Studio Ghibli is to Japan what Disney is to the U.S.: a box-office powerhouse beloved for its children’s cartoons. Where Disney has Cinderella and Frozen, Ghibli has My Neighbor Totoro, in which two little girls befriend nature spirits in the Japanese countryside; Kiki’s Delivery Service, about a fledgling witch finding her place in the world; and Spirited Away, whose tween heroine must rescue her parents from a haunted amusement park.
So, many Americans were flummoxed last year at Ghibli’s The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biography of real-life airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi. It depicts his creation of the Mitsubishi A5M—which evolved into the “Zero” fighter, one of the most feared weapons in WWII. No wonder that some denounced the movie for glorifying Japanese imperialism.
It’s undeniable that Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki is obsessed by the mechanisms of war. October films in the U-M Center for Japanese Studies’ ongoing Ghibli retrospective centered on a giant military robot (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) and a floating fortress (Castle in the Sky). But in Ghibli films, only power-crazed adults want to wield those ultimate weapons—the films’ young heroes try to destroy them.
The horrors of war, only hinted at in Nausicaa and Castle, are the wounded heart of Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. In the Japanese city of Kobe at the close of WWII, the meticulously rendered war machines are American B-29 bombers, and there’s no stopping them as they pound Japan into ruins.
Forget Disney: writer and director Isao Takahata opens this 1988 movie with his young heroes’ death. This is a movie about children, but it is definitely not for them.
The children’s final months unreel in flashback. Napalm bomblets, drifting gracefully from an armada of B-29s, leave the city in flames. A woman is fatally burned, leaving her children—fourteen-year-old Seita and his preschool sister, Setsuko—in the grudging care of a distant relative. Happy to take a share their meager stock of food and possessions, she grows hostile when Seita’s letters to his father in the navy go unanswered (he’s gone down with his ship). Eventually the children flee, taking refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter. Setsuko catches fireflies to illuminate it—only to find them dead the next morning. As she buries them, she sadly asks, “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”
At first the children can buy food, but, as the war grinds to its close, even farmers have none to spare. “Everything’s rationed now,” one warns Seita. “You can’t survive outside the system.” Stealing fruit for his starving sister, he is caught and badly beaten. In her final delirium, Setsuko offers her brother “rice balls” made of mud. Setsuko cremates her body, the cinders rising into the night like fireflies. He soon follows, dying unknown in the city’s train station.
Bleak as it is, everyone should see Grave of the Fireflies—once. Disney distributes Ghibli films internationally, and almost all are available on home video. But you won’t find Grave of the Fireflies at the Disney Store, and there’s no telling when it might return to Ann Arbor after CJS’s November 5 showing at the State Theater.
Grave of the Fireflies is followed this month by Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro. The retrospective concludes in December with The Wind Rises and Up on Poppy Hill.