Grave of the Fireflies

April 30, 2004 on 11:39 pm | In Grave of the Fireflies | 1 Comment

In Japan, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro were shown as a double bill. Children would go on school excursions to see the two of them, and they are both very important films.

Grave of the Fireflies is about Seita, a boy whose mother dies in an air raid towards the end of World War II. He goes to live with his aunt, who becomes increasingly cold towards him and his four year old sister, Setsuko because they are not “helping the country”. It becomes too difficult for him to continue living there and as a result he takes Setsuko and goes to live in an abandoned bomb shelter.
He struggles to keep Setsuko and himself healthy in an increasingly inhospitable country without compromising his morals or damaging his pride.

Generally films like this are supposed to show the good times before the war, so that one may see the horrors unleashed and what not. This film is ninety minutes of unrelenting wartime agony. However, it shows that the conclusion of a war does not mean the conclusion of suffering, and that frequently the aftermath is the worst part for the citizens of any country involved.

Grave of the Fireflies is semi-autobiographical; the obviously fictional parts can be read metaphorically. The hardness of the times, the light that they try to find; the meaning of the fireflies themselves.
It’s a powerful film, but it might be lost on warmongers. The militarism that people cling onto for comfort, which then turns to stoicism and then to simple rudeness … it’s important to see what war does to people. Although, admittedly, war was different sixty years ago.
Seita just tries so hard, but sadly it’s not hard enough.

This is a Studio Ghibli film, and in the designs it looks it, but the characters somehow seem more real. They’re ruddy, and not so defined by black lines. The colours of the ruined, fire-bombed villages blend and contrast with the untouched, green villages.
Its other contrast is with its sister film, My Neighbour Totoro. Not only were they shown together, they boast similar settings: traditional country villages, fifty years apart. The sad parts of Totoro were lightened by happiness; Grave of the Fireflies is essentially the opposite of that. Different views of fate.
They’re both simple, but Grave of the Fireflies is indeed more complex.
Watch them together; it is an excellent contrast. The light and dark balance each other, but it’s not so much white noise.

The translation is not perfect; the subtitles frequently don’t translate “niichan” (brother) as well as they should, stripping a way part of the relationship between Seita and Setsuko. She refers to him all throughout the film as “niichan”, but every time it is translated to Seita, which does not reconcile the visual with the audio – and Seita always refers to himself as “niichan” around Setsuko, in the context of “Now your brother’s going to do this for you”, which simply becomes “Now I’m.” It’s a subtle difference, but it gives a different feeling. (I know that “you’re not supposed to complain about translation unless you know both languages completely”, but the presentation of names is reasonable grounds for criticism to me).

It may polarise, but it’s an enormous film: the kind you leave to visit again in years to come. It’s an important lesson to learn with surprisingly little judgement offered for its subject matter.

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