Films As Creative Politics: Viewing And Reviewing ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’

October 24, 2011 at 9:15 AMOct (Cinema, Literature, Media, Musings)

On the 2nd of May, while announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden to the world, the US of A President Barrack Obama invoked the memory of 9/11 saying its images had ‘seared into national memory’ and added, “And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace.” If the statement has to be seen parking aside the debates on the history that Osama created and the history that created Osama, on US imperialism, the terrorism of the US, we feel Obama spoke of what is less discussed yet is no less crucial or important.

Though Obama spoke of this, it was only for political reasons to unite the US of A under the umbrella of emotions. But it is true that many dinner tables went empty and many children grew up without their mother or their father and many parents missed the touch of their children. While it is true of US of A, it is also true of Iraq and Afghanistan and to go back further in history it is true also of Japan during world war two.

The history of war the history of politics the history of power hardly documents the loss that war and politics causes at a very human level. Art, at times of history, has not just raised voice of resistance and protest but also has managed to record the unspoken part of history. To quote a line from Brecht’s poetry: “Will There Be Poetry In Dark Times? Yes There Will Be Dark Poems In Dark Times.” Art documents, artistically, the darkness of times. It can be seen in the works of Sadat Hassan Manto who through his short stories documented the violence of partition, in the works of Nagnamuni who documented the unspoken story of the floods in Andhra in 1977, in his epic poem Koyyagurram, to quote couple of examples.

With these entry points I would like enter the animation film ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’ made in the year 1988 by the Japanese filmmaker Isao Takahata. The film is adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki. The story is of a teenage brother (Sieta) and his younger sister Setsuka in the city of Kobe, in Japan, after the city has been bombed during the fading days of world war two.

One of the popular narrative structures in audio-visual medium is to hold the suspense regarding the end of the narrative. But this animation film begins with the end. The film opens with the scene of Sieta breathing his last in a substation uttering the name of his sister. The director thus poses the question, silently, “Ok now that you know he is dead, do you know how did he die? Was it a natural death as you saw it and believed it?” As if to further strengthen his question the viewers get to see a gatekeeper coming to Sieta’s body, from which life has just flown away, who on realizing the end of Sieta’s life exclaims, “Another one.” The strength of his words is in the normal reaction to a death at a public space. Death doesn’t shock him anymore. By saying, “Another one” he has made us realizes that Sieta has died in the times when death was reduced to statistics. It also makes us realize that its not just Sieta who has died but many have died, like him. So the story of Grave Of The Fireflies is not the story of Sieta alone, but it’s the story of many through the life of Sieta.

From here the film moves back to narrate the story of Sieta and his sister Setsuka after their city has been bombed by the US of A. Their mother has died in the bombing and their father is in the Navy. They are not just deprive of a house, now, but also a home. Their entire environ is damaged. Its not just they who are displaced by this war but the place itself has been displaced thus making them an alien in their own place and their own space. They, for survival, initially move to the house of an aunt, who is quite nasty and does not feed them properly. This makes Sieta find an empty cave for himself and his sweet little sister. Now the burden of feeding himself and his sister falling completely on him, Sieta does varied things to fill their hunger, including an attempt to steal.

The author of the novel Nasoka once in an interview had said that when he was searching for food would feed himself first and his sister later. He recollects that his own sister died because of lack of food and nutrition and said that this fact haunted him all his life. This, he said, pushed him to write the novel.

In this autobiographical statement of Nasoka we can see that the cruelness of the aunt was caused by the historical pressure of the war time which damaged life and lifestyle of people. The scarcity of food the intense hunger made Nasoka feed him-self first, and the aunt of Sieta and Setuska sell the clothings of their mother for rice and keep a major share of it for herself. It’s this scarcity of food and intense hunger which makes Sieta make an attempt in stealing and be caught in the act by his own sister making him feel ashamed of himself.

Sieta had to leave behind his childhood and take up the responsibility at a very early age because of the damage caused by war. He not only lost his family and childhood but was also burdened with the responsibility to make his small sister not feel the absence of the touch of a family at a very formative age. He hides the matter of their mother’s death from Setsuka and makes all possible attempts to make her laugh and keep her happy by holding fireflies, giving her candy, and creating water bubbles. But there is a limit to the optimism of the will. Human spirits can triumph over situations but not historical darkness. The struggle of Sieta comes to an end when Setsuka dies due to lack of food and due to malnourishment. The war, which snatched the childhood of Sieta, earlier after snatching their mother, the shelter of parents, cuts short the life of Setsuka early, very early.

While the film celebrates human spirit and courage to fight against odds, it does not romanticize it. It speaks of all the ‘short cuts’ that humans will have to take for survival, without looking down at those acts but seeing them as a part of the struggle for survival. At the same time it doesn’t speak of triumph of the will, against all odds, thus making the world of art ground properly on earth.

This film is shown across Japan to sensitize the children towards their history. This film, probably one of the strongest anti-war films, wouldn’t have been this strong if made a film of celluloid. While the story of the film suits the medium of animation, it is quite unusual (at least in the times it was made) to incorporate such stories within the medium of animation. This has not just given a new touch to the story but also has made many, who think of animation as a medium of and for children, rethink about animation.

Art, while documenting the untold part of history, can generally do two things. One, heighten the emotions to cut through the skin of the audience to communicate. Two deepen the emotions to seep into his heart, taking him to a meditative state and think about what is communicated. This film slowly grows on the audience, making him think about various aspects, as they start associating themselves with Sieta and Setsuka.

It is true that a good art is the one which slows you down. The speed of history has to slow down. The speed of power politics has to slow down. Apart from raising voice of resistance and protest, the art should probe the audience and should also make them slow down. When political speech reminds us of the empty dinner table it is to intensify the hatred for some people and is jingoism in disguise. While Grave Of The Fireflies and such films speaks the same it tries to fill the gaps of history and to enable the audience look at life differently, slowing them down, revealing to them the politics of larger politics. This is the politics of art. This is creative politics.

(Written for the 300th – special- issue of Hindi magazine Chakmak which was released yesterday the 23rd of Oct 20011 in Bhopal by Gulzar Saheb)

1 Comment

  1. prajna said,

    Setsuka..resides in me now. She is going to live with me..and, most probably would follow me till my graveyard. Haunting film.


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