By the side of the pond, in a cave, a fourteen-year-old boy lives with his four-year-old sister, all alone. Maybe they’re playing a game of adventure or house, collecting dead wood for fuel, and drawing seawater for its saltiness. They bathe in the pond, and while swimming, they catch water snails.
It’s summertime. The sun scorches the earth, and the rain patters on the water’s surface, flowing down like a waterfall. Rising steam and sweat flow freely. Night falls on this intense light and shadow, and fireflies dance around the summer grasses. Inside their mosquito net, the siblings release more than a hundred fireflies. The soft light brings back memories that seem like dreams, although these memories persisted just until a month ago…
This strange and melancholy everyday world is weaved by the sibling duo alone, surrounded by an enchanting aura.
That said, this isn’t a deserted island from a shipwreck. There are fields around them, people, and many grand houses. Looking down from the pond embankment, the town stretches out below, leading straight to the sea. The town is a mix of scorched open fields under the blazing sun and a quiet, old-fashioned residential area. Yet, the stark division mirrors the sudden disaster that befell the siblings, which they could never reconcile with in their hearts. Going down alongside the river and crossing three railway lines and a national road, one reaches the shimmering sandy beach of a scorching summer.
From July 6th of Showa 20 (1945) to August 22nd after the defeat, during their father’s deployment and after losing their mother in an air raid, the siblings Seita and Setsuko lived in an air-raid shelter near a reservoir on the hillside. This town by the Seto Inland Sea was their living area, their territory.
How could the young sister distinguish between playing house and real life? The ever-encroaching hunger taught her that.
This wasn’t an uninhabited island. They did interact with people. They received their ration of rice. Stuffing several ten-yen notes withdrawn from their deposit into his pocket, the brother sold the kimono left by their mother. Yet, even when meeting at the well to draw water, the neighbors never visited the siblings’ hideout. Maybe they saw the junior high third-year brother as a respectable adult and refrained from intervening, thinking of them as an independent family. Or perhaps they were too busy with their own lives and families to pay any attention. Moreover, if the brother ever tried to steal a bit of food from the fields, they’d instantly attack and cast him out.
Whenever air raid sirens sounded, the brother would head to a remaining part of the burnt town. Amidst the terrifying sounds of explosions and strafing gunfire, the boy would run into the vacant homes to steal food or clothing for barter. Even if planes shimmered in the sky, fear was gone; he felt like waving at them.
If war were to suddenly break out now and Japan were engulfed in flames, how would children who lost their parents survive? How would adults treat other people’s children?
The boy Seita from “Grave of the Fireflies” feels to me as if a modern-day boy had time-traveled and accidentally ended up in that tragic era. And almost inevitably, in the course of events, he lets his little sister die and a month later, he too passes away.
When we say a middle school third-year student, it refers to the age when some children would enter preparatory training or army youth schools, or become boy soldiers. Although Seita was the eldest son of a Navy lieutenant commander, however, he had no semblance of a militaristic boy. When their house was burned down in an air raid and his sister asked, “What are we going to do?”, he could only answer, “Dad will take revenge for us.” He had no inclination to serve selflessly for his country or the emperor, and his resentment and old habits quickly evaporated.
He was raised in relative prosperity, aware of the pleasures of urban life. Of course, he never had to endure the hardship of helping his parents with their work or bearing difficult circumstances. He never adopted a servile attitude, and even under wartime conditions, he likely belonged to the category of people who lived relatively carefree lives.
After losing his mother and being driven out by the air raids, Seita took refuge in the home of a distant relative, a widow. Perhaps she resented him for being the nephew of her husband, a Navy lieutenant commander, or maybe she was just naturally cold-hearted, but she quickly began treating the siblings as nuisances. Seita couldn’t tolerate her harassment and scorn. He couldn’t bear to humble himself before the hysterical widow, kneeling and begging for forgiveness to protect himself and his sister. From the widow’s perspective, Seita was probably an utterly unendearing child.
“Fine, let’s eat separately. That way there’ll be no complaints, right?”
“If you cherish your life that much, you should just live in a cave.”
The words hurled at him and the sentiment behind them were undoubtedly cold-hearted. But maybe the widow never thought that the siblings would actually take the step of living separately. Seita couldn’t continue in this suffocating human relationship that demanded his submission and appeasement. Instead of enduring the unbearable relationships, he chose to separate his meals and leave for the cave. This boy, who refused to cling submissively, must have been ever so detestable to the widow, who probably felt no remorse in getting rid of the nuisance.
Seita’s actions and emotional responses might resemble those of today’s teenagers and children who grew up in material comfort, taking comfort and discomfort as major standards for interpersonal relations and actions, and avoiding cumbersome human relations. Or perhaps even the adults who share this era with those children are the same.
In modern times, where family bonds have weakened and the sense of solidarity among neighbors has diminished, we are protected by multiple layers of social guarantees and controls. Placing non-interference at the forefront of our relationships, we validate our own kindness through superficial gestures of care that don’t touch on the essence of human interaction. Even without war, if a major disaster struck and the social restraints were loosened without the foundation of mutual understanding and collaboration, people would inevitably turn on each other in raw human relationships, possibly even more intensely than the immediate aftermath of the war’s end. It’s chilling to think that one could be on either side of such conflict. And even if one decided to escape from such human relationships and live alone with a sibling like Seita did, how many boys, how many people, could continually support their sibling like Seita did?
Despite the story’s tragedy, Seita does not appear pitiable in the slightest. One can feel his vigor, standing tall and proud on the earth as a young boy. A fourteen-year-old boy, with the strength of a woman, the resilience of a mother, pouring all his energy into the most basic essence of life – to eat and feed.
The life of the two siblings, relying on no one but each other in their cave, stands at the heart of this narrative, representing its salvation. A fleeting light shines upon the two who bear a harsh fate – the smile of an infant, the crystallization of innocence.
Seita strives to support his sister on his own and tries to keep himself alive. Yet, as expected, he gradually becomes overwhelmed and fades away.
Regardless of anything else, in the era transitioning from post-war reconstruction, where surviving strongly and robustly was paramount, to the period of high economic growth, there were people who, while moved by the poignant story of “Grave of the Fireflies”, could not come to terms with its extremely tragic ending.
But now, “Grave of the Fireflies” emits a powerful light, illuminating the present age and frightening us. Throughout the forty years since the war, there has never been a time like the present where we could feel Seita’s way of life and his manner of death so personally and empathetically.
Now is the time I want to adapt this story into a visual medium.