Grave of The Fireflies

Grave of The Fireflies: One of The Saddest Movies Ever Made

Written and directed by the late Isao Takahata and released in 1988, Grave of The Fireflies is an anime movie based on a short story published in 1967, written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The story inspired by the true story of the short story writer himself when the United States bombarded Japan in 1945, precisely in the city of Kobe, and killed the younger sibling of the writer.

Grave of The Fireflies, or Hotaru No Haka, is perhaps one of the best but the saddest war drama films ever made. Many agree to this statement, but many also agree that trauma that might be caused by watching it make the audience don’t dare to watch it again in the future.

Many elements in Ghibli movies that make me dare to say that Studio Ghibli is at a higher level than Disney or Pixar. Because of its ‘brutal’ honesty, raises issues between life and humanity that are still valid to this day like Grave of The Fireflies. Even nowadays conflict countries, like in Yemen to Afghanistan, Iraq to Palestine, and refugee issues like Rohingya and Syria, surely there are victims just like the two main characters in the Grave of The Fireflies,  Seita, and Setsuko Yokokawa. Or even worst.

1. Huge Responsibility of a Teenager

In Grave of The Fireflies, we have been told the ending from the beginning through the opening narration by the main actor: The death of the main character, a teenage boy named Seita Yokokawa. Seita’s first narration: “September 21, 1945, it was the night I died,” is wickedly inhaled our first breath, and the gusts of resilience, because of this sad, miserable, sad story. When we are shown his spirit was watching the last seconds of his body stretching out of his body from another dimension.

Then we are shown a 4-year-old hooded girl also witnessed Seita’s death. Seita’s spirit then approached this little girl, squeezed her shoulder. And from that moment we are told, that they are both spirits. And we are shown right away that they must be siblings, and both will die as the story goes. Their spirits are replaying the sad scenes of their lives from another dimension, which makes our hearts sank to the bottom.

It is said that when American airstrikes bombarded Kobe, Seita Yokokawa, and his sister, Setsuko Yokokawa, separated from their mother. In the war situation, Seita was forced to take over the function of his parents to look after his younger sister.

From a very young age of 14 years, Seita has become the backbone of the family, amid war, with food shortages and fear to get killed. Setsuko always asking Seita, where was their mother. And with confidence, Seita said the mother was in a temporary shelter at a school nearby, and they were heading there.

2. Seita’s Trauma

Unexpectedly when they arrived, Seita just found the mother suffered from severe burn injuries and was about to die. Like a good brother, Seita didn’t want to say the truth to Setsuko, and he said their mother had to be treated for a while because she was still sick.

Perhaps many say that Setsuko who will later die in the future and experienced malnutrition is the most pitiful character in Grave of The Fireflies. But, I, felt more sorry for her brother, Seita, starting from his responsibility for Setsuko, watching his mother dying with terrible conditions and dead, and bringing his mother’s cremation ashes back to his aunt’s house, but at the same time, he must always be cheerful in the presence of Setsuko. Seita is a very tragic central figure.

And war certainly isn’t far from these kinds of things.

Grave of The Fireflies: One of The Saddest Movie Ever Made

When Seita tried to cheer up his sister, they were also waiting for news of their father’s return, Kiyoshi Yokokawa, who was in the navy during World War II where Seita and Setsuko tried to write to him several times, but they never received a reply from the father. We already suspect that the father might also be killed.

3. Trying to survive

When they lived in their aunt’s house, Seita and Setsuko were ostracized by their aunt. His aunt felt that her niece, especially Seita, did not have any contribution to the country. In the middle of a war. Amid a humanitarian crisis.

In a situation of real concern, the aunt is proud of her child who is still working as well as her husband. Whereas Seita, who according to the aunt’s thought was old enough, should have done something. Work, or go to war.

Even when her aunt finally found out that Seita’s mother is dead, the aunt is still arrogant and doesn’t care. In my opinion, the writer of the story,  Akiyuki Nosaka, created the aunt’s character as a representation of Japanese society at that time when the war was taking place.

After being cornered by the aunt, Seita finally decided to buy their own rice, along with Setsuko, from selling his mother’s kimono. But again, they were still disliked by the aunt.

The character of the aunt is very well projected by Isao Takahata, as a mid-character. I don’t want to say that the aunt is antagonistic. Because the antagonist in this film is war itself. Everyone is out of food. Everyone suffers. The antagonist here is circumstances, not people.

And Seita’s aunt maybe, like most of us, who will save ourselves and families first, then others. Seita and Setsuko are other responsibilities that she must bear unexpectedly, especially if the aunt is not too close to their family.

In these times, we are shown the siblings’ happiness. This is precisely what makes this story closer to real-life because they are only children, who don’t know anything.

Even when Seita watched his mother died, Seita did not cry, because the situation was indeed at war. Seita already thought that everyone had the same chance to die. Seita was forced to be mature. Being a grown-up too fast.

4. Fireflies

Seita and Setsuko finally decided to get out of their aunt’s house, in a dazed direction. They were living in a shelter at the edge of a lake. Which was beautiful, but is not worth living. But they are still cheerful.

What strikes me is when they found lots of fireflies and make the fireflies as lighting at night for their slum dark rooms. The fireflies here are also can be an analogy of bomb-carrying planes that will destroy cities.

When the fireflies died, Setsuko suddenly became sad, and buried the fireflies, and said, she was making a grave, and she also said: “Mother also needs a grave…” Setsuko told Seita, that she already knew that their mother was dead, that Seita was hiding the truth, that their aunt said her mother was gone. Hearing this, the fortress of solitude that was built by Seita finally collapsed, Seita’s memory of the corpse of the victim’s including his mother’s body, which was thrown, made him fall into the deepest pit of depression when he heard Setsuko’s confession.

Grave of The Fireflies: One of The Saddest Movies Ever Made

The many fireflies buried by Setsuko are a reflection of the bodies that were thrown into the cremation site that Seita witnessed directly with his own eyes.

Seita who collapsed finally cried for the first time. Seita can’t hold anymore. This is why I actually feel more sorry for Seita because Seita has to witness everything. Seita suggests tp Setsuko to make a pilgrimage to her mother’s grave one day when everything is okay.

At this scene, I feel that life is not fair, when there are children must feel this way. This is why I think, Ghibli has different levels from Disney or Pixar. Ghibli vividly described the real situation in their films, such as the burning of mounting corpses, or when Setsuko saw corpses on the beach when they had just laughed playing by the waves.

5. Malnutrition and Eating Frogs

When they still lived at the lake and ran out of food, Seita stole vegetables just to survive in the middle of the war. This is basic survival. When they ran out of food, they also decided to eat toads, and because they ate toads too often, Setsuko ended up experiencing poor nutrition and diarrhea.

Seita who stole was finally caught and had to be taken to the police station. And when he was still bruised from being beaten, seen by Setsuko who was weak, haven’t been eating for days, having diarrhea, made Seita collapse once again in a depression state.

Even when Setsuko brought to the doctor, Seita was angry, because his sister was not given any medicine. Seita gets angry when the doctor says to make things better is to give Setsuko nutritious food.

Seita was angry when they can’t do it due to the circumstances. Seita gave Setsuko ice shards from the ground, which was another scene that cut into the hearts of the audience.

And as long as the war continues, whether it is a war between nations or a civil war intervened by other countries, not only do children lose their parents, but there will be many children who suffer from malnutrition.

6. The Death of Setsuko

At this time, Seita, still wished his father was still alive, and when at the bank, Seita heard the news that Japan had surrendered unconditionally and the entire fleet had sunk, which caused Seita to finally admitted that his father had also died, which was why his father did not reply to their letters.

Seita was angry at the situation. Why? Why was after their struggle, Japan surrendered unconditionally? This also made Seita’s personality rise to a much higher degree, than any other children who do not experience conditions like him.

No decent children deserved to be in their position…

When Seita returned and finally brought food, perhaps from Japanese government assistance, he found Setsuko was chewing marbles. Another scene that pokes our hearts. Then when Setsuko offered Seita rice ball which was just ‘stone’ balls, I can only be in silence, and maybe this is a scene that most people will stop watching the film. After Seita gave Setsuko the watermelon, Setsuko never woke up again.

7. Seita’s Death

There were no more tears left in Seita’s water-glands when he cremated Setsuko’s corpse. What accompanied him were thousands of fireflies and their happy memories, which were beautiful, until Seita followed his sister, and mother, leaving the world behind later on.

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