May 28, 2006

The Saddest Movie I Ever Saw

Sometimes, like yesterday, we go to the video store owned by my daughter's friend's parents. We rent DVDs, and sometimes rent them just for one of us.

I chose a Japanese animated film, Grave of the Fireflies. My daughter, who wasn't with us at the video store, likes anime, and I thought we might watch it together. Turns out she and her cousin had seen it, along with the rest of Miyazaki's work. She warned me, "It's very depressing." Later, however, she told me to watch it.

Warning: SPOILER follows.Hotaru no Haka

I did, and like Miyazaki's other work, it is beautifully done. Meticulous animation, careful character development, good music, and so on. But it is the saddest movie I ever saw.

Based on a true story, it takes place in the port city of Kobe, more recently famous for its earthquake, at the end of World War II, when Japanese cities are firebombed. The two protagonists, Seita, a teenaged boy and Setsuko, his toddler sister, are left orphaned and homeless, do not get on with the aunt whose home they flee to. Food becomes scarce, and they flee to a shelter in the side of a hillside, a hauntingly beautiful location, where there are, among other things, many fireflies, which fascinate Setsuko. Seita loyally struggles to find food for both. Setsuko never loses her sweetness through all horror. Seita remains determined and loyal, though headstrong and inept, even as he is prepared to steal to save his sister and himself. Unlike a Disney character, he fails.

The story is an uncompromising account of the effects of war on two blameless children, and symbolizes the completeness of Japan's defeat in the Second World War. It contains many of Miyazaki's themes, including girl heroes, aviation, the beauty of nature and threats to it--but there is no magic, and no villains, except perhaps the faceless bombers.

As an American, one feels more than a twinge at watching the film. Our war, just though it was overall, included more air raids on civilians than just Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Necessary or not--and I am not entering that debate here--the consequences for those under the bombs were ghastly.

Nor are the effects of the war on children a thing of the past. From the conscripted child soldiers of Uganda to the victims of terror and counter-terror in the Middle East, to the day-care children killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, children bear in their bodies and souls the consequences of the wickedness of adults, a fact worth remembering, whatever one's views of a particular conflict, or of the morality of war in general.

Meanwhile, the film, whose title in Japanese is Hotaru no Haka is worth watching. And profoundly sad.

UPDATE: Corrected spelling error, added a sentence about the ending (5/29/06).

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