"Only the dead see the end of the war"
Throughout the movie we experience the every day lives of war victims, Seita and Setsuko, and their challenge to survive after losing their mom and home to an American bombardment. On a surface level the movie is a heartbreaking tale of civilians suffering because of the cruelty of man kind. However, through further inspection the movie reveals itself to be a detailed inspection of humanity's tendency to wage war on itself.
Story and Characters
This movie is strictly emotional. it focuses just slightly on the events that shape the world the movie takes place in. Instead it expects the viewer to have some kind of reaction to the events and characters. This is the result of clever screenwriting. The reason the tear-jerking ending and cheerful scenes work so well is because the viewer is dragged into this situation and experiences the effects of war first hand.
The merging of daily life and misfortune, as portrayed in the beach scene were Setsuko finds a dead body after going swimming, is what makes this movie one of the most realistic war dramas. It is not an action-packed movie that focuses on building tension like Dunkirk. Not that there is any problem with taking your movie in that direction, but sometimes it can give a false account of how war really is. At no point is war idolized nor glorified. This adds to the emotional impact of the movie as the viewer can easily imagine himself in a similar situation.
The first act does a good job of creating a bond between the two children and the viewer. We never know who they were before the war, but it doesn't really matter. Their home and mother are taken away from them mercilessly during the very beginning of the movie. Because the viewer sees the main protagonists in their most vulnerable state, and the fact that they are children, the empathy the viewer feels for them is increased. Without this foundation the rest of the movie would fall apart, this sort of exposition is needed so the viewer can have some form of emotional response to the succeeding events.
This lack of character development is often criticized. Although many characters in the movie are superficial and one dimensional, this doesn't decrease the quality of the writing. The fact that the movie doesn't focus on characterization as much as other war dramas helps it differentiate itself from the rest. Other movies like Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan have an approach similar to that of a character study. In The Grave of the Fireflies the writers focus on tackling broader concepts and emotions such as pride, grief, conflict, selfishness, and even the ethics of war. And it does this expertly through well thought character actions, even if these characters have little to no personality of their own. Even with very simple characters a metacontextual level of storytelling can be experienced in The Grave of the Fireflies.
This can be best explained through the false sense of security that is created from the very beginning. The viewers expectations of a gritty war movie are quickly shattered during the first thirty minutes of the movie. This motive adds a dynamic element to the pace of the movie. A sort of parallelism between the characters experiencing war and the viewer experiencing the movie is created as our expectations are subverted as well as theirs. We expected explosives to crash into earth, but only a few torches fell down (this is in reference to one of the opening scenes). However, fire bombing is just as dangerous as a carpet bombing can be. Even though our characters/viewers survived the initial bombardment, they still suffered the psychological trauma of the city burning down. The viewer experiences this by watching a lighthearted (for a war drama) first and second act and then watching the death of Seita and Setsuko. We see the children play around, eat well, enjoy life with their aunt, and the death of their mother is avoided constantly. However, by the third act life turns into a daily struggle for these children. Ironically, war has already ended by now.
Apart from the metacontextual and emotional value that the movie has to offer, it still is a detailed analysis work by Studio Ghibli regarding the essence of conflict and war. Seita and Setsuko are not only the vessels for which the viewer can project themselves, they also serve as the personification the belligerent nature of man. They are two sides of the same coin. Seita is representative of pride, and Setsuko of naivety. They are also representative of Imperial Japan during the 1940s.
Humanity often declares war on itself to achieve or prove something. However, the director proposes the question: is it worth it? Seita is an independent and strong willed young teenager. He is definitely someone worthy of recognition, as proven by his ability to take care of himself and his sister for so long. However, his pride and imperialistic view on life corrupted him and converted him into the cause of Setsuko's death. He could have asked his aunt for help, or gotten the money from the bank earlier, but he didn't. He instead decided to profit from the bombardments and steal from the local people. Some may propose these actions are justified since he was inexperienced and/or forced to do it due to the situation. These are the same reasons why humans go to war and kill each other. We are foolish and blinded by an idealism of "self-defense."
It is here were naivety plays its role. Setsuko lived and died without ever understanding the war her country was involved in. In the same way we do not realize someone is on the receiving end of that artillery barrage. Everyone is a causality of war, there is no honor or good in it. And still we behave like children and raise our arms against each other. War did not bring glory nor fame to anyone, only suffering. Much like it happened to Setsuko and Seita, even if they never saw any real conflict. No one is able to escape the destructive power of war.
It is through this dynamic between Setsuko and Seita that Studio Ghibli criticizes the decisions made by the Japanese army during World War II. Seita and his father, a navy general, are characterized as fanatics of the Great Japanese Army. Seita wishes to be like his father and often mentions how much he admires the navy. The director wants the viewer to see this type of behavior and challenge it. We should challenge the fanaticism that led Japan to join a nonsensical war, sacrifice its soldiers for the sake of honor, and for refusing to surrender after suffering several carpet bombings and even an atomic bomb.
"War culture" as a whole is criticized in a similar way. Side characters are personifications of terrible behaviors we practice during times of adversity. The movie encourages us to challenge those who are too selfish to share their sugar canes. To challenges those who force others to support the army. To challenge those who hide in their mansions and turn a blind eye to the destruction just around the corner. To challenge those who disrespect the poor and make fun of their homes. (All of these can be seen represented by a side character in the movie).
However, human behavior is not that black and white. The existence of good and evil is still uncertain. And the creators of the movie recognize this. In the same way we do not blame Seita for the death of Setsuko and instead blame the "enemy", whoever that my be, we shouldn't condemn the rest of the antagonists. We need to recognize that such a thing as grey morality exists. In reality none of the characters in the move are neither heroes nor villains. Seita is not a complete victim and he isn't perfect either; shouldn't he have helped in his aunt's house instead of relaxing and playing with his sister all the time? As well as the selfish aunt and townspeople aren't completely evil. The viewer should not blame either of them for Setsuko's death, since it would only be counterproductive. The Grave of the Fireflies doesn't propose a solution to this dilemma nor human conflict, but it presents a new point of view to the table.
Animation and Sound
The movie looks and sounds incredible. There is no denying that Studio Ghibli has excellent quality. Character animation and movement is fluid and dynamic. Shot compositions are beautiful and never fail to impress the viewer. Character design is stellar, although they might not look so unique, Setsuko and Seita are iconic characters from Studiio Ghibi thanks to their creative costume design.
The sound design is astonishing and the music is always a pleasure to listen to. The songs (and shot composition) increment the emotional response in most of the scenes.“Home! Sweet Home!” from John Howard Payne’s 1823 opera was an excellent choice by the sound designer for the flashback scenes. It takes the scene from being good to captivating.
However the most impressive work done in the animation department would be the use of imagery to further develop the underlying themes in the movie. Seita and Setsuko were made children to represent the childish behavior that humans participate in during times of conflict.
The almost burned down school symbolizes the moment our protagonists are stripped away from their innocence. This concept is further explored when Setsuko had to bury the fireflies. She was just a child and still had to bear with the death of her mother and had no time to mourn her.
The unjust effects war has on those affected by it.
The fake sense of honor that arrives from fighting in war. Also, there is various mentions and visual representation of kamikaze pilots, adding to the critique of Japanese fanaticism towards fighting in a war.
Even with often childish and playful scenes it still represents the crude reality and danger of war.
The Grave of the Fireflies is a strong emotional roller coaster that is sure to impress audiences. It is at its core a war drama that deals with grief and the cruel reality of war and the challenges civilians face during times of conflict. It accomplishes this through expert writing, well-thought screenwriting, beautiful sound design, and astonishing animation. However, it is also an in depth analysis of Imperial Japan and the nature of war.