Spoilers be everywhere in here.
Kobe, 1945, a young boy wearing tattered clothes is hunched against a train station pillar, alone. His spirit watches over him, red light bounced off of it, he’s wearing a firefighter’s uniform on his sturdy body.
“September 21st, 1945.
That was the night I died”
Isao Takahata’s tragically poetic, Grave of Fireflies is a war film that focuses on the innocent people who lives in war-torn cities, rather than the battles fought.
The duality of Japan’s wartime history is personified in the boy, Seita, and his little sister, who attempts to survive together during the bombing of Kobe by American forces.
Setsuko (le sister) is symbolic of innocent victim hood. She giggles and screams while riding on Seita’s back, as they escape the burning city, and is delighted when she can successfully make rice balls out of mud.
Seita has a military obsession. When he and Setsuko catch fireflies to illuminate a cave, he imagines himself killing all of Japan’s enemies and protecting his nation and family.
The fireflies have multiple symbols in Takahata’s film. It signifies the fire bombs that rained down on Japan’s cities, the siblings’ faith and joy for survival, and the regeneration of life untouched by war.
Rather than staying in Kobe and volunteering himself to fight in the war, Seita shuns the community, decides to live in the cave and waits for his father to return victorious in battle.
By the time, he realizes how horrible his decision is, it’s too late. The war is lost figuratively and literally; Japan has surrendered, and Setsuko is on her way to a slow, starving death.
Takahata mourns for the innocent victims of war but also condemns those who brings suffering to others. With Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata pierces Japan’s collective repression, exposing with haunting effect the duality of the nation’s role in World War II and its lasting impact on the Japanese people.
Unfortunately, Graves of Fireflies was based on a true story and the bombing of Kobe did happen.
Kobe was a much smaller city and not as densely populated than Tokyo or Kyoto, but a week from March, 1945, (a.k.a when Tokyo was bombed) they were struck. Fires raged and destroyed three square miles of Kobe. More than 20% of the city was destroyed. 8,841 people lost their lives to the firestorms.
The raid targeted 4 key areas: the northwest corner of the city, the area south of the main railroad line, the area northwest of the main railroad station, and the area northeast of the third target.
On June 15 of the same year, Kobe was bombed again and destroyed 3.8 square miles of the city.
Grave of Fireflies was a short autobiography book written by Akiyuki Nosaka. It’s based on his experiences before, during, and after the bombing of Kobe in 1945. He wrote this book as a personal apology to his adopted younger sister, Keiko, who died of malnutrition.