Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies). Anilmation, 1988, Japan. Director: Isao Takahata. Photos: AFP / Shinchosha Company / Archives du 7eme Art

Grave of the Fireflies (BFI Film Classics), by Alex Dudok de Wit. Bloomsbury / BFI, £11.99. May 6, 2021. 104 pages.

Studio Ghibli’s animated films are works that resonate just about universally regardless of a viewer’s own culture, language or country of origin. Despite distinct characteristics that mark them firmly in the world of Japanese anime, the likes of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle have won the globe over with their universal themes, dazzling worlds, beautiful scores and, of course, breathtaking animation, which remains unparalleled in the industry.

Yet the odd one out among Ghibli’s extensive catalogue has always been Grave of the Fireflies, a war film that defies genre conventions and is subject to frequent misinterpretations on both sides of the Pacific. Cinema journalist Alex Dudok de Wit attempts to set the record straight with his new book for BFI Film Classics.

Released in 1988 nearly four decades after Japan had lost the Second World War, “Grave of the Fireflies” is adapted from the heavily autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. With two sisters and his adoptive father dead by the time the Japanese Empire surrendered to Allied forces, Nosaka lived much of his adult life as a haunted person with survivor’s guilt.

Director Isao Takahata fared much better during the war, losing no one in his family, but his similar experiences of surviving American bombings were no less impactful. With that context, as Dudok de Wit points out, we can see Grave of the Fireflies as a highly personal work that becomes difficult to divorce from the lives of its two creators.

Animated film director Isao Takahata speaks on November 8, 2013, during an interview in Tokyo. Takahata graduated from Tokyo University, worked for Toei Animation Company and established Studio Ghibli with animator Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata was given the Honorary Career Award of the Annecy Festival and received a Medal of Honor from the Japanese government. He died of cancer on April 5, 2018. Photo: AFP / Noriaki Sasaki / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The story follows a teenage boy named Seita and his younger sister Setsuko in the final days of WWII, but we as the audience already know their fates right from the outset.

“September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.”

Seita’s ghost opens the film with these words, bringing the audience in for an emotional rollercoaster that has all the makings of a guaranteed tearjerker. From maggots on the rotting corpses of American firebombing victims to other stark imagery showing the horrors of war, Grave of the Fireflies is the textbook example of how animation is anything but only kids’ stuff. 

Dudok de Wit argues that the “artificiality of animation” allows for greater artistic freedom in portraying this kind of heavy subject matter, pointing to the less convincing live-action adaptations of Nosaka’s story that would later follow.

The author finds parallels with My Neighbor Totoro, the origin of Ghibli’s logo and arguably its most iconic film. Readers may be surprised to learn that both were released on the same day in Japan – as a double feature, with the studio president Toshiro Suzuki believing a rivalry between Isao Takahata and the notoriously perfectionist Hayao Miyazaki would result in good work.

But higher-ups weren’t convinced. They believed that producing two films at the same time would be too much for the fledgling studio, while the content was potentially ill-suited for a wide audience. It took “impassioned lobbying” from distributor Tokuma Shoten’s president for the pair of projects to be approved. Story author Nosaka gave his blessing after seeing the concept art.

Dudok de Wit takes the time to compare My Neighbor Totoro with Grave of the Fireflies. He points out that, while both works are set in Japan, it’s a Japan of bygone times. While Grave of the Fireflies takes place during wartime, My Neighbor Totoro depicts the mid-1950s when the country was experiencing rapid economic growth. Young viewers in the late 1980s, who were enjoying the excesses of Japan’s “bubble economy,” would have been unfamiliar with either period.

Unfortunately for Takahata, his intended message ended up going over the heads of most audiences. Grave of the Fireflies is often described by observers both in Japan and in the West as an “anti-war” film, but that’s a label Takahata vehemently denied right up until he died in 2018.

Many postwar films, such as Twenty-Four Eyes and The Burmese Harp, portrayed the Japanese people as victims who were dragged or duped into the conflict. But as Dudok de Wit notes this is a viewpoint that Grave of the Fireflies subverts. Characters are shown fanatically believing in the Empire until the very end, with the war being largely supported nationwide.

While Takahata himself was critical of the war effort, his larger intention with Grave of the Fireflies was attempting to educate a generation of young Japanese people who he felt had grown selfish, lazy and over-reliant on materialism. According to Dudok de Wit, the film serves as a critique of what happens when people in a society fail to collaborate.

Fireflies was intended first and foremost as a study of how people interact, specifically in a crisis. Takahata refused to call it an “anti-war film,” explaining that he didn’t think it could contribute to world peace.

Grave of the Fireflies portrays the United States as Japan’s enemy – naturally, given the time period – but the morality of the war or how it was fought are not the film’s focus. Takahata places blame on the protagonist Seita for choosing to leave the care of his aunt in order to fend for himself and little Setsuko, a choice that ultimately leads to their deaths.

The portrayal of Seita’s selfishness and arrogance during the war was intended as an allegory for traits that Takahata observed in modern-day Japanese youth at the time of production, but this message largely failed to resonate.

Grave of the Fireflies understandably elicits tears for many. Takahata wanted viewers, particularly Japanese viewers, to engage in self-reflection. But as Dudok de Wit writes,“By and large, the audience preferred to cry.”

Naturally, the majority of Westerners are not aware of this context, so the label of “anti-war” continues to be used overseas. For the most part, both Japanese and Western viewers only end up feeling sympathy for Seita instead of understanding Takahata’s original intention. 

Dudok de Wit, however, believes that the film’s ambiguities can lead to multiple interpretations. For example he argues that while Takahata holds Seita responsible, as a fourteen-year-old boy, for his actions, others viewers may absolve him of his responsibilities precisely because of his age and place the blame squarely on the adults around him.

If there’s one notable flaw with Dudok de Wit’s book, it’s that it could have gone into more detail exploring these counter-arguments and criticisms of Takahata’s viewpoint instead of briefly touching upon them. 

The final chapter, which explores the film’s legacy, is also too short. Dudok de Wit uses the closing pages to comment on the director’s disillusionment with modern Japanese society and politics, but really only scratches the surface. He refers to Shinzo Abe as a “right-wing ideologue,” but a work such as Tobias Harris’ excellent book The Iconoclast shows that there is more pragmatic nuance to Japan’s former prime minister.

These quibbles aside, Alex Dudok de Wit provides a valuable service to Japanese animation studies by writing the first book-length analysis in English of Grave of the Fireflies. Let us hope it will pave the way for similar scholarship to follow on other anime films and encourage viewers to do more than just reach for the tissues.

Freelance writer Oliver Jia is the social media editor of NK News and a graduate student in international relations at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.