Reclaiming Empathy: A Film Review of “Grave of the Fireflies”

*Disclaimer: this film review contains spoilers*

The topic of desensitization to violence is one often met with rolling eyes and sighs of frustration, often seen as the aimless complaints of an out-of-touch generation needlessly problematizing today’s pop-culture. To some extent, such attitudes can be understood. In contexts such as those of mass shootings in the U.S., blaming the consumption of violent media, games, films, and the like can be seen as a scapegoat for other factors. Despite this, a number of studies on the subject show a degree of correlation between the consumption of violent media and tendencies towards violent behaviour.

Reflecting on the conditions and ailments of our hearts should be a ceaseless effort on the part of the believer. For those living in conditions of financial, social, and political security, it is crucial that our hearts not be dried into callousness by the visual bombardment of fitan (trials) in the 24/7 news cycle and other sorts of media, lest our duty to the wider ummah and humanity at large be forgotten or eroded in the process. 

One of the blessings in art – one that appears to be lost in the spirit of the Western Muslim – is that it allows us to find new ways to question and reflect upon our personal states. With respect to cinema, despite the countless films and genres that appear to celebrate all manners of excess including senseless violence and gore, there are those that utilize these motifs to invite reflection from the audience. One such film is the Japanese animation Grave of the Fireflies.

Grave of the Fireflies was released in 1988, directed by Isao Takahata, and produced by the iconic production company Studio Ghibli. Based upon the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is set against the backdrop of World War II Japan and follows the story of two children; 12 year old Seita and his little sister Setsuko. 

The film follows the siblings in their struggle to survive during and after the US bombings of Kobe, in which their mother is tragically killed, all the while their father has been away on duty in the Japanese Navy. Over the course of the film, Seita is forced to mature and make difficult choices, in addition to maintaining the spirits of his younger sister. Setsuko is forced to deal with emotional and physical dilemmas of her own, and in the process has to grapple with complex tragedies not typical for a four-year-old.

As the synopsis suggests, this film is hardly a light viewing experience. The film is raw, challenging, and for several reasons is quite possibly one of the most unique war films that one might encounter in a life-time.

Firstly, one might expect, given the subject matter, that violence would feature heavily within the film and while it is showcased within the film, it is shown sparsely and with great effect. Much of the violence appears in the beginning of the story, wherein we see the carnage and destruction of the Kobe bombings, the decimation of the children’s hometown and the horrific, tragic death of their mother who is savagely burned beyond recognition. The children are briefly taken into the guardianship of their cruel and reluctant aunt, who constantly puts herself before them and guilts Seita in particular to view himself and his sister as a burden. After deciding to leave her custody, the siblings are rendered homeless and find themselves struggling for the most basic necessities for the remainder of the film. 

In relegating the violent aspects of the plot to the beginning, the story is then able to explore the brutality of war in a manner unconventional of this genre. The bombings are brief. What Takahata focuses on instead is the fallout: the cost of human life. The perspective given in Grave of the Fireflies is uncharacteristic of conventional war films, at least for Western audiences. Of all the films dealing with conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, one would be hard pressed to find any that aren’t told from the perspective of combatants. Furthermore, those which concern wars carried out by the U.S. in particular are often either uncritical of the horrors brought about by its military or evoke sympathy for those who partook in those horrors. 

The film doesn’t follow soldiers but civilians, an afterthought in most narratives. Between the drama of war is the drama of those who have to live with its consequences, represented by the figures of Seita and Setsuko. Whilst war is indeed the subject of the film, conflict is not the engine of the narrative. The “enemies” in the form of American bombers are distant and faceless, their impact outlasts their presence, and their existence and violence does not occupy the minds of the children as much as survival and the search for normality does. 

Grave of the Fireflies is in many respects unique amongst the films produced by Studio Ghibli. Though a number of their films touch upon the subject of war; namely Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and The Wind Rises, those films filter the theme through their settings, which are either based in fantasies or a reality married with dreams. Such is the signature of the Studio’s founder and visionary Hayao Miyazaki, whose films are often embellished with whimsy and imagination. 

In contrast, Takahata – whilst in no way lacking in imagination – often mutes fantasy and spectacle within his stories. He instead focuses on the minute and mundane world and its own drama. This approach is one that thematically benefits Grave of the Fireflies

Another aspect that sets it apart from generic conventions is its animation. For Western audiences, animation has long held a particular connotation of address and audience. For many, the medium is inseparable from the idea of the cartoon, the expectation of children’s entertainment. Even with the rise of cartoons aimed at older audiences such as The Simpsons, South Park, or more recently Rick and Morty, the fact that the category of adult animation is still a novelty demonstrates that the expectation of animation in the West is quite different from that of the East. In Japan, animation is treated simply as a medium. While there are films and television programs with clearly more mature themes, animation is not treated as something without sophistication, irrespective of the audience. The famed film critic, Roger Ebert, commented on this when he described the film as “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.”

It could also be said that the animation is not merely a consequence of budget or logistical constraints but an integral part of the viewing experience. The film creates an almost uncanny atmosphere in the conflict of its aesthetic with its themes. It bears much of the signature style of Studio Ghibli. Whereas most conventional characters tend to have sharp and intense features emphasizing the melodrama of the wider movement that is Anime, the animators at Ghibli tend to opt for rounded and somewhat plain features in human characters. Their expressions aren’t bold and imposing but instead subtle, giving a sense of warmth re-enforced by painstakingly hand-painted backdrops that immerse the viewer in a euphoric atmosphere. 

Grave of the Fireflies betrays the expectations of warmth and security through its deployment of violent imagery. The viewer would not expect the quaint and serene depiction of rural Japan to be the setting of such vicious attacks, nor would they expect to see a film centered around doe-eyed and impossibly optimistic children to depict their starvation in such brutal honesty. The conflict between the style of animation and the ends to which it is used forces the viewer to confront the subject of violence and their emotional response to it in a wholly unique way. Whilst live action would provide more aesthetic realism, in the age of excess and the celebration of violence one might – whilst still being appalled by the thought – be insidiously affected. Animation here cultivates a sense of ambivalence and discomfort through the filter of the abstract, compelling the viewer to process the imagery as though for the first time. This quality is something that a live-action version wouldn’t be able to touch upon. Ironically, in bringing the film to a higher dimension, it would risk losing so much of its depth. To borrow once again from Ebert, the film is unique not because it “inspires tears,” (which the writer here can attest to) but that it demands grief and introspection. Should it really take an elaborate cacophony of drawings to make us feel? 

Empathy is very much a part of the fitra (innate human spirit) and is a quality that Allah praises and honors. The penultimate verse of Surah Tauba – one of the most severe (i.e. Allah’s wrath) chapters of the Qur’an – Allah praises His holy messenger ﷺ for this exact quality:

لَقَدْ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ عَزِيزٌ عَلَيْهِ مَا عَنِتُّمْ حَرِيصٌ عَلَيْكُم بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَءُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ – 9:128

There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; [he is] concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful. 

Our ability to feel and understand the pain of our brethren of faith and humanity as a whole is linked to our sincerity in religion. Seeking the means to increase or renew our empathic spirit is a heart softening experience unto itself, as one could take from the Prophetic tradition:

Abu Huraira reported: A man came to the Messenger of Allah(ﷺ) , peace and blessings be upon him, and he complained about the hardness of his heart. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “If you want to soften your heart, feed the poor and pat the head of the orphan.”

The command of our Beloved ﷺ teaches us that as much as prayer and direct acts of worship soften the heart, so too does concern for and solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society. A reminder to empathize with those in plight, to aid them in as much as we can, and to remember them is something we as believers should welcome. 

It might seem clichéd to most of our readers, but the threat that modernity poses to the believing heart is an unprecedented one and the list of threats it encompasses is nearly impossible to quantify. The age of industrialized warfare is also the age of industrialized communication, and that unholy marriage breeds not only external carnage but also internal carnage. The barrage of fitan, filtered by the lens of mass media, and the celebration of morbidity in popular culture (which we are more complicit in than we think) have the capacity to ruin our internal states. 

Last Ramadhan, the Muslim-oriented media platform Islam21C published an article by Dr. Uthman Lateef addressing the question “Have charity appeals made us into war photographers?”

The question was raised in reference to the poem War Photographer by Poet laureate Carol Ann-Duffy. Dr. Lateef went on to explore the poem’s theme of violence and the reaction it evokes in the reader. A war photographer is someone who cannot afford to be shaken by the horrors of the conflicts that he aims to capture. The nature of the photographer’s career is to overwhelm the senses. It leaves one jaded and unwavering in the face of trauma and suffering. The desensitization faced by the war photographer is one we, in the supposed “golden age of content,” are becoming all too familiar with, through all the avenues of media. 

The poet reminds us that any sympathy with the victims is momentary […] People have adopted more of a fascination than a disgust with the horrors that they encounter.

Dr Lateef’s commentary almost evokes a scene one might find in an art gallery; a very real photograph capturing the horrors of Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan on display for the vain musings of some voyeurs. Dr Lateef’s reflection is, however, no more pertinent to anyone or any community than it is to the Western Muslim. 

In such a cultural and political climate, a film like Grave of the Fireflies could not be more relevant. Its handling and exploration of violence and conflict is a lesson of its own. The film compels one to not only feel but to understand and internalize what’s felt. It shifts the narrative of war from the active participant to those that bear the brunt of the conflict. We, as an audience, haven’t the privilege to look away, swipe or scroll, but rather we’re demanded to share in the grief of the characters on screen, and asked to reflect upon the cause of their suffering. 

Few films deserve to be considered “important”, but it is in this light; in the perennial message of life’s sanctity and the importance of empathy, that Isao Takahata’s masterpiece is without a doubt an important film. 

May Allah soften our hardened, callous hearts and make us of those who run to the aid of those in turmoil.


About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a writer for Traversing Tradition. He is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include Literature, Film and Islamic History. He is not a fan of twitter.

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