“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.
Isao Takahata’s approach to animation is far removed from the lightness and heart present in Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Acknowledging that the medium speaks most fluently with the young and imaginative, Takahata refuses to pull punches or water down the grief present throughout his 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies. Featured as the second half of an extraordinary double bill alongside My Neighbor Totoro at London’s “Studio Ghibli Forever,” the film is an anti war production aimed at the young, ensuring that Japan’s brutal and somber history is never brushed aside or its many mistakes forgotten and erased.
Grave of the Fireflies is probably the only animated film to open with a child narrating his own death. Seita and his young sister, Setsuko, were hit terribly by WWII. As the children of a naval officer, the single-parent household crumbles when their mother is taken from them in a firebombing. Alone and on the verge of adulthood, Seita is subject to ridicule for his lack of loyalty to the war effort and for choosing to raise his little sister instead of subjecting himself to menial labor. Neglected by a society that is so superficially tight knit and united against a common enemy, Seita and Setsuko fall victim to the extreme pressures of poverty and the unfathomable maturity that comes with life on the fringes.
Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s short story of the same name, Grave of the Fireflies describes war from a viewpoint most readily understood by a child. Evoking the emotional weight of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (also based on a novel, or in this case, a series of novels by Junpei Gomikawa) and the post-war injustices of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, Takahata’s film discusses war from a mindset of innocence and from one of stubborn indigence. As the trusty narrator, Seita is a boy on the cusp of manhood, and his choices to care for his younger sister come from both a standpoint of love and from one of least resistance. A shining example of unselfish kindness, at least when it comes to his little sister, the teenage boy’s confusion and social disorientation are what leads him astray. Tenuous relationships with his calloused and war-hardened aunt start to crumble after she learns of her sister-in-law’s death, and her need to confront and accuse the hangers on (as she sees them) lead to a break in the family. Seita’s pride and inability to address these difficult confrontations lead him to forge his own path through life — it is his inexperience that betrays him.
The blind kindness Seita shows to his little sister acts as the emotional core to the film, with Setsuko’s gentle innocence its shining elated center. His own in tatters, Seita’s need to protect his sister’s still in-tact childhood is the driving force behind his continued struggle into hopelessness. At one point doing literal summersaults in order to distract Setsuko from the infinite horrors of childhood homelessness, the unflappable protagonist is willing to go to any lengths in order to care, as he sees fit, for his sister — except when that means swallowing his pride and apologizing to his aunt, or simply admitting that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Perhaps a moral lost on kids, Seita’s flawed humanity will certainly stick with more grounded viewers.
Beauty still plays a major role in this third Ghibli installment, yet it is not the vivid landscape or intoxicating aerial versions forged by its predecessors. Instead, Takahata concentrates on the simple beauty of moments as they pass. Whether fireflies floating on the summer breeze or the view of a lake from a house abandoned before the war, beauty will always exist in the world. This bewitching quality of nature stands as source of wonder; the unchanging quality of which a constant reminder of our own ugliness. The cycles of war and peace, destruction and restoration, and kindness and apathy are facets humans have imposed on the world, and like the desperate citizens of war-torn Japan, the world’s indifference to humanity’s pain gives a perspective to our earthly struggle. We are all equal in the unflinching presence of nature.
Showing children as gravely and honestly as possible and the foundations upon which their country was built, Isao Takahata knows that to lighten the mood or insert false happiness into his film would do a great disservice to viewers and their ancestors alike. A gripping drama whose defiant youths refuse to bow to war, hunger and indifference, Grave of the Fireflies is a film for children to learn the harsh realities of life so that they can do all in their power to prevent the cycle from continuing.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.