Few movies have the power of reaching out to the deepest part in you, shaking you to the core and leaving you a better person. Grave of the Fireflies is one such movie. Easily one of the best animated movies, it becomes all too relevant in recent times when the world watches the horror of war unfold in one of our neighbouring countries. One of the most touching and gut-wrenching movies on war, its message seems very timely.
Don’t be fooled by the Studio Ghibli tag. This is not your regular feel-good Ghibli movie about magic and mysticism. It is a war movie, a devastating and impactful one at that. With one of the most powerful openings to a film, Grave of the Fireflies is about two orphaned siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their struggle and desperation in the final months of World War II, when the US was dropping bombs on Japan in the last effort to end the war. What makes the movie all the more compelling is the fact that it is directed by Isao Takahata who himself survived airstrikes in his hometown, and is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical book, thus bringing the catastrophe out, all too clearly. The movie brings out the arbitrary and ruthless impact of war on humans in a manner achieved by very few, making the Ernest Hemingway quote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” echo that much stronger.
The movie masterfully portrays how war and its after-effects have the power to strip us of our humanity while at the same time billeting so much humanity and beauty, making it all the more heartbreaking. There is no glamorisation of heroic struggles, which is generally the go-to strategy of most war films, rather it solely focuses on personal, individual struggles. It does not shy away from reminding us that love is not always enough. While set in Japan, it is relevant for any war-torn region whose people undergo irreversible suffering and devastation. While we watch another group of people in a nation run for their life, we feel the powerful message of the movie resounding. Those who start the war, don’t often suffer the consequences. It is the helpless members of the war-torn cities who do. Setsuko is the perfect example of how the guiltless are entangled in the horrors of war. A four-year-old, who loves life, is forced to make sense of and live in a conflict she cannot even comprehend.
The movie is also an important lesson on the destructive power of blind patriotism. While your nationalistic zeal can be weaponised and used to make you commit acts of unimaginable horror on the innocent, the film depicts its small-scale impact, being used by citizens to justify their selfish and immoral actions. How a blind sense of nationalism can impede you from looking at things clearly. While loving your country is not a bad thing, thinking it is superior to all, is. Seita is an example of one obsessed with nationalistic sentiment and pride. He grew up witnessing the fetishisation of military force, power and war and aspired to contribute to it. One scene even has him imagining himself shooting at imaginary planes and winning the war, defeating his nation’s enemies and protecting his country and his family. Deluded by the might of the military, he puts his complete faith in it rather than the people around and by the time he realises his mistake, it is too late. While the Second World War saw the most disastrous result of uncontrolled nationalism, it is something we see even today, increasing more by the day. The movie criticises these jingoistic ideals.
The fireflies are as symbolic as they are part of the narrative, representing both the cascading firestorm from the sky burning down cities and the hope and persistence. It is a visual metaphor of the firebombs dropping from the sky and of optimism. The movie reminded me of another wartime movie Life Is Beautiful, which also portrayed the contrast between how an innocent child versus an adult views the world of war.
The film leaves an impact on your psyche. It affected me in a manner no other war-themed movie had. It is not a film you take lightly or watch for fun. With its beautiful lead characters, heart-wrenching storytelling and powerful theme, the movie commands your attention, holds your interest and affects you in ways you don’t expect. With its captivating animation, you surrender to the story very quickly, losing yourself to one of the most intimate and heartbreaking portrayals of war on screen. You come out of the movie, if you can brave it until the end, a better person.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.