the unintentional pacifism of “grave of the fireflies”

Warning: This post reveals the plot of Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is about a young boy and his sister who die in the immediate aftermath of World War 2. Normally, this film is viewed by audiences as having an antiwar theme. Japan’s war with the West resulted in the needless death of millions of people, including the two main characters of the film.

It turns out, however, that the director had a different message in mind. While it isn’t a pro-war movie, Isao Takahata intended the movie to be a criticism of undisciplined youth. Why? The main characters, Seita and Setsuoko (the brother and sister) leave the strict home of their aunt, who brings them in after their father dies in battle. Had they stayed with their aunt, they might have survived. In his mind, the film is about bad choices and living in isolation from society.

Every author is allowed to give meaning to their work, but I’d like to add an additional interpretation of Grave of the Fireflies: It is an unintentional pacifist film. True, pacifism was not the primary goal of the movie, but it shows us an additional horrible dimension of war that we often overlook: a healthy society helps people survive bad choices, an unhealthy and war torn society punishes bad choices.

Think about this way. Let’s assume the main characters were not living in post-war Japan but they were living in an alternate peaceful Japan. And assume that they found them selves in a similar position. Their parents were dead, they lived in an oppressive home of a relative, and they decided to leave.

What would happen? It would surely be a hard experience, but they certainly wouldn’t starve to death. To begin with, a peaceful Japan wouldn’t be spending its treasure on battleships. Instead, the average Japanese person would have more money and be relatively better off. More men and women would be at home in productive jobs. That means that the children in the movie could probably move in with a relative or neighbor. They might receive money and material help from those around them.

If that didn’t work, there would be other alternatives. For example, in a peaceful Japan, there would be more money for private charity and public services. There might be informal networks of people who would assist children in need, including the homeless. There might be city shelters for the homeless or churches that provide shelters for women and children. Certainly not a desirable outcome, but better than than dying alone and starving.

Thus, it would be wrong to say that Seita and Setsuoko died in the movie because they left the protection of their admittedly difficult aunt. Why? In a peaceful society, people leave their family all the time and they don’t die. Their lives are hard, but they can move on and try to build a better life. However, when societies wage wars, especially the massive wars of Imperial Japan, they burn through vast sums of money. That means less money and resources for the safety nets that we build for children and other people who may need help. Thus, it’s not youthful impetuousness that killed the protagonists, but the corrosive effects of imperialism and war on society.

So, yes, the director of Fireflies wanted to focus on the bad choices that kids make. In my mind, we can step back and see a different message.


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Written by fabiorojas

November 28, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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