Growing up in Canada, in school I learned about World War II solely through the lens of the Western Front. Aware that a second military theatre existed during the war, I didn’t give much consideration to the Pacific War apart from one detail: the Japanese were the enemy. A notion imparted to me by not only American media (thanks, Pearl Harbor) but also, my father. The war crimes committed by the Japanese across Asia during this time are notorious for their inhumane cruelty and heinous barbarity, creating a multi-generational disdain that stands to this day, whether consciously or not.
Of course, wartime isn’t this simple. Regardless of what most Hollywood war films will have you believe, there are no winners and losers—there’s simply devastation where humanity failed to prevail. As I matured and learned more about world affairs and the history of my own heritage, I came across a film that expounded this lesson to me more than any other film, art, or literature would do in the years to come.
Directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies was the second film released by the animation house and endures nearly 40 years later as their most poignant story told. Set in Kobe, Japan during the final year of WWII, a young mother dies during the American bombings of the city. Her death is neither swift nor sudden—rather, Takahata takes care in showing us the agony of her suffering. Her teenage son Seita is left to care for his five-year-old sister Setsuko with their father fighting in the war. As famine ravages the country, Seita helplessly watches his sister slowly wither away from malnutrition, eventually dying as he frantically prepares what food he could find for her.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies is considered today to be one of the greatest war films ever made. Its curt and bald-faced look at the tragedy of war beyond the killing fields through the eyes of children, and in a traditionally child’s medium, creates a stark contrast that finds a unique depth.
When Grave of the Fireflies was released in Japan in 1988, it was paired with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature in theatres. A curious billing on the face of it, but these two films find existence on a similar plane outside of their positions as the tentpoles of Ghibli history.
Similarly to Takahata and Nosaka, Miyazaki was born in a pre-war Japan and grew up while the country picked up the pieces following the conflict—physically and spiritually. Where Takahata allows Setsuko’s colourful and bubbly personality to give way to war’s reality, Miyazaki offers an alternative world in which a young child facing loss and grief is able to maintain her innocence with the help of a cuddly spirit and her indomitable imagination.
The widespread destruction surrounding the childhoods of Miyazaki’s generation has undoubtedly furnished the filmmaker’s personal outlook and influenced his art to a high degree. Early films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky see young heroes (and members of royalty no less) seeking peace in the face of war—not by trying to win a battle, but rather attempting to prevent conflict altogether. Even in Princess Mononoke, a primarily environmentalist-themed film, Prince Ashitaka’s steps in between the two warring sides pleading with them to stop the violence. These films never seek to idealize war or the micro-aggressions leading up to it; instead, Miyazaki’s characterizations and storytelling always seem to fall on the side of his own desires for the past and hope for the future.
When the Iraq War broke out, Miyazaki famously refused to travel to the U.S. for the Academy Awards where Spirited Away was nominated (and won). And in the years following, Howl’s Moving Castle—a thinly-veiled allegory for the invasion on Iraq and arguably Miyazaki’s most overtly anti-war film—branded the conflict between fictional neighbouring territories as “this stupid war.” Howl emphasized Miyazaki’s disdain for war and the egotistical minds behind them, and simultaneously continued the director’s appeal for us to understand that humans have the capacity to change for the better.
Of all of his movies, Miyazaki’s first final film The Wind Rises proves to be the most telling in many ways. For as outspoken the director has been about his pacifism and Japan’s war crime past, his intended swan song was seemingly a tribute to Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer who built planes for Japan during WWII. Discernibly conflicting, The Wind Rises serves as a reminder of the greys that present themselves in matters of international violence, not only during wartime but the ongoing nuances that imprint themselves on a generation for a lifetime.
Over the past month, The Asian Cut has been looking back on some of Miyazaki’s seminal films and their impact on animation, culture, and film history, and as we celebrate the filmmaker’s 83rd birthday, we consider his legacy within those aspects of society and others. Perhaps Miyazaki’s most indelible mark will be transforming animation from a Disneyfied landscape intended to entertain primarily children into an art form appreciated by critics and adult audiences alike. However, for myself, Miyazaki’s legacy is found in his optimism for the world in spite of humanity’s insistence of tearing it down.
Given his abilities and success, Miyazaki has been able to recreate the circumstances of his upbringing many times over in his preferred vision and telling, not only for his own catharsis but on behalf of his countrymen and women, many of whom suffered the same ending as Setsuko and Seita. Apart from any sense of artistic therapy, Miyazaki’s films call on each of us to demand more from our governments, to nurture our youth, and to take care of this planet we find ourselves in because it’s the only one we have.
Regardless of how long Studio Ghibli exists, Miyazaki’s storytelling will stand the test of time, offering a reminder of the young children we once were, who thought bad things could end with selflessness and compassion—the insistence to not simply be anti-war, but pro-humanity.