Day 6 of 10 Days to 500 Anime: Grave of the Fireflies

Here’s a classic everyone has heard of, but I only watched it a few days ago.  It’s a very emotional film.  Knowing that, I steeled myself against the tragedy I knew was coming, which was probably the wrong way to watch the film.  Instead of riding the emotional rollercoaster, you might say I watched the ride sitting on a bench somewhere with a soft drink.  The result was that I examined the tragic flaws of our hero rather than grieved over the tragedy of the orphans’ plight.  My focus was on why they suffered instead of the how they suffered.

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In the case of firebombing the Germans and the Japanese in WWII, I can never reconcile myself to the legitimacy of this form of warfare.  With the nuclear bombs, one can legitimately claim destroying industrial parks and dockyards as the main objective, while terrorizing the enemy into surrender as the secondary objective.  Incendiary bombs, especially of the sort used in WWII, have no effect on factories built with steel and cement.  Firebombs work much better against wooden houses–especially houses of Japanese design.  When it comes to firebombing, terrorizing the enemy is still the secondary objective, but destroying civilian homes and killing non-combatants becomes the primary objective.

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Deliberately targeting civilians is repugnant to the rules of civilized warfare.  The Germans and the Japanese were the first to engage in barbarous warfare like that, which made them liable to suffer the same fate.  Did the enemy’s use of barbarous methods of warfare justify the Allies retaliating in kind?  One might ask how the Allies could win against an enemies like Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Japan by strictly adhering to the rules of war: how can one win against a cheat if one cannot bend the rules oneself?  Those are important arguments in favor of the Allied firebombing campaigns; but, I still think that it’s wrong and dangerous to make civilians the primary targets of military action.  It can be the first step to erasing morality from war altogether.  Still, few nations so eminently deserved such treatment as Germany and Japan during WWII.

*SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE POST*

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Grave of the Fireflies shows the human cost of violating the civilized norms of warfare.  Seita and Setsuko lose their mother during a firebombing of their home city.  From that point, they cast themselves on the charity of their mother’s sister.  The two children wonder whether their father, a sailor aboard the Japanese Cruiser Maya, is alive.  The USS Dace torpedoed this vessel on October 23, 1944, and we can only assume that their father was one of 479 crewmen aboard the Maya killed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  That they are orphans make their aunt’s complaints about them not helping the Japanese war effort particularly odious.  The orphans of war dead are owed some kind of care by their relatives and society.  Whatever sacrifices the aunt’s immediate family is making, they cannot equal the sacrifice of Seita’s father’s life.  One is unsure whether the government or the orphans’ mother concealed the fact of their father’s death, which should have earned them compassion.

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Instead, the aunt emotionally abuses the two of them, makes them exchange their mother’s kimonos for rice, and ultimately throws them upon their own resources–save that she allows them to live at her house.  Fortunately, Seita and Setsuko’s mother left a bank account with ¥7,000 yen, which would have equaled $1,610 USD at the opening of the war.  (To help conceptualize this better, that amount of American dollars has the purchasing power of $28,149.19 USD in 2018.)  However, severe inflation would have made this money worth far less in 1945, and we can’t estimate it’s value during that year.  When the yen was artificially stabilized in 1949, ¥7,000 would be the equivalent of $19.44 with the value of $198.86 in today’s money.  That does not go very far!  It also helps explain how frugal Seita is with this money.

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In fairness to her, their aunt wasn’t that bad to begin with, but progressively became worse under the stresses of rationing and bombing raids.

Despite how mean their aunt is, one has to regard it as a tragic mistake that Seita and Setsuko left her house.  As wicked as she was, one cannot imagine her allowing Setsuko to die of malnutrition–something Seita tried to prevent, but was a moment too late.  (That was really sad to see.)  Nor would Setsuko have been subject to the bloodsucking vermin infesting the bomb shelter and leeching out her strength.  Though I say that leaving their aunt’s house was Seita’s tragic mistake, most of the blame goes to his aunt and guardian for not preventing them from leaving.

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The unfortunate effect of this was for Seita to undertake Setsuko’s guardianship while he was far too young.  Setsuko’s welfare became Seita’s sole purpose in life.  When his purpose died, Seita himself dies.

Many men waste away without a purpose in life.  They either kill themselves outright or anesthetize themselves with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco unto an early death.  The only way they can continue to live in the dull waste land of the world is by numbing themselves with drugs.  Instead of drugs, Seita imbibes a draft of misery to the dregs and succumbs to taedium vitae.

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Which brings me to the ultimate tragic flaw of Seita’s life: he made Setsuko his God.  Once his mother died, the purpose of his existence revolved around keeping Setsuko alive and happy.  You are right to say that he owed her sustenance, shelter, and emotional care, especially since he made himself her guardian; but, it is a sin for a man to take another man as the final end of his existence.  It does not matter whether the object of adoration is a dictator or Setsuko: both are case of idolatry.

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Usually, people’s lives are filled and layered with meaning and lawful ends.  The lawful ends tend towards meaning, and meaning helps us towards the end of happiness.  People have jobs, friends, family, hobbies, pursuits, religion, politics, study, etc.  But, only God can be the true final end, because only God is eternal, non-contingent, and capable of enfolding all other ends.  There is not one good or useful action which one can not do for the love of God: one can even eat or sleep for the love of God, because we need a healthy body to do various good works.

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Aristotle described the final end of man as happiness.  The Greek word Aristotle used for happiness is ευδαιμονια–literally, “good spirits.”  But, Aristotle’s idea of happiness, despite how much he tries to anchor it to a life of virtue, is changeable: we are happy today, sad tomorrow, and may fight adverse conditions or feelings for weeks, months, or even years before we feel ourselves happy.  Christians perfected the idea of happiness by defining the final end and highest good for man as beholding the face of God united in friendship with Him.

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Nothing so underlines Seita’s idolatry as him only seeing Setsuko when he passes on.  He’s not joined with his mother, father, friends, God, or any other person besides Setsuko.  He essentially defined happiness as “seeing the face of Setsuko.”  But, Seita’s life had value irrespective of Setsuko’s existence!  Why could he not live for any of the other suffering people around him?  Aren’t we all part of one human family?  He had a duty to survive!  It’s a shame that Seita was either not trained to know this or had his soul so crushed and warped by tragedy that he lost the will to live.  We must profit from his error lest we fall into the same fault of tragedy overwhelming our sense of purpose in life.

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Seita’s soul staring at his emaciated body.

Well, that was a long discourse on the themes of Grave of the Fireflies.  The animation and characters deserve praise also.  I’m not a fan of tragedies, but this tragedy has some worthwhile ideas imbedded in it.  And so, I’ve reversed my initially more negative rating to a rating of…

★★★★

 

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10 comments on “Day 6 of 10 Days to 500 Anime: Grave of the Fireflies

  1. ospreyshire says:

    That was a great review. You brought up some points that I haven’t even thought of especially Seita having an idolatry towards his younger sister. Sure, he legitimately cares for her despite being over his head, but I never realized how he cared about her that much over the rest of the people who were suffering. This movie is still powerful to this day. It’s a shame that Grave of the Fireflies gets overlooked compared to their more mainstream movies. I would certainly argue that this movie is one of the very few films that makes war horrific instead of cool which subverts Francois Truffaut’s theory on making movies against subjects like wars or drugs. Yes, I know Fireflies wasn’t meant to be an anti-war film, but I don’t think anyone with a heart would think WWII would be super cool after watching this.

    That was a very intelligent review to a classic film that had more depth than so many animated or live action projects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I also think that Grave of the Fireflies tends to get overlooked these days. When I first really got into anime in 2003, it was pretty well known as a soul crushing tragedy.

      When it comes to war, most people these days have a very negative view of war–and rightly so. No matter how much movies might try to make war look cool or glorious, the 20th century played havoc with the concept of the glory of war. Even though WWII is sometimes called “the good war” because right and wrong were so clear, it’s still held as a supremely tragic event rather than a glorious one. World War I basically cured the America of the idea of war being glorious. The most a war movie can do is fill us with admiration for military servicemen and persuade us to serve our country willingly if it should call upon us to make that sacrifice.

      Nevertheless, Grave of the Fireflies is not that kind of movie. It reminds us of all the suffering brought on by war and why we should avoid it unless absolutely necessary to prevent grave injustice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        You’re welcome. I’m glad I’m not the only person who noticed that about Grave of the Fireflies. I saw it a couple of years after when you saw it, and I heard it was great albeit incredibly sad.

        Sure thing. It’s just disappointing when so many war movies glamorize the combat and deaths like some big-budget action film. I agree with WWII being a very tragic event. Some other great movies that involve WWII that don’t glamorize war would be the German film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and the Finnish/Swedish film Mother of Mine. They’re both live action films and not anime, but they are well-written.

        That is so true about Grave of the Fireflies being a cold reminder of the realities of war and how it directly or indirectly affects others. It’s movies like these (animated or live-action) that make me realize the bad things that aren’t always taught about. I tend to review other tragic films and some ones with controversial subjects that no one else talks about, so I’m glad this little film from Ghibli helped spark that interest.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Day 6 of 10 Days to 500 Anime: Grave of the Fireflies (by medievalotaku at Medieval Otaku) […]

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  3. MIB says:

    Glad you finally got to see this one. A real heartbreaker.

    Did you know there was a live action version in Japan too? I doubt it has the same emotional impact though given how easy it is over egg the sentimental drama aspect of it. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grave of the Fireflies is a very sad film. I didn’t know that they had adapted the story into a live action film. I’m curious as to how well the story transfers over into live action, but I can’t imagine seeing it for a while at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Re: well-known stuff, it’s important to remember that the writer of the original short story actually did live through WWII and actually did lose an adoptive sister to malnutrition. The difference is that in real life, he didn’t die. And in some ways, that’s deprecated in Japanese society; so he rewrote his own life in the short story. That’s why the author compared it to the old double-suicide “ripped from the headlines” plays about doomed lovers.

    Ultimately, it’s a survivor guilt movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that about Grave of the Fireflies. The Japanese have oddly romanticized suicide for centuries now. Especially in WWII, the Japanese soldiers preferred death to capture and were killing themselves in droves. So, I can see why the writer depicted a story like this: one does get a sense of Seita’s death being a waste–like much of what happens in war.

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  5. Luminas says:

    Luminas here, on Grave of the Fireflies. I can’t help but find the statements above about the Japanese and suicide…a little callous, honestly. If you were in a situation so bad that you were at risk of starving to death, and a person you felt responsible for as an older sibling *died,* and they had what (if you know your deaths) is an indescribably brutal death, and you didn’t…how in the heck would *you* feel? Of course you’d be consumed by guilt. Of course the book you wrote would focus deeply on your own self-perceived personal and moral failings. Especially if all this happened when you were a scared child.

    Additionally, “Germany” and “Japan” as military entities consisting of generals and soldiers might’ve “deserved” or at least “expected” retaliation in kind, but I think I’m generally in agreement (and maybe even slightly more fervent) on the point that their civilians didn’t. The U.S. dropped a freaking *atomic bomb* on two Japanese cities, and their collective unconscious has been traumatized by it ever since. I don’t think we’re in any position to judge.

    “But, Seita’s life had value irrespective of Setsuko’s existence! Why could he not live for any of the other suffering people around him? Aren’t we all part of one human family? He had a duty to survive!”

    Because that’s not what we’ve taught men to do, in almost any human culture. We’ve taught men that their only worth is in providing for the people around them. If they can’t do that, they’re told through implicit and explicit means that their lives are worthless. That is the tragedy that leads so many of them to an early grave, the reason my Dad craves my presence when he’s at his lowest point. (If there’s one thing that’s true about me in perpetuity, it’s that I’m kind of smol <__<). And it's the reason the possibility that the women in their lives may become stronger than they are threatens them, in American society. Although something similar is happening in Japanese society, too.

    All that said, hyperbolic as I might be at this exact point in time, you're right that ultimately you can't make another person into the end or purpose of your life. You need a God, because only a God can possibly be strong and vast enough to fill that yearning in your heart.

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    • Hello, Luminas! Good to hear from you! I’m sorry that I sound somewhat callous. The misery experienced by Seita is very real. Why he lost the will to live is understandable. But, our feelings can lead us astray: the amount of suffering endured by some people can lead them to think that life has no purpose or meaning. They become willing to do anything to escape the pain of living.

      But, people’s lives have value even when they are suffering and even when they appear to be useless. At very least, people who persevere despite suffering and tragedy are capable of helping others who suffer to persevere. By the same token, one who gives up on life can drag other people down the same path. It may happen that we are forced to choose between a heroic good deed and taking an easier path for which no one would blame us. It’s always better to choose the former.

      It is certainly wrong to target civilians, though it was impossible to completely avoid civilian casualties in the type of bombing raids conducted in WWII. Most people accepted civilian casualties were likely while targeting train stations, dockyards, factories, and other targets which had a civilian workforce. But, some bombing raids, particularly night bombing raids and firebombing, were conducted in a spirit of revenge.

      I have a lot of sympathy for the German people in particular. There’s some evidence that the population at large knew nothing about the death camps, and Germans suffered some cruel atrocities at the hands of the Soviets–such as the orgy of rape when Berlin fell. Also, many of the Allies used captured German soldiers for slave labor long after the war was over, and I believe as many as two million German civilians lost their lives when they were exiled from Prussia, Silesia, and other eastern territories. The Allies were on the side of the right, but not all of their deeds were righteous.

      Dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan was necessary to avoid worse horrors. In light of the extreme evils of a protracted conventional invasion of Japan, nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right thing to do. You can’t look at these bombings in isolation. They estimated one million American casualties if we invaded. Some Japanese garrisons in the island hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater lost 80% to 98% (Battle of Peliliu) DEAD–not killed and wounded accounted together, but DEAD. During the Battle of Saipan, Emperor Hirohito was even encouraging Japanese civilians there to commit suicide rather than be captured. At least 1,000 souls took him up on that offer. If the Japanese resisted in the same way on their main islands, tens of millions of dead soldiers and civilians (especially due to starvation) would not have been out of the question.

      You’re right that culture often places a high premium on men’s ability to provide. When it goes so far as to say that men are worthless when they don’t or can’t provide, that’s part of human culture rightly dubbed “the world” in the trio including the flesh and the devil. It’s hard to judge another person’s circumstances, but it’s always safe to assume that they have something of value to offer. It’s very good what you do for your father, and I hope that life is going well with him now or will soon.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Like

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