Directed by Takahata Isao
The film opens in a railway station where a boy, skinny and dirty, sits listless against a pillar among the moans and gripes of people walking around him; later a sweeper realizes he is dead. How this boy was led to meet such a tragic, early, end, which is a shocking, brutal, way to start an anime, is told by the rest of the feature. A few weeks earlier Seito was still the nice twelve-year old son of a Japanese Navy officer, then away at sea to fight for their country, as time was June 1945, living with his mother, a beautiful woman with a heart condition, and his four year-old sister Setsuko. An air raid by US forces destroyed their town with firebombs. The mother died from severe burns, and the two kids went to a nearby town to take shelter at their aunt’s home.
The rather stern and stingy relative, however, increasingly made clear Seito wasn’t doing enough to help the community – and her household. Miffed, he decided to go and live in a disused air-raid shelter with his sister. They spent freewheeling days before Seito acknowledged they had to replenish their food stocks. Without much money and unwilling to come back to the aunt, he resorted to steal crops in the farmers’ plots and even clothes in the town when the panicked inhabitants were in shelters during air raids. That wouldn’t be enough to help his frail sister, and Setsuko eventually died from malnutrition. He cremated her and left for the town where he will die.
“Hotaru no haka – Grave of the Fireflies” adapts a book that was released in 1968. A remarkably dense and concise text (barely fifty pages in a translation), in part autobiographical, it stroke a chord and put author Nosaka Akiyuki at the center of the media and publishers’ attention. Another creator made a breakthrough the same year in Japan, releasing his directorial debut, “Taiyô no ôji Horusu no daibôken – Horus Prince of the Sun”. Takahata Isao was to become a leading director of the anime industry. Twenty years later the director offered his vision of the writer’s work, making a film now praised as one of the most important animated movies in history.
Takahata sticks to the novella’s narrative development (which includes that shocking beginning). He insists on Seito’s dedication and seriousness as soon as the character appears, digging a hole to hide some food as his mother and sister get ready to flee a coming fleet of bombers. The film’s attention lingers on small details and mundane gestures, quietly but deftly emphasizing tender feelings as well as flaws. The close-ups on the aunt’s ladle filling different bowls suffice to suggest her disdain for the orphans (who never get the best bits of the soup, unlike the aunt’s husband and daughter). This gives the links between brother and sister a delicate and heartfelt illustration which is never mawkish but always rings true. In the same way, character design is deceptively simple and attractive without any crowd-pleasing cuteness.
War horrors, by the way, are also carefully and genuinely depicted, conveying the brutal effects of the air raids and the fear of the population and showing dramatic combat images for an anime (it is interesting to note that Nosaka wrote the Japanese word for firefly with a particular calligraphy that could be understood as “fire dripping drop by drop” – the allusion is heartbreaking).
The time spend away in that air-raid shelter feels like long holidays, as the place turns into a playful world for kids that hope to be at last free. It obviously can’t last and the end is astonishingly ushered by a single close-up on a firefly whose abdomen slowly stops brightening; then its limbs weaken and its dead body falls on the ground – which is off-screen. Just before this simple and poignant image the kids were still talking about their past; after, their situation relentlessly worsens (and Setsuko’s health deteriorates in the same slow and terrible manner as the insect’s life and the ordeal’s details are depicted in a chillingly realistic manner). The power of this epiphany is hard to ignore. Earlier, another image made clear how lonely Seito and Setsuko have become: the brother tries to entertain his sister with gymnastics feats; a minute earlier he was told about their mother’s demise and vowed not to tell it to Setsuko; now the camera moves to make a very high and slanted shot as the lighting becomes reddish. The image dramatizes their new situation in an unforgettable, worrying and visually astonishing way. It is wonderful that a few images can so clearly defined the arc of the story.
The boldest move in Takahata’s adaptation mixes Nosaka’s narrative with the presence of the ghosts of Seito and Setsuko. They appear right at the start, picking up the candy box the sweeper found near Seito’s dead body and threw outside, and regularly feature in the narration, the camera following their moves across time and space, starting with the journey on an empty train that morphed into a busy ride they once made. The narrative is straightforward but now the narration feels like the memories of the dead, painfully aware of the consequences of the events in the case of Seito’s ghost. The film ends not with Setsuko’s cremation as the text does; it follows again the ghosts as they walk in the same countryside till they sit on a bench and look away; the camera moves round and tracks out to picture them before a modern town. Suddenly the film becomes a memento mori. It is clear that the tragic fate of those children bombs have doomed to lose everything is not just the memories of old ghosts; as they are still around us their tale is also a reminder of the horrors that the war, decided by the Japanese leaders and fiercely waged both by them and their American counterparts, till the atomic disaster, have brought and upon which modernity was built again.
Victims just can’t be forgotten; there are no such thing as collateral damage; grief can last longer than we can accept (this deeply humanistic and political message was a first for an anime, which in this case beautifully succeeded in being as convincing and moving as any ordinary war film; it helps to understand the lasting attachment of audiences, in Japan and beyond, to the feature; perhaps it can also explain why it was so difficult to show it in the US market).