October 20, 1994 [Grave of the Fireflies]

Seeing the edge-of-town landscape in Grave of the Fireflies so quietly beautiful, so full of promise for any child alone and waiting, I expected a Totoro to show up any moment, one of Miyazaki's round and solemn sweethearts, to take the child's hand so softly nothing but love could be possible.

But the children here are dead--yes, slipping away in the firefly-haunted train, happy at last; but still gone, starved to death after the firebombing, mother dead too--never making it to the comforting hospital, ready for happy visits--and father as well, sunk by the Allies for the Emperor and the rice-paper Empire burning swiftly. 

I have seen the newsreels, the documents of bodies--Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, Pearl Harbor, Bataan.  But here in a cartoon the little girl giggles and clutches her older brother---his face toward her bright and willing, firm and decisive--and then he turns away, and he is also a child, not even sure they're starving--not wanting to be sure, why would he?  Children are supposed to put up with anything--and maybe they don't know it, but they do, the strongest people in the world, the toughest and most resilient--and the grownups know it, too; why else would we batter at them as though we were hammering gold?--ah, what a lie.  We do all this to them because they don't complain, at least not much; instead, they slip away, out there to the hole in the hill where they set up a holiday camp by the water and pee where they like and cram down the rice--until it's gone and the little girl starves, slowly, while her brother watches, and then he gets to burn her up in one more fire and slink away to the train station where he can at last slump over and let go.

The little box he held with no more fruit drops inside but only ashes is tossed out the door and lands in the grass and spills out a few bits, some fireflies gathering to make a very little light.


  1. I was happy to see this hit Ebert's great movies, even though I will never watch it again. Or, at least, I have no plans to. This is a devastating emotional journey that, I believe, could only work in animated format. With a slight suspension of disbelief, the melodramatic emotions seem plenty realistic, making us feel abrupt, powerful emotions that take more time to develop on a human-filled stage.

  2. This is only the second time I watched it, and that's just because I insist on an "immediate experience" when I write for this site--and I watched it with someone who'd never seen it. Otherwise, I place it in the category of great-but-once-is-enough.


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