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Daily Helping for March 21st, 2021 – Grave of the Fireflies

An animated still from the film Grave of the Fireflies, showing main character Seita with his little sister Setsuko on his back, while the town of Kobe burns in the background.

Today’s helping is another classic animated film from Japan. However, unlike last time, I completely understand why Grave of the Fireflies is so highly acclaimed. I cannot recommend it enough, but be forewarned. You will need a whole box of tissues while watching this one.

That being said, you are also given ample warning that this will not be a happy story. The film opens in a train station in Kobe, Japan. The date is September 21st, 1945, and the voiceover tells us that this is the day that Seita, one of the main characters, dies. The fact that Seita is clearly a young teenager and effectively dies of starvation in the opening minutes made the point quite clearly that this was not going to be a feel good film. And it wasn’t. But remarkably, it also wasn’t a sad film. At least, not entirely. Which was precisely one of the reasons why I found this film so compelling.

As you’ve probably guessed from the date above, Grave of the Fireflies is a film about World War II. Specifically, it’s about the closing months of the war in Japan. The film follows the story of Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, whose house is destroyed during the Allied firebombing of Kobe. Their father is away serving in the navy, and their mother dies in the bombing raids, leaving the siblings effectively orphaned. The rest of the movie follows their desperate struggle to survive in the final months of the war and the immediate aftermath.

Again, this is not a feel good film. In fact, in researching it afterwards, I discovered that Grave of the Fireflies is considered to be one of the greatest anti-war films ever produced. And I can see why. Seita and Setsuko are innocent victims of a conflict that they had no part in creating, and yet they lose everything as a result of it. It’s a devastating and searing look at the true cost of war and the loss of innocence that it nearly always entails.

And yet, despite all this, there are incredible moments of joy and hope scattered throughout the film. At one point Seita and his sister enjoy a day at the beach that in many ways feels almost like it belongs in another film. It’s not until you reach the final gut-punch ending that you realize just how necessary moments like those are. You need to believe that joy can still be found amidst so much carnage. Especially by the end. You might not believe me, but the ending actually left me with a smile on my face, even if that smile was bittersweet.

I’ve always found it fascinating that humans as a species seem to require constant reminders that war is a bad thing. But when those reminders come in the form of beautiful works of art, I don’t mind quite as much. Grave of the Fireflies is one such artwork and everyone should see it. Just be prepared to feel every emotion along the way.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!