How ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ changed our perception of War

From the limited exposure that I have had of what we call as ‘japanese anime’, I could form a very clear inference that there is a starkly different method of story-telling in the Japanese culture. Anime, as some of you might have guessed, is just a shortened version of the word ‘animation’ but over the years, Anime has come to be associated with animation that has, specifically, been produced in Japan. And it’s no wonder, that japanese animation has been given its very own name, owing to the unique eccentricity with which the stories are told. Some of the most reveled ideas in iconic films have held their foundation in anime.

vlccap-4005307One of the many nightmarish sequences from Paprika

For instance, the concept of ‘dream within a dream within a dream’ came from the classic feature Paprika which was a sci-fi story revolving around a group of neuroscientists and a cop trying to retrieve a device called the DC Mini which has the ability to show other people’s dreams to its user and manipulate it according to their will. If Inception stretched your imagination to breaking point, Paprika would become an affliction in your mind with its psychedelic imagery and some of the most outrageous ideas you could ever think of. This is the very essence of anime. Pushing the boundaries of ideas and not just animation. 

1083_019812B.jpgA still from Spirited Away

Among the galaxy of artists and animators in the anime universe, Studio Ghibli stands out as the godfather to the rich legacy. I was introduced to the studio’s work through its 2001 production Spirited Away which opened my eyes towards what can really be done with hand-drawn animation. And this, brings us to one of the most profound films that I have ever come across in my 15 odd years of watching and experiencing films as an art and not just entertainment. Writer and Director, Isao Takahata’s 1988 film Hotaru no haka or Grave of the Fireflies is based on the tumultuous time of World War II in 1945 when Japan was under intermittent attack from the United States Air Force. Adapted from true events as documented in a short story by the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film revolves around a brother and sister who have lost both their parents to the war and are struggling to survive in an apocalyptic backdrop where people are scrounging for food and other resources.


The fear in the children’s eyes speaks volumes about the trauma war induces in people 


Hellfire rains on their village of Kobe as people keep hiding like rodents under temporary war-shelters made to barely withstand the bombings. With their father away fighting the enemy, Seita and his little sister Setsuko, make a run for one of the shelters with their mother but get separated from her in the ensuing stampede. After wandering the streets and hiding under bridges in panic for several hours, they reach a make-shift hospital hoping to find their mother safe and alive there. Seita’s aunt, who had been able to bring her family safely to the hospital, breaks the sad news to him that his mother had been struck by debris and had succumbed to the burn injuries. With a hope that their father would be back any day, Seita and Setsuko move in with their aunt’s family. As days pass by and food becomes scarce, their frustrated aunt asks them to leave and fend for themselves. Seita gathers his hurt self-esteem and sets out with Setsuko on his shoulders, dragging a small trolley with their belongings, trying to find a place to sleep in. 

If you want to truly understand the consequence of war, see it in the eyes of children. Being a toddler, Setsuko doesn’t know the concept of war but through her innocent observations, she understands that people were dying, she understands that their parents were never going to return. Seita, who is no more than a mere teenager himself, takes on the responsibility of a parent and makes the well-being of Setsuko his life’s sole purpose. He finds a small cave near a pond and makes a cozy home for Setsuko to stay in while he begs and pleads people for some food in exchange for any kind of menial work that was available. When that doesn’t work out, he would sneak into fields in the dead of night and steal vegetables just so that they could live another couple of days with food. Takahata strikes a solemn balance between the destitute children and their unconditional love for each other through which they try to find happiness in a world devoid of emotions. When the cave would go dark in the nights, Seita would catch fireflies and bring them to Setsuko as a symbol of hope that one day everything would go back to normal, they would live in their house again and their father would come back to embrace them. 


As you watch the two children, wasting away in front of your eyes, the futility of war strikes you hard in your chest. Sitting in our cozy houses, we hear about political ideologies clashing at a far-flung corner of a world with a certain statistic of how many people had died, and then continuing with our dinner as if everything were normal. Takahata’s narrative unveils the ugliness that lies behind the thousands of unreported stories that never reach us. And this is the story that keeps on repeating itself year after year as families are destroyed and children are murdered with little regard to the future. Seita and Setsuko are representative of every child that has been taken away as a mere casualty of war. The impact hadn’t seemed real until the picture of Ailan Kurdi was shown to the world. Time had stopped for a moment as realization washed over us all – “What have we done !” You start asking yourself if any religion, sect or political ideology is worth destroying the innocence of our children. 

Migrant boat accident in Turkey
Ailan Kurdi opened our eyes to the truth horror of war. RIP to the dear soul. 

The life of Seita and Setsuko also brings forward the question of how humanity is reduced to a hollow shell during wartime as people become apathetic to the plight of others. The very thought that you can go on living your life, for the fact that none of your relatives is dying is the lowest level of decadence that mankind can ever fall into. If there is ever a time when humanity needs to be upheld, it’s in times like these. There is no political agenda that should stand in the way of providing refuge to the people rent apart by war. Grave of the Fireflies provides a perspective that is rarely found in conventional war films. When you watch Soldiers ripping through the enemy on screen, it demands context for the viewer to feel empathetic. And even then, the outcome is something which is decided by the amount of ammunition or force a party carries. It feels normal, something that is supposed to happen, even though it may not be the best way to solve a difference in opinion. But films like the one in perspective, give you clarity and dispel all doubt on how ineffective violence is. It’s like hiding the abuse written on your walls by painting it black. It hides the insult but makes your house no better than it was before. Similar films like The Pianist and books like Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl, all convey the same sentiment to us albeit in different forms. Grave of the Fireflies remains relevant even after two decades. It is perhaps one of the most important films which has the power to influence and sensitize the agents of war. Animation may feel like a mere caricature of the world but there are times when such stories are able to evoke an emotion that may have been lying dormant within you and Takahata does exactly that. 

Every time there is a decision where violence seems like the only way out, we should try to bring the image of our children to mind. Is what we are doing worth it ? Would this give them a safe future ? Is this the legacy we want to pass on to them ? There is always a choice and it is simple…

Also watch: Film critic Roger Ebert talks about Grave of the Fireflies


Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of the films and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever. 

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