The animated film Grave of the Fireflies by Japanese director Isao Takahata is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s autobiographical novel and is an attempt to reconsider and revise Japan’s traumatic experience of World War Two. Written in 1967 and shot in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies shows the war through the eyes and experience of two children. The protagonist’s choices serve as a commentary and vivid illustration for the wrongful actions of the whole nation as well as the tragic personal histories of the author and director. Although Grave of the Fireflies is a private, personal experience, it extrapolates it on the public event of WWII and uses the occasion to help the nation process the tragedy.
First of all, the subject of loss in war is close for both heroes Nosaka and Takahata. Nosaka had to take care of his sixteen months sister who died from malnutrition, and in his turn Takahata experienced a similar separation from his family during bombings with one of his siblings (Goldberg 40). In this regard, the author uses his book for an atonement and a kind of correction of the past. Nosaka had felt depressed for all his life and his failure to take a proper care of his sister. He felt that he was guilty of his survival and, therefore, the protagonist of Grave of the Fireflies was deprived of his drawbacks. For example, Nosaka was much more selfish and shared his meals with his sister only after he was full himself and did not comfort her in her distress and even could slap her instead (Clark). Thus, telling the story of Seita and Setsuko Nosaka rewrites his history.
Before and during the Second World War Japan was very arrogant in its superiority and such a mood was fueled by patriotism intensified by propaganda. In this way, Takahata allows the viewer to get glimpses of Japan’s patriotism in words and actions of the characters and people around them. By the way, Japan has a communal culture and the good of the community is valued higher than a personal welfare. Seita is wearing the uniform at the beginning of the film but he carries no duty so one may conclude that “he has chosen a personal preservation over the community” (Goldberg 44). In other instances “the language of nationalism” is used “to cover [one’s] selfishness” (Goldberg 45). Knowing that the military gets good food ration, the aunt encourages Seita to write to his father and get some financial support from him. Then the aunt persuades Seita to sell his late mother’s kimonos to buy food so he could be strong to fight. Thus, sacrifices are made for the life and health of people but in fact for “the survival of the nation” also (Goldberg 45). Eventually nationalism does not help people because they choose the tactics of “each for oneself” and the personal loss and public destructions are so great that people lose their ability to compassion and do not help the boy. In the long run, Seita’s wrong and unwise choice resulted in his and his sister’s death. Relying on his strength he leaves the unwelcoming house of his aunt and takes Setsuko to live in a dugout. Unfortunately, he is unable to provide food for both of them, and when he goes to the bank to withdraw money from his mother’s bank account, it is too late for Setsuko.
Even though Seita is not aware of Japan’s defeat, the author makes it clear to the audience through the metaphorical symbolism of fireflies. Early on Takahata visually links fireflies with fire, bombings, and airplanes. Therefore, when Setsuko buries the fireflies that she found out in the morning it serves as a metaphor for an inevitable demise of the Japanese navy and aviation as well as the children in the story. The symbol of fireflies is complicated because, apart from being linked by Takahata to Japan’s military potency, it is a ubiquitous symbol of childhood and being carefree. The children run after fireflies forgetting about the war and being happy and unworried. Whereas through this image the director suggests to “reconnect with that which has been lost”, it also implies that this state of serenity and light-heartedness can be achieved only by other generations, not by those who survived the war (Goldberg 51). Visually it can be seen in the overlapping of the image of fireflies hovering over a night meadow and air raid tinting everything in the red light. Just as the fireflies are not disturbed by the airplanes dropping bombs, today’s Japan can only read about the events and observe them from afar without an active participation.
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Eventually, Seita, as a young adult, during the WWII is constructing his identity. He tries to take after his father. As a result, Seita recalls his uniform-clad figure and wants to emulate him wearing a uniform. Similarly to how the mother’s identity lies in her traditional kimono and it hurts Seita to sell it, his father’s identity is in the uniform and the fact that he is a military. Consequently, for Seita he is omnipotent and the boy expects his dad to be instrumental in winning the war. Therefore, when they are too pressed by their angry aunt, Seita decides that he is able to take care of his sister on his own. At the bottom of his decision one can see his wounded pride and his aunt’s reproaches on his failure to do any social good such as army service or job. In their dugout, Seita attempts to play the “man” by looking for food while Setsuko is the “woman” of the house. When Setsuko starves to death at the end of the film, Seita’s despair at his inability to save her is symbolically reflected in the stormy weather.