Monday, June 1, 2015

Guilt and Suffering: Grave of the Fireflies

When a culture, people, or society can’t and won't protect its children, the wound behind the thin bandage is laid bare.  The disease at the center of existence is transparently seen, for those who look. What turns people away from the most helpless members of their community to abandon them to death?

Grave of the Fireflies tackles this disturbing question.  In this animated film, siblings Setsuko, a girl of four and Seita, a boy of fifteen,orphaned after the allied firebombing raid on Kobe in 1945, are drawn as classical anime characters, but within the context of pure cinema verite.  In other words, the film mixes fantasy and reality in equal doses, creating a world that is at once enchanting and horrifying.  

On another level, Grave of the Fireflies is a condemnation of the Japanese nationalism that led to the wholesale slaughter of civilians on the home islands.  Japanese leaders were willing to sacrifice their citizens to continue to fight an unwinnable war. In Fireflies, nationalism is an obvious front for selfishness.  Characters in this film use the guise of nationalism to support their selfish deeds, just as their leaders are willing to use nationalism to support their narrow political agenda over and above the life and safety of the people they are charged to protect. And since this film was made in 1988, there is an connection of Grave to Japan during the 80s, a decade of economic growth and a turn to radical egotism and consumerism.
Over and over, the question behind the film's sad events wait for some kind of resolution: have the Japanese people become more compassionate since the war?  Have they learned compassion for others through their own experience of anguish, inconceivable pain and loss?  

The film's answer is firmly no. In the final scene, as the ghostly Setsuko and Seita sit on a bench overlooking modern, well-lit, prosperous Kobe, the answer is quietly provided. With ghost-Seita still revisiting the scenes of horror he suffered during the war, redemption is very far off.  As Kobe prospers, he is forced to relive the pain of the past in an endless circle.

And a far larger ghost than that of two small children looms over Kobe:  the uneasy legacy of the war.  Japan inflicted horrible suffering on its neighbors, and in turn, suffered tremendously from allied bombardment on an unprecedented scale. The image of these children's ghosts on a park bench, alone as they were in life, wandering as they did during their malnourished childhoods, is a marker that nothing has been confronted or resolved.  

The conflicted pairing of guilt and suffering still exists in Kobe, and in Japan, and it is still unresolved; and Japan has taken every opportunity to turn away from its tormented past.

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