Grave of the Fireflies captures the duality of Japan's wartime self-image

In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.

Kobe, 1945. A young boy hunches against a train station pillar, tattered, malnourished and bruised. He is alone; his choked, dying breath dissipates meekly in the cavernous thoroughfare: “Setsuko”. His spirit watches over, bathed in red light, sturdily built and dressed in a firefighter’s uniform. “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.”

A station attendant carelessly throws into a field the dead boy’s sole possession, a rusted tin of fruit drops holding the last remains of Setsuko, the boy’s four-year-old sister. Her spirit emerges from the tin and she rapturously hugs her brother, surrounded by fireflies, comforted in his presence once more. They are together at last, and for eternity, in the intense red light of the afterlife.

But their blissful reunion masks a horrendous truth: this innocent little girl was killed by her brother.

Isao Takahata’s tragically poetic Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) is a war film detached from the heat of battle, focused on innocent people living in war-torn cities. A warning that bullets and bombs are not the only deadly forces in wartime; even among apparently innocent victims, blind patriotism and selfishness hold equal capacity to kill.

This is the message Takahata constructed for 1980s Japan, a culture that had emerged from a massive post-war reconstruction effort to become one of the world’s most powerful economies. But this successful rejuvenation concealed Japan’s inability to properly confront its past, in which it was the victim of the most destructive acts of war in human history but also inflicted unimaginable pain and suffering on other cultures.

The duality of Japan’s wartime history is personified in the boy, Seita, and his sister, who attempt to survive together during the aftermath of Kobe’s destruction by American forces. They scrounge for food wherever they can find it, set up a makeshift living quarters in a cave by a river, and delight in each other’s company, free from adult supervision and responsibility.

Setsuko is symbolic of innocent victimhood, a manifestation of purity, humanity and pre-war normalcy callously thrown into desperation by a conflict she cannot even understand. She giggles and screams when riding on Seita’s back as they flee the burning city, as if it were a game, and delights in forming rice balls and dumplings out of mud, her childish creativity turning malnutrition into a game of make-believe.

Seita, on the other hand, is an avatar for Japanese nationalist pride and military obsession. A pre-war flashback shows him wearing a uniform and emulating his father’s stern expression and stiff posture for a family portrait, a young child already striving to fulfill the ideal of the Japanese soldier. When he and Setsuko capture fireflies and use them to illuminate their cave — the dim, flickering lights swirling above them in the darkness — Seita imagines the pageantry of a naval review and the bright, stunning lights on the side of warships, like the one captained by his father. He imagines himself shooting at imaginary planes, winning the war against Japan’s enemies and protecting his nation and his family.

The firefly is a multivalent symbol in Takahata’s film, signifying the firebombs which rained down on Japan’s cities, the siblings’ joy and hope for survival, the transitory nature of young Setsuko’s life, and the regeneration of life through nature untouched by war. But in Seita’s imagination, shaped by nationalist propaganda, they are grotesque symbols of military might. Ideology has entrenched itself so deeply in Seita's psyche that he no longer sees the fireflies as a natural wonder, as Setsuko does, but as a symbol for Japan's military victory over its enemies.

Nationalism is an almost incomprehensibly powerful tool, wielded by politicians and military leaders to enact all manner of despicable acts on innocent people, and in the specific case of Japan during World War II, some of the most shocking acts of human cruelty imaginable. But in Takahata’s film, focused on innocent victims and far removed from the theatre of battle, nationalism is a convenient justification for selfishness, used not by politicians and military leaders but by regular citizens desperate to survive, even at the expense of others.

When Seita and Setsuko briefly stay with an aunt after their home is destroyed, she casually uses patriotic language to condemn Seita as undeserving of the food she cooks for him, and euphemistically refers to self-sacrifice as “cooperation”: “Do you think a lazy slug like you deserves the same as people who are working so hard for our nation? You’re old enough now to understand that everyone has got to cooperate”.

Similarly, Seita uses nationalism to justify his own selfishness shortly after. Rather than staying in Kobe and volunteering himself to the war effort, he shuns community, moves into the cave and waits for his father and the Japanese military machine to save the day. His nationalism actively suppresses his community spirit and turns him against his compatriots.

By the time he finally understands the seriousness of his predicament, and realises he must withdraw his parents’ money to buy food for an ailing Setsuko, it’s too late. The war is lost, figuratively and literally: Japan has surrendered, and Setsuko is on her way to a slow, starving, wrenching death.

Takahata condemns patriotism in the most powerful way: the boy, wrapped up in blind nationalistic delusion, watches his sister perish before his very eyes and does nothing. Innocence, personified as a four-year-old girl, literally withers and dies.

By telling this story in all its painful, wretched sadness, Takahata mourns for innocent victims of war but also condemns those who bring suffering upon others, be it through the desolation of military conflict or, more sinisterly, through the selfishness of ordinary people. Seita, destroyed by the loss of his sister, is incapable of recognising his own complicity in her death.

Japan, simultaneously the war’s greatest victim and its cruellest perpetrator, still carries the burden of a cultural self-image in denial. With Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata pierces Japan’s collective repression, exposing with haunting effect the duality of the nation’s role in World War II and its lasting impact on the Japanese people.

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