{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}



Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

It may be sheer chance that I heard about this film, when I was more or less disillusioned by the depiction of war in films. Though I haven’t seen many war films, the disillusion was to an extent that I felt that any film that shows war or its direct effect on people is, to a certain degree, false and useless. It is a same trick that is applied by mediocre filmmakers to put their innocent characters in adverse conditions to extract the last ounce of emotion from the viewer, and since we know it is war and real people were involved, we understand any re-creation of it for any emotional gratification is grossly disrespectful. Slowly, I started suspecting all those war-as-background films too. A love story, a poor soul, survives in the brutal war. They look fearful of war, but quite ready to "use" it as a prop. Any film solely trying to answer the question, whether war is good or bad, is of no use, because we know the answer. So how to capture, except in documentary and war footage, those war images by facing them directly and at the same shunning any easy torture of the dead and past, how an artist deeply wounded by its effects (personally or on a human level) create it to express himself. And more importantly what to create, show suffering and pain or the personal triumphs, or in most cases a formulaic mixture of all such emotions. I don’t know any answers, and I also don’t want to enumerate what little I know so that it looks like some sort of a recipe. It looks that in such cases its better to go by instincts. You have to rather personally (and emotionally) judge the morality of the image projected. I know, it is true for any experience, but in these cases, a viewer need to be extra careful, lest the dead might die again.


Grave of the Fireflies is the story of brother Seita and his little sister Setsuko, who lose their mother in an air raid, have to live by their own, because their father was serving Japanese naval force and the other relatives, especially a paternal aunt, have gone indifferent as a direct result of war (the live action version of the film tells the story from the aunt’s perspective). The story, on an emotional level, is about the loss of the dear ones, but since it unfolds in wartime, in its most sublime moments, it contemplates on war.


Graves of the Fireflies, according to me, works extraordinarily as an anti-war film. Stylistically, the film has some important things that make it work. The most significant is that it is an animation film. Animation, as we know, can create powerful magic of mixing beauty and grotesque, graspable and distant, fairytale and surreal, and Japanese seem to have mastered it. Secondly, the film is essentially a recollection of past, told by a dead boy, who brings in two main themes of the film, one is that of the haunting memories of loss, and second is some sort of voice of the dead, and that too not from an adult's perspective. Its not a story told by the survivor, but by someone who is consumed, emotionally and physically, by war. The mix of these two, the animation and reminiscence of past by a victim, makes the film, at once - both direct (thats why very emotional too) and dreamy, a type of, if I can say so, amine-realism, where your emotions are as much for what you see on screen, as for the idea of such act.



When we see the malnourished body of Setsuko lying with a piece of melon on her chest, it is a powerful image of the human offering to the war god. Many such powerful images appear in the film, and with all the dread of doom, there are moments of childhood fun and pure aesthetic brilliance on the canvass. At times, the film rests on water color scenery with an evocative music in the background. One wonders at the very accurate facial expression on face of Setsuko and that childhood gesture of moving shoulders, standing at a place and looking down, when Setsuko wants to meet her mother, an expression a child uses to convey denial and demand, and a successive attempt (Seita starts doing gymnastics) by the big brother to cheer her up, with an extraordinary background score.


Akiyuki Nosaka, whose novel the film is based on, wrote it to come in terms to his sister’s death during wartime, which he blamed himself for. Nosaka, as a survivor, suffers with its guilt, which he doesn't try to absolve, but we must know that the death of Seita in the beginning of the story is some sort of spiritual and emotional death, not the physical one, and the recollection of images of past is an amalgam of what he wanted to do, and what he actually did for his sister in the inhuman time of war, and what he tries to tell us is something about the endless suffering of a survivor.

In an interview, Akiyuki Nosaka talks more about the novel. A review here.

3 comments:

Srinivasulu said...

dmI have watched so many war films that i sometimes feel i am a sadist :).. Anyways.. Of all the war films.. I kinda a liked Full metal jacket and Dr Strange Love. I am sure you would have see both of them :)...

Ram said...

Come on in... 5 More posts to make it 200.:) The frequency at which you are posting nowdays... I think it is not going to be a long wait..:)

anurag said...

Srinivasulu, I have seen only Strangelove, and liked it a lot. But Strangelove is not about war in the sense I was talking about here. It doesnt show real war. Things become difficult when you show war, and more so, when you claim the story is based on real events !

Hey Ram, thanks for reminding. 2 more left now :)