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REVIEW: BFI Film Classics: Grave of the Fireflies




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AkumaChef



Joined: 10 Jan 2019
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PostPosted: Fri May 07, 2021 3:31 pm Reply with quote
I have held the opinion that the children in Grave are at least partially responsible for the tragedy they experienced since the first time I ever saw the film. It's something I've brought up in discussion before but it always gets drowned out by the chorus of "but it's so SAD what happened to those kids" and it is near impossible to have a rational discussion on the topic. I am happy to see that I am not alone in this take, I found this review to be a breath of fresh air. Excellent article.
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Greboruri



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PostPosted: Fri May 07, 2021 8:28 pm Reply with quote
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It is a story of Japanese pain – children's pain. And yet it strives to be the opposite. Far from ennobling its characters, it shows them acting irrationally, selfishly, cruelly. None question the premise of the war that's causing them such distress…They aren't victims so much as their own enemy

This quite a bizarre take and oddly ignores the fact the Japanese people didn't go to war, the government did. It also suggests that children should be 100% responsible for their own actions, always act rationally and are mature enough to make those decisions. It's almost as if the author does not comprehend that people would act irrationally in that situation, out of shock, against the fact their normal lives have been upended, and are acting out in pure survival mode. In addition to that, propaganda from the government, criminalisation of anti-war material and social pressures made sure there were few dissenters

There's also the idea that the two children should have stayed in a rather abusive household (seemingly glossed over by the book and the reviewer) and they would have been better off that way. I don't see how accepting being abused is OK.
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SHD



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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 6:46 am Reply with quote
Greboruri wrote:
It also suggests that children should be 100% responsible for their own actions, always act rationally and are mature enough to make those decisions.

Seriously. I'm not a fan of this movie for various reasons, but the idea that the children were in any way responsible for what happened to them is just baffling. They're children! Not even "old enough to know better" children, but just very young kids who don't even know what they're really doing, don't completely understand their situation and the consequences of their actions - all they know is that their world has turned upside down. Children are generally irrational to begin with (due to being, well, children), and under such circumstances how is it any wonder that they're behaving irrationally?

Greboruri wrote:
It's almost as if the author does not comprehend that people would act irrationally in that situation, out of shock, against the fact their normal lives have been upended, and are acting out in pure survival mode. In addition to that, propaganda from the government, criminalisation of anti-war material and social pressures made sure there were few dissenters

Exactly. People are never purely good or evil, and a person with positive qualities can also do terrible things, and vice versa. And just because Japanese society suffered terribly in the war doesn't mean that 1. there were no terrible things committed within that society (just like how it happens in all communities in a similar situation, I've plenty of examples from my own country) and 2. it can be trotted out to relativize Japanese involvement in the war and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and government.* But going by this review the stance the author seems to take is that unless you're a completely pure, innocent martyr you can't be a victim. And that's not only ridiculous, it's actually fairly worrying.

*I think this is what rubs a lot of people wrong about Fireflies and a lot of similar movies and stories. I'm not saying it was necessarily the intention behind the book or the movie, but it definitely is with a lot of similar works, and I've seen Fireflies being used to drum up sympathy for "Japan" as a victim while severely downplaying/relativizing the role Japan played in the war.
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AkumaChef



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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 11:17 am Reply with quote
Greboruri wrote:

This quite a bizarre take and oddly ignores the fact the Japanese people didn't go to war, the government did.

I think that's a very valid point, but it seems to be one that Takahata himself was avoiding. He's often been quoted stating that Grave is not a "war movie". I'm sure that if it had been his intent to explore "War" as the theme then we would have seen this explored in more detail. The same can be said for your later comment about government propaganda. I think Takahata specifically left that out because that wasn't the story he was trying to tell.

Quote:
It also suggests that children should be 100% responsible for their own actions, always act rationally and are mature enough to make those decisions. It's almost as if the author does not comprehend that people would act irrationally in that situation, out of shock, against the fact their normal lives have been upended, and are acting out in pure survival mode.

I don't think anyone is implying that it is 100% the children's fault, and certainly not Setsuko's fault as she is far too young. the fact that the children are acting--well, like children--isn't unexpected. But just because the behavior is normal child's behavior doesn't mean it is without consequences.

Quote:
There's also the idea that the two children should have stayed in a rather abusive household (seemingly glossed over by the book and the reviewer) and they would have been better off that way. I don't see how accepting being abused is OK.

There's nothing OK about abuse, but one might argue that living in an abusive household beats being dead. And staying in the abusive household wasn't necessarily the children's only way out. spoiler[Seita, for example, could have withdrawn money to buy food before Setsuko starved to death rather than waiting until it was too late.]

But I think there's also a cultural angle that many of us are missing. I'll certainly include myself in that category as I was not brought up in Japanese culture. And I suspect de Wit was not either. From Wikipedia:
Quote:
After the international release, it has been noted that different audiences have interpreted the film differently due to differences in culture. For instance, when the film was watched by a Japanese audience, Seita's decision to not come back to his aunt was seen as an understandable decision, as they were able to understand how Seita had been raised to value pride in himself and his country. But, American and Australian audiences were more likely to perceive the decision as unwise, due to the cultural differences in order to try to save his sister and himself.


@ SHD
I think it's obvious that Setsuko was indeed far too young to know better. She is clearly a tragic victim in the story through no fault of her own. And even if she did magically "know better", what exactly is a 5-year-old going to do anyway? But I do think that Seita was old enough to know better. Takahata said he was in 9th grade. While that is no adult I think it's very unfair to say that people of that age never know better. Had there been no war he'd be starting his career right about then. And he obviously is old enough to realize the gravity of the situation. He knows he and his sister need to eat. He knows he has resources in his mother's old Kimimos and money in the bank. He knows if someone is sick to take them to a doctor, he knows right and wrong according to the law, etc. Obviously he's still immature to some degree so it's silly to expect him to act 100% rationally, but I think he's old enough that his decisions matter. And I think that Takahata would agree. He wrote that he intended Grave to evoke sympathy with young people--he specifically mentioned teenagers and "20-somethings". That doesn't work if the characters are simply pawns to be scarified to the war and their own actions have no effect on the situation.

I don't think this is as simple as one camp arguing that the events of Grave were purely the result of the war or that the events were purely the kid's fault. I don't think de Wit is making the latter argument, he's just saying that Seita's decisions factored into the events of the film. It's grey, not black or white.
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Key
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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 1:56 pm Reply with quote
I might have to check this out, as I have long held the (unpopular) position that the true tragedy in the movie isn't that Seita and Setsuko died, but that it was preventable, at least in part the result of a series of unwise decisions on Seita's part. He essentially prioritized his pride over security for the two of them, and his youth doesn't entirely excuse that. I have read that either Takahata or the original novella writer (forget which) intended the story to be an apology to a younger sibling who died under not-too-dissimilar circumstances during the war, and that lines up better with a "Seita made mistakes" emphasis than a purer anti-war theme.
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SHD



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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 5:40 pm Reply with quote
As far as I'm aware, the boy is 14. Even if we argue that "children grew up faster in those times" being considered an adult doesn't mean actually being mature. He's a 14 year old child whose world has been turned upside down, thrown into situations and saddled with responsibilities he's in no way equipped to handle. Arguing that he should have known better, or making him fully responsible for the mistakes he made, is completely ignoring the human side of the situation. Saying that the real tragedy is that the girl's death could have been prevented if only her brother had acted more rationally is ignoring the fact that a 14 year old kid is expected to behave like a rational adult in a situation where even many adults would fail to behave in a rational way.

Whatever Takahata's intention with the movie was, I'm going to claim death of the author here, and say that as far as I'm concerned the main takeaway from it is that it's an example of how a society traumatized and devastated by war, exploited by its ruling elite and then left to fend for itself, will inevitable fail its most vulnerable members.
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Key
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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 6:30 pm Reply with quote
SHD wrote:
Saying that the real tragedy is that the girl's death could have been prevented if only her brother had acted more rationally is ignoring the fact that a 14 year old kid is expected to behave like a rational adult in a situation where even many adults would fail to behave in a rational way.

Trying to claim that Seita has no culpability here because he's too young and immature lets him off way too easily.

Quote:
Whatever Takahata's intention with the movie was, I'm going to claim death of the author here, and say that as far as I'm concerned the main takeaway from it is that it's an example of how a society traumatized and devastated by war, exploited by its ruling elite and then left to fend for itself, will inevitable fail its most vulnerable members.

There's no question that society failed war orphans badly (this can be seen even more starkly in Barefoot Gen 2), and that was a big contributing factor. However, the story here feels much too personal for me to attribute such a broader overarching message as its main theme.
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ANN_Lynzee
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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 8:46 pm Reply with quote
I've read the opinion that Takahata was trying to demonstrate, through the story, the importance of community over individualism and that Seita's decision to leave the group and overcome everything on his own is what lead to their unfortunate death.

I'm okay with saying Seita made the wrong choice and it lead to his sister's death. I'm also okay with saying he isn't responsible for her death. Those two statements might feel at odds with one another but I think it gives breadth for the other issues brought up here: Seita made the wrong choice but Seita is also 14. Seita made the wrong choice in an unimaginable scenario (trying to survive during wartime) where survival is at least partially reliant on luck. Seita made the wrong choice by also his aunt was a horrible adult who showed them no kindness. Seita made the wrong choice but his government also failed him, as it did many war orphans who simply starved to death in public.

I think it's also fair to say the Seita holds himself responsible even if we don't; the short story was written by the boy who experienced it, but he included his own death because he felt it was what he actually deserved. If Seita and his sister had been orphaned and ran away from home in a different decade, the result likely would have been different and I think it's unfair to expect a 14-year-old with a baby prefrontal cortex to be able to evaluate all of the factors involved and come to the conclusion that they'd die.

That's why it's a tragedy, because so much of it was out of their control. There was really no room for a kid to make a mistake.
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Key
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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 9:32 pm Reply with quote
octopodpie wrote:
I think it's also fair to say the Seita holds himself responsible even if we don't;

Oh, I'd absolutely agree with this statement. The Seita at the beginning and the end of the movie felt like someone who had given up.

So let me rephrase some things I said earlier: the debate shouldn't be about whether or not Seita is culpable, but about whether or not he deserves to feel culpable.
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John the Dark Lord



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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 11:38 pm Reply with quote
On the subject of the author's intentions, I don't know about Takahata, but I do know about Akiyuki Nosaka, the author of the original story. And his stance on the story is that you are NOT supposed to to sympathize with Seita. You are supposed to think of him as a prideful little brat who is responsible for what happened to him and his sister,

But do you want to know why he thinks like that? Because Seita is based on the author himself, as the story is semi-autobiographical. And the author very much believes he is responsible for the death of his little sister, and hates himself for it. In fact, the story was written as an apology to said sister.

So yeah, everyone who is saying that Seita should not be held responsible for what happened is calling for Death of the Author. Probably the most tragic example of this in history.
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SHD



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PostPosted: Sun May 09, 2021 3:42 am Reply with quote
Key wrote:
So let me rephrase some things I said earlier: the debate shouldn't be about whether or not Seita is culpable, but about whether or not he deserves to feel culpable.

But I don't think anyone is arguing that he didn't make mistakes. At least what I've been trying to say is that yes, he made mistakes, but he was a 14 year old child who shouldn't be expected not to make these kinds of mistakes, especially in his situation; and that the community he lived in, both smaller and larger, failed him in every possible way, as well as its other members who have been forced into retreating into pure survival mode and acting in ways they may not have been acting under different circumstances. I was reacting to the arguments that Seita can't be considered a victim because he "should have known better", and especially this mind-boggling claim here:
Quote:
It is a story of Japanese pain – children's pain. And yet it strives to be the opposite. Far from ennobling its characters, it shows them acting irrationally, selfishly, cruelly. None question the premise of the war that's causing them such distress…They aren't victims so much as their own enemy

Which I think is absolutely ridiculous and fairly dangerous argument, that's about a step away from outright victim blaming and "they deserved it".
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Rekishika



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PostPosted: Sun May 09, 2021 4:19 am Reply with quote
John the Dark Lord wrote:
On the subject of the author's intentions, I don't know about Takahata, but I do know about Akiyuki Nosaka, the author of the original story. And his stance on the story is that you are NOT supposed to to sympathize with Seita. You are supposed to think of him as a prideful little brat who is responsible for what happened to him and his sister,

But do you want to know why he thinks like that? Because Seita is based on the author himself, as the story is semi-autobiographical. And the author very much believes he is responsible for the death of his little sister, and hates himself for it. In fact, the story was written as an apology to said sister.


Wish it were that simple. In a publication in 2011 Hiroko Cockerill translated from one of the last writings of Nosaka Akiyuki ("Bundan". Tokyo 2002) the following:

"In the story I made Setsuko a four year old, so that Seita could conduct a conversation with her. Seita is not the brother who was annoyed by the baby’s crying in the night, and hit her, causing concussion. When I was writing I emphasized the tenderness of the brother, so that the reader might identify him with the writer."

Cockerill follows this quote with what is apparently a paraphrase of Nosaka's writing:

"In the end Nosaka condemns himself for having written a complete fabrication in Grave of the Fireflies in order to justify the actions of the boy who let his sister die of malnutrition."

[Cockerill, Hiroko: Laughter and tears. The complex narrative of Nosaka Akiyuki's Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies). In: Rosenbaum, Roman; Claremont, Yasuko (eds.): Legacies of the Asia-Pacific War: The Yakeato Generation. London 2011, pp. 152-163, here p. 158.]

A further problem is that even Nosaka's openly autobiographical claims remain unproved. I have used "semi-autobiographical" for "Grave of the Fireflies" myself, but I'm no longer sure this adds much to the discussion, except as indicating that Nosaka was able to write from personal experience of that place (Kobe) and time (1945). But it doesn't tell us, which parts, if any, are based on that experience.

In the end, I think, there will be no single explanation or interpretation (not even a "Japanese" one) for either Nosaka's novella or Takahata's adaptation, which may be part of the reason why both can, in my opinion correctly, be regarded as masterpieces.
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