Isao Takahata's masterpiece traces the story of a pair of siblings in war-ravaged Japan through the loss of food, innocence and hope.
BOTH my father’s parents, now dead, were refugees, who must have been the same age as Seita and Setsuko—from Isao Takahata’s canonical Japanese animated film Grave of the Fireflies (1988) by Studio Ghibli—when they crossed over to present-day Bengal from erstwhile East Pakistan and Burma during Partition. However, unlike the siblings caught in the literal crossfires of the Second World War, my Tata (grandmother) and Dadi (grandfather)—mostly by force of sheer luck—found new homes serving warm food on alien land. They managed to outrun the gun fires and massacres that ripped through most of the homes they had grown up in and around, a fortuity that never befell the teenager and toddler siblings who watched their hometown of Kobe in Japan turn into a graveyard under the shower of American bombs overnight.
There’s a reason why Grave of the Fireflies has colloquially earned the reputation of being the saddest film to have ever been made. When I—rather subconsciously, I’d like to believe—revisited it with caution after a decade last week, as the Israeli bombardment of Palestine raged on on an adjacent screen, I was reminded exactly why it all felt so familiar. Set in June 1945, when a fleet of American Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers flattened the city of Kobe with their napalm canisters that lit up like flowers before detonating and devouring everything in their flames, we meet a young boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko, who is about five years old. They initially survive the carnage by holing up in a rickety bomb shelter. However, even before we learn of their survival, we meet them in their death, as we watch the two board a ghostly train and recount how they ended up there.
Considering the way the film delivers one punch in the gut after another, it was perhaps a volitional measure taken by the director to reveal to the audience, right at the outset, the hardest blow of them all—that of the children’s death. A wise friend of mine from Jammu & Kashmir once said, “War, and children, in particular, should never go together.” With Takahata’s masterpiece, you are, in the cruellest but most honest way possible, reminded just why.
While this column is, of course, about how food has driven and shaped visual cultures through the depiction of the lives cooking and eating them, it is just as much about unpacking the correlations between food—or in this case, its protrusive absence—and death. Seita and Setsuko bear the brunt of society’s greatest failures as they first lose their mother to burns that mutilate her face beyond recognition. In death, she becomes maggot feed, while her children sieve through scraps in the hope of finding a meal.
Their father, an Imperial Japanese Navy captain, was the siblings’ only flickering hope for reclaiming a childhood lost to war and starvation. His looming absence, however, propels them further into the depths of a predicament whose magnitude is at once impossible to comprehend, while simultaneously being all too familiar.
Seito hides their mother’s death from Setsuko—which she eventually finds out about—as a distant aunt from their father’s side, living in the posh and unscathed outskirts of Kobe, decides to adopt them for a while. Seito gathers all the subsistence he had managed to stow away during the air raids and brings them home. “Herrings, fried bonitos, dried potatoes, pickled plum, and butter! All of these are so hard to come by during wartime, but you military folks are spoiled,” says the aunt, as Seita hands them all over to her, barring a tin of Sakuma drop candies that his sister loves. As the siblings sneak out into the night later that day, running around in the darkness and tall grasses amongst glittering fireflies, Seita gives Setsuko the fruit drops, which act like portals in time and space through the film. They’re passageways into the past, into the ghosts of what could’ve been an ordinary childhood, which was always a hue brighter than the abyss of abandonment that rapidly swallows them whole.
In no time, the aunt begins to show her disdain towards them, asking Seita to write to his father, in spite of knowing that he was serving in the war. At dinner on the night of the next raid, she asks her husband about the status of the war. “It’s starting to look hopeless now,” he replies. “Well, our soldiers aren’t the only ones suffering. And rations are drying up too,” she says pointedly, while passing on a second helping of rice and meat to Seita. “You too are serving the country, young lady, so you should eat up too,” she says to her daughter.
When Seita and Setsuko visit the beach the next day, like they would in the past, the young boy has visions of his mother holding a parasol like an angel, calling them home for lunch, as they built sandcastles with shells. But in that very moment, as if he was wrong to have slipped into a wishful reverie for a second, the sirens sounding the oncoming missiles blare off, slapping him back to his reality.
The two start sprinting back home, when they pass by one where a mother is seen reuniting with her daughter. “I am hungry. Please carry me on your back,” Setsuko cries as the scene plays out; Seita relents. Upon their return, their aunt manipulates Seita into selling off their mother’s kimonos in exchange for a big bag of rice. Setsuko finds it hard to let go of what would be her mother’s only surviving belongings, but forgets it soon when met with the promise of some white rice for dinner. Their aunt, however, refuses to serve them more than a single helping. “You won’t help with earning any of the food, and now you want our share too? That’s unfair,” she says, rebuking the children to fend for themselves, and asking them to look for other relatives to live with. She calls them ungrateful, as a five-year-old Setsuko wails and reminds her that the rice, after all, was earned with the siblings’ money.
The next day, Seita writes to his father again; he buys a stove to cook their own meals on, and gives Setsuko the remaining candies when she cries of hunger and thirst on their way back home from errands. That night, he feeds her a meal of candy juice, which he prepares by filling the empty tin with water, stirring it, and pouring it into a bowl for his baby sister to quieten her hunger with. Unbeknownst to them, this moment marks the definitive death of their childhoods, as its vestiges are washed away with the last drops of the colourful candy water poured from the tin.
After a few more subsequent nights where Setsuko continues to cry in hunger and pain, and their aunt keeps castigating them for it, the two finally set off to make an abandoned bomb shelter by a lake their home. In the wilderness, they turn into hunter gatherers looking for wood to light a fire, and scavenging for wild berries to go with what remains of the rice bought in exchange for their mother’s memories. When it gets dark, the fireflies light up their humble home, allowing the brother and sister to see each other’s sunken faces in the pitch black.
The days go by; food and hope begin to dry up at an alarming pace, as American bombs rev up the torching of Japanese homes and crops even further. One day, as the two set out to hunt for food, a couple of children stumble upon their hideout and discover their food. They can’t bear to stand its rotting stink. “I thought I had it bad with what I got to eat at home. This is much worse,” one of them says, as the others chime in, laughing.
Soon after, we find out that Seita is forced into begging, where again he is met with refusals, that too from previously kind farmers who had lent him food, but were now claiming to be running scarce themselves. “Apologise to your aunt, and request her to take you back,” the farmer advises the two. They, however, know better than to go down swallowing their pride, even if that came at the cost of eating a morsel. They resort to eating wild tomatoes, which gives them angry, oozing rashes and an incurable diarrhoea that drains Setsuko of her life.
Unsurprisingly, Seita is then forced to steal. One night, he gets caught stealing from a nearby farm by the farmer who owned it. He thrashes Seita and drags him to the cops, even while he begs him for mercy, as his sister, who is barely able to walk, follows them to the police station. The kind policeman offers a bruised and battered Seita some water, after threatening to imprison the farmer for abusing a minor. It’s the kindest anyone had been to him in what felt like an eternity.
Seita, however, continues to steal food, clothes, and whatever else he could get his hands on, but this time from abandoned homes of strangers during raids. He brings them home to feed a shell of what remains of his sister, whom he promises to never leave alone. But one morning, he finds her lying unconscious outside their home, with her ragged doll lying next to her. He rushes her to a doctor who tells Seita that she does not need medicine but food, as she was suffering from malnutrition. “But where will I find food?” Seita screams, his eyes bursting with tears of rage at how flippantly, and rather obscenely, the doctor suggested the impossible in the same vein as Marie Antoinette had suggested dying peasants eat cake, since they had no bread.
In the next scene, which is perhaps the most poignantly gut wrenching one in the film, Seita steps out of the clinic and feeds his parched sister scraps of ice that had chipped off a huge block being delivered to a rich family. In that moment, he decides to withdraw whatever money their parents had left for them from the bank, only to find out that his father’s unit had surrendered to the enemies and had perhaps died, as a result.
He rushes back home with some food, and a sense—a hope even—of an end drawing nigh, now that their only surviving parent had also been claimed by the war. He finds Setsuko hallucinating and writhing on the ground. Upon seeing Seita, she offers him stones that she had imagined as rice balls she had cooked for him. She is also seen sucking on a coloured marble that she had mistaken for candy, in perhaps an unintentional bid to stay alive until Seita came home, to say her final goodbye to him. He feeds her a crumb of her favourite watermelon, before she shuts her exhausted eyes in his arms, and takes her leave from the world on the stormiest night ever.
Seita lays her to rest in a basket with her doll—along with his will to live and fend for himself—before lighting it on fire. He watches the spirit of what remained of his own life, in the soul of his baby sister, turn into iridescent moths that fly into the horizon and are lost among the flickering bombs lighting his sky.
Only days later, as we find out in medias res when the film begins, Seita too dies of starvation at the Sannomiya train station on 21 September 1945, alongside several others who resembled him in death, as if clad in the same uniform. While some passersby are disgusted by Seito’s unwanted, filthy presence, others stomp by him in indignation and pity, while one offers a bag of stale rice to his rotting corpse.
As the janitors nonchalantly take note of his mouldering body while brooming the dirt of the floor, one of them notices an empty Sakuma drops tin—the one that belonged to Setsuko, which Seita had refused to part with even in his death—in his pocket. The janitor licks the can and asks his colleague, “What is this stuff?” to which comes the reply, “Never mind. Just dump it.”
He tosses it in the dump yard behind the station, where the tin cracks open, releasing the fireflies that bring the spirit of Setsuko alive in the ghoulishly red sky. She reunites with her brother in the afterlife, or the promised land where children like them, even today, hopefully never run out of what they lost in their lives—a loving family, warm meals, and candies that taste like Sakuma drops and childhood.