“Grave of the Fireflies” (“Hotaru no Haka”) is a Japanese animated film written and directed by Isao Takahata, produced by Studio Ghibli for Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd., and was first released on April 16, 1988. The anime was based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical short story of the same title which was first published in 1967. The film tells the story of two Japanese siblings struggling to survive in the middle of a war. The film, in its entirety, is a sad experience, as it opens with a dying Seita whose spirit tells the rest of their story through flashbacks. The film, being an animation, may seem light and child-friendly at first glance, the theme and story will tell otherwise. Genre-wise, it is a dramatic war film, and thus it is expected to contain themes and scenes that will tug at the audience’s sense of comfort and solace, reaching out to the soul.
True enough, the feeling of devastation to have the protagonist and his sister died at the end after having earned the audiences’ sympathy as they struggled to survive in war-stricken Japan is none short of being woeful. Whereas the film appeals to Western critics as an anti-war film, Takahata himself repeatedly denied that the film never intended to communicate such a message (471). Why is this so? Perhaps, while it may be true that “Grave of the Fireflies” did not, in the first place, intend to convey an anti-war message, the film’s powerful, graphic, and emotional depiction of the characters’ failed lives in the context of war cannot be disregarded to have called for sympathy to the victims of war per se. Having said all of that, this paper aims to reconcile the critics’ reception of the film as anti-war with Takahata’s claim of it not being so using semiotic analysis, together with the concepts of form, meaning, and feeling.
Sebeok and Danesi noted “semiotics” as the study of signs encompassing the systematic study of meaning-bearing forms derived from the human cognitive and social activities moderated by forms of meaning generated by the models of the world, such as words, drawings, and artifacts among others, people make and use on the regular basis. They enumerated four basic types of forms used in semiotic research, these being signs, texts, codes and figural assemblages (1). Among these four forms, the sign is considered the most human representation. Although signs have been defined in various ways, three dimensions are implied in every definition, namely, the physical dimension called the “signifier”, the conceptual dimension called the “signified” which provokes the referential domain, and the interpretive dimension called the “signification” which is the meaning deduced from the sign. The first two dimensions of the sign are inseparable, that is, once a signifier is linked to a signified, a sign is formed (20, 21).
Through signification, meanings are generated from signs. Bordwell and Thompson value meanings to be crucial to the experience of artworks such as films (60). These meanings may be referential, explicit, implicit, or symptomatic (60-63). Furthermore, these meanings created through signification evoke emotions as part of the experience. According to Bordwell and Thompson, emotion plays a substantial role to experience form. This role distinguishes [and comprehensively includes] the “emotions represented in the artwork” and the “emotional response felt by the spectator.” Furthermore, the relations between the feelings represented in the film and those felt by the spectator can be complicated contextually (59, 60). And so, this paper will try to reconcile the disparity between the critic reception of the film featured and the director’s intention with the film.
The film takes the audience along with its story through flashbacks in the point of view of Seita’s spirit. It starts with his death, and in the first few sequences of the film, the story tells the audience of how normal it is to stumble upon dying children in Japan in 1945, the same year the Second World War ended. The film never mentioned that the story was set during the Second World War, but from the date mentioned by Seita, as well as the setting being in Japan, the audience can infer that the film cues references to World War II. Also, although the film focuses specifically on Seita’s and Setsuko’s struggles during the war, it cannot invalidate the possibility of having children with similar cases and circumstances as theirs during the war – left homeless after the air raids, isolated from the society after their parents’, guardians’, or relatives’ death. After all, right in the beginning sequences of the film, the subway worker implied how normal it was to pass by children and adolescents, whom they call “goners,” dying of hunger and hopelessness brought by the war.
A few sequences later, the film shows the spirit of Setsuko, Seita’s younger sister, materialize from a tin candy container containing broken bones – perhaps her remains – thrown onto a grass field, and later joined by Seita’s spirit and fireflies. They later boarded a train, still clouded by a few fireflies, traveling across post-World War II Japan. All throughout the film, we see their spirits being cast in red light. Hibi, Fukuda, and Bester noted that in Japanese culture, the color red is a symbolic representation of blood and fire (8). Blood and fire are both related to life and, in corollary, death. Blood flow translates to being alive, whereas fire plays a crucial role in survival, and therefore, staying alive.
However, ironically, both Seita’s and Setsuko’s characters were already physically dead in the film, with only their spirits portrayed to have lived on, illuminated by red light and reddish hues. Nevertheless, the fire had played important roles throughout the film. Seita and Setsuko, among other people, lost their home to the fire due to the air raid and bombings. The siblings lost their mother to burn injuries. Moreover, every post-raid scene seemed to have been painted red with fire everywhere, consuming the life out of Japan. In addition to these, it is rather represented subtly by how every dead body was burned instead of being mass buried. And so, in this way, the film holds symbolic value to the color red implicitly representing the value of life, and in corollary its taking, and absence.
On the other hand, the flashbacks were placed throughout the narrative as the siblings recounted memories throughout the train ride. Beal pointed out that in Japan, trains have etched their way to the national culture and lifestyle. Japanese directors [or the general Japanese population for that matter] associate trains with a myriad of memories, translating trains and railways as the “privileged symbols of modernization of Japan” (52). Whereas, according to Alastair Reid, plane trips only leave a short, continuous passing of time to memory, deceiving the passenger to travel without a sense of movement by making the points of arrival and departure as similar and indistinguishable as possible, whereas sea voyage creates a small, artificial community, trains are different in a sense that it demands the passenger to “go where they are going,” resulting to an ineluctable journey trustworthy to the passengers as trains offer the opportunity for meditation and long thought-processes (qtd. in Beal, 54).
Therefore, the journey of Seita’s and Setsuko’s spirits on the train represents their recollection of their last living moments. And, as trains served as the privileged symbols of modernization, ironic was it to witness how the siblings lost their privileges, being children of a naval officer, to their situation and to Seita’s naivete and pride. Seita could have asked help from the Navy, being a minor and the son of a naval officer; but his naivete and pride confined him to his selfish impulses of righteousness, believing in his own capabilities to care for her sister without really seeing his personal and economic limitations. Nonetheless, at present, with their spirits traveling on Japan’s privileged symbols of modernization, they reclaim the privilege of freedom from pain and suffering – literally the ideal environment for which a child should be growing up with – in the afterlife while staring at an imaginary Japan in flames and desolation.
On another note, Japanese culture also regards trains as the borderline between childhood and adulthood (Beal, 52). Moreover, according to Stephen Dodd, the railway, in Japanese culture, represents the discontinuity between the hometown and the city, establishing some connection between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, with the former being full of innocence and the latter of [uncertain] promise, mystery, and anxiety (qtd. in Beal, 52). As the siblings recollected memories of their last breathing moments while passing some familiar places in their neighborhood, the train ride seemed to represent their own transitioning from the world of the living to the afterlife. Also, although they were never given a chance to live on to grow and mature, the representation still holds true within the context of the film as the train and railways seemed to represent Seita’s growth in maturity with his acceptance, although not really joyfully, of the failed life they lived. In the first sequence of the film, Setsuko’s spirit was seen to have noticed Seita’s dead body, not knowing that she is not in the same dimension anymore. Immediately as Setsuko tried to run to Seita’s body, she was restrained by and reunited with Seita’s spirit in a consoling and reassuring interaction. This implicitly shows Seita had already accepted their reality – that the life they tried to live and struggle with failed and resulted to their eventual death at their early ages, his grief for his sister’s death already self-forgiven as they are now reunited and free from the harsh world of the living, but still grieving for his shortcomings as his sister’s acting guardian when they were still alive.
Quite interestingly though, even in the afterlife, Seita still played the loving brother, protecting his sister’s innocence. If examined closely, Setsuko was never shown to have seen Japan in a sense, even as a spirit. Whenever Setsuko’s spirit was shown, she was always clouded in the dark, only made visible by the substantially adequate illumination from the fireflies. This could represent Setsuko’s innocence to the realities of the world her previously living self was once in, which she never lived further on to understand for she died a young child. When she was still living, she was lied to, or at least kept in the dark, by the people around her – her brother, her aunt (although only at the start before she showed hostility), and that kind woman who helped them at the school. During the last scene, when she was seen playing in the dark as a spirit, illuminated only by the fireflies, she was laid to sleep before the scenery of present-day Japan was shown. Setsuko may have never completed, then, her transition from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to maturity, and maybe this was why they never had a clear destination while on the train in the first place, only making a stop and taking off at a desolate station.
Another signifier upheld throughout the film was the fireflies. Throughout the film, all the scenes showing Seita’s and Setsuko’s spirits, a cloud of fireflies was present, looming over their figures cast red. Other instances whereby fireflies also appeared were when they played with fireflies during their leisure time outside their aunt’s house at night, and when they captured and played with the fireflies at the pond which served as their make-do light source during their stay in their make-do shelter in the cave. These fireflies, according to Goldberg, were the images used by Takahata to “signify joy in the film.” Adversely, these same fireflies also emulate the fires that burned Japan, costing many lives lost to the war (41). The fireflies, as signifiers, are a paradox, two sides of the same coin. On one side, this element offered joy to the characters and enchantment to the audience, on the other side, a reminder of the griefful past. According to Goldberg, “for the audience, the image of the fireflies is likewise contradictory: at once transcendent, unfixed from time, and yet at the same time nostalgic for a past that never was—or perhaps nostalgic for a future that never came to be” (41). Moreover, let Setsuko’s line not be forgotten: “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” As short-lived as fireflies are, temporary was the joy it offered, also. By the next morning, Setsuko was already burying the dead fireflies. Similarly, the bombings which would only last for a few minutes would already cost multiple casualties and significant economic loss. In the same manner, the human life is only a fleeting experience to history’s point of view.
The signifiers and signified presented in this paper holds referential, explicit, implicit, and symptomatic meanings by virtue of the viewers’ signification, which the author believes is governed by the viewers’ core faith and culture, which in turn evokes emotions from the audience. By graphically, emotionally, and symbolically depicting the repercussions of the Second World War – or any war for that matter – to innocent and limitedly capable victims such as Seita and Setsuko, the film latches on to the viewer’s emotions to call for sympathy and antagonize the idea of another possibility of war. The film makes the audience sympathize to the characters’ pain and struggle of having to see their mother dying from her injuries and eventually having to see her dead body pestered with maggots to be thrown into a pit for mass cremation, of having to hold his sister’s dead body after her futile fight against malnutrition while waiting for the storm to pass and the morning to arrive in order to cremate her yourself. The film provokes the aftermath of the war to innocent victims isolated from the society due to the latter’s apathy. And above all, the film calls for sympathy to the failed lives of the characters as victims of misfortunate circumstances that they never wanted to be in the first place, calls for sympathy to their lives never fully nor completely lived.
Isao Takahaki’s “Grave of the Fireflies” gave a graphic and emotional depiction of the repercussions of the Second World War to two siblings who, restrained by their situations and victims of an apathetic society and their own naivete and selfish impulses, struggled to survive in the final months of the war. Throughout the film, sufferings of the innocent children were narrated animatedly, but within the anime, contextual imagery and representations were embedded. Subtle signifiers mirrored the predicaments of the war-stricken Japan of the 1940s, portraying the characters to have fallen victims to the situations that the war has pushed them into. But while it may be true that “Grave of the Fireflies” had no intention of communicating anti-war propaganda, the film’s powerful, graphic, and emotional depiction of the failed lives due to isolation from society in the context of war is a valid call for sympathy to the victims of war. Moreover, according to Bordwell and Thompson (2006), emotions represented in the film interact together with the emotional response by the audience as part of the film’s total system (59).