I think part of my hesitancy was the hard facts of the plot—two children, a brother and sister, try to survive the aftermath of air raids in war-torn WW2 Japan, only to die of starvation. It sounds so stark, and the movie is rough and intense at times, but there are also so many moments of beauty and courage and joy. It is haunting and tragic and poetic. True art. I am glad I finally made myself watch Grave of the Fireflies.
There are so many wonderful scenes—Two little fireflies meander their way across the screen, their other companions dead or dying, foreshadowing the chidrens' fate and what has happened to their friends and neighbors in Kobe. Like the incandescent fireflies, the lives of Seita, the older brother, and Setsuko, his younger sister, appear brief and aimless. When a group of young boys discover their home—the siblings have been camping in an abandoned bomb shelter—they run around, poking fun at the meager traces of their existence, but the children are unseen, nowhere to be found, as if they were already ghosts. Setsuko's lifeless doll is often shown lying on a bed or the ground, her color gradually fading.
The film is also a fairytale of sorts—the wicked witch/stepmother is an aunt who wants to steal food from the newly-orphaned children and send them out into the world to starve. People they encounter, like the farmer, or the doctor, who should be helpful, instead are just a hindrance, similar to the unhelpful dwarf in Snow White and Rose Red. There are a few sympathetic people, who at least understand their predicament, but this little Hansel and Gretel will never make it out of the woods.
As I was waching I kept wondering why Seita didn't just go get his mother's money out of the bank and buy them food earlier. But he was living in a nightmare fantasy world—the expectation of grown-ups helping him; of their home, the magical cave of the fireflies, being a safe haven; of their father coming to rescue them. When Seita finally pulls himself together to accept how ill his little sister is, it is too late. Setsuko is already too far gone on the path to starvation. It is clear from the montage we see while she is slowly dying and Seita is returning with food, that she has been left alone too much while her brother has tried to navigate this strange new world. A small starving child, left alone to put inappropriate things like rocks and buttons—anything—in her empty little stomach.
Grave of the Fireflies was based on the real-life experiences of Akiyuki Nosaka and his feelings of guilt at the death of his sister. It is amazing to me, and uplifting, to watch how hard Seita tries to make his little sister happy, to give her some joy, in the midst of all the horror that surrounds them. Unfortunately, it is also this escape from reality that he tries to provide that dooms them. It is tragic.
The first few moments of the film reveal that Seita has starved to death. The rest of the film is a flashback of sorts—memories of his parents, his sister. We don't really see how he got to the train station where he died all the way from the countryside where his little sister died, but it doesn't matter. Their lives and deaths tell forgotten stories of the human fallout of war. Of two vulnerable orphans left to fend for themselves in a world where there is no place for them.
The dvd had some extras which added poignancy—especially commentary by a pre-cancer thumbs-uppin' Roger Ebert. Like the children in the film, he can't go home again, but his words and ideas can still touch us. He points out in his interview that even though it is clearly the United States that is causing the specific devastation in the film, the country is never named, except as "the enemy." This helps the film to be viewed more as a universal comment on what happens to the innocent in a conflict. It was probably through Ebert's recommendation that I first heard of Grave of the Fireflies, years ago. It took me a while, but I'm so glad I took his advice.