I was slightly skeptical of the overwhelming critical acclaim Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies received. Having seen the film, I can say for certain that it is recommended. It emphasizes the immense potential an animated film carries in evoking sorrow, outrage, and frustration in a spectator – a far cry from its’ usual comedic purposes. Personally, I was close to tears more than once; the experience reminding me of the emotional response that American Beauty (1999) had evoked in its’ audience upon release.
The status quo of Isao Takahata’s Japan is one of despair and moral subversion during its’ final months before the country’s fateful surrender during the Second World War. The mise-en-scene of a janitor attempting to steal from a dying Seita lying against a pillar in a Kobe subway brings forth the theme of hypocrisy to the viewer. This theme is also present in the interactions Seita and Setsuko have with their greedy, haughty, and selfish aunt, who admonishes, sidelines, and starves the young orphans who come to stay at her home. Though the sister of their absentee Naval officer father, their aunt reveals herself to be incredibly jealous of their military background, making several comments about the family being “spoiled”.
Role reversal is an equally important theme; Seita is shown asking the emergency camp doctor whether his mother can “get some medicine”, a question that a parent would usually ask about a child. The film follows the lives of a working class family in Kobe, led by the teenaged Seita, who is left to protect his younger sister Setsuko, a toddler, after the death of their mother. After their mother’s body is cremated in a mass grave, the two move into the house of their unnamed aunt, who reverses the role of caretaker to live off their food and funds. The mise-en-scene of Setsuko and Seita bathing together, despite being of different ages and genders, is a motif of the dysfunction that now pervades their relationship.
Death, loss, and trauma are obviously pervasive themes throughout the film; the mise-en-scene of a bruised Seita, having being beaten by a farmer for having stolen his crops to nourish Setsuko highlighting a dehumanizing quality to society during the war. Seita suffers the biggest losses in the form of his mother, his sister, his innocence, and his youth. Setsuko suffers the additional loss of the fireflies that had temporarily managed to perk both the siblings up. The slight dullness observable in the eyes of the two siblings could be considered a consequence of the trauma; both are shocked to see the city of Kobe reduced to rubble, the skies on fire, their family destroyed. Although the Sakuma fruit drops – a recurring motif – the soothing beach water, the stories, and the games they play offer temporary respite, they are clearly in dire need of help.
The mise-en-scene of the clear blue sky juxtaposed with the destruction on the land is ironic, perhaps juxtaposing the endurance of nature with the transience of man-made structures, which were all destroyed as a result of the American air raids. Women take on the roles of nurturer and provider, but also the roles of exploiter and abuser. There is no “male gaze” in the film; it is a silent observer of a political tug-of-war that havocs destruction on the land. It observes the war through the eyes of children – their innocence shattered due to the war, as seen in the mise-en-scene of the physical darkness that engulfs the screen after the death of their mother, and after Setsuko’s death. That the jolly, helpful, stubborn, caring, yet innocent siblings are forced to grapple with irreparable loss due to no fault of their own is perhaps the biggest travesty.