration of life through nature untouched by war. But in Seita’s imagination, shaped by nationalist propaganda, they are grotesque symbols of military might. Ideology has entrenched itself so deeply in Seita's psyche that he no longer sees the fireflies as a natural wonder, as Setsuko does, but as a symbol for Japan's military victory over its enemies.
Nationalistic fervour is an almost incomprehensibly powerful tool, exploited by politicians and military leaders to inflict all manner of despicable acts on innocent people—and, in the specific case of Japan during World War II, some of the most shocking acts of human cruelty imaginable. But in Takahata’s film, focused on innocent people far removed from the theatre of battle, nationalism operates on a smaller scale as a convenient justification for selfishness, used not by politicians and military leaders but by regular citizens desperate to survive, even if at the expense of others.
When Seita and Setsuko briefly stay with an aunt after their home is destroyed, she casually uses patriotic language to condemn Seita as undeserving of the food she cooks for him, and euphemistically refers to self-sacrifice as “cooperation”: “Do you think a lazy slug like you deserves the same as people who are working so hard for our nation? You’re old enough now to understand that everyone has got to cooperate.”
Similarly, Seita uses nationalism to justify his own selfishness. Rather than staying in Kobe and volunteering himself to the war effort, he shuns community, moves into the cave, and waits for his father and the Japanese military machine to save the day. His nationalism suppresses his community spirit and turns him against his compatriots, convincing him that he can take care of himself and his sister without assistance.
By the time he finally understands the seriousness of his predicament, it’s too late. The war is lost, literally and figuratively: Japan has surrendered, and Setsuko is on her way to a slow, starving, wrenching death.
Takahata’s condemnation of patriotism is powerful—almost grotesquely so. The boy, wrapped up in blind nationalistic delusion, watches his sister perish before his very eyes. Innocence, personified as a four-year-old girl, literally withers and dies. By telling this story in all its painful, wretched sadness, Takahata mourns for innocent victims of war but also condemns those who bring suffering upon others, be it through the desolation of military conflict or, more sinisterly, through the selfishness of ordinary people. Seita, destroyed by the loss of his sister, is incapable of recognizing his own complicity in her death.
Japan, simultaneously the war’s greatest victim and its cruelest perpetrator, still carries the burden of a cultural self-image in denial. With Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata pierces Japan’s collective repression, exposing with haunting effect the duality of the nation’s role in World War II and its lasting impact on the Japanese people.
The film’s prologue, set after the war, depicts Seita hunched against a train station pillar, tattered, malnourished, and bruised. He is alone; his choked, dying breath dissipates meekly in the cavernous arcade: “Setsuko.” His spirit watches over, bathed in red light, sturdily built and dressed in uniform. “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.”
A station attendant carelessly throws into a field the dead boy’s sole possession, a rusted fruit-drop tin holding the last remains of his sister. Her spirit emerges and she rapturously hugs him, surrounded by fireflies, comforted in his presence once more. They are together at last and for eternity in the intense red hue of the afterlife, their blissful reunion masking the awful truth of his culpability.
Bradley J. Dixon is a writer, critic and film programmer from Melbourne, Australia. He is the co-founder and publisher of The Essential, an award-winning online publication of film and music criticism, and is currently completing a media studies degree at RMIT. You can argue with him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.