Grave of the Fireflies and burying selfishness

This article was originally printed on November 4, 2015 in Area of Effect magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. If you enjoy this article, we recommend you check out the Area of Effect anthology, containing pieces similar to this one and many more written by a cacophony of wonderful (and nerdy) writers.

A teenage boy, dying from disease and starvation, sits leaning against a pillar in a subway station. Some express disdain towards the teen; others ignore him; one lady leaves a small bit of food next to him.

This is the opening scene for Grave of the Fireflies, Studio Ghibi’s animated classic about the closing days of World War II.

By nightfall, the boy, Seita, is dead. His spirit, however, is alive—and in the midst of glowing fireflies, he reunites with the spirit of a young girl (whom we soon discover is his sister Setsuko), and the two take us on a journey to the past, narrating what led them to their deaths.

Grave of the Fireflies is difficult to watch—a cursory look through the Tumblr tag for the movie brings forth a common response: tears, and lots of them. After the children are left without their mother, as she suffered from severe burns due to the U.S. firebombing of their hometown of Kobe, Seita becomes a surrogate parent and leads his sister to a distant aunt’s house. There, the siblings are forced to take refuge. Their aunt cautiously takes them in, but as rationing becomes tighter, her callousness turns into outright scorn at having to share food with the children.

Seita ultimately makes an ill-fated decision to take Setsuko and leave his aunt’s home, moving to an abandoned shelter. Though the two are happy at first to have their own dwelling, and even acquire goods and equipment that they purchase from a farmer, it isn’t long before malnutrition and disease set in. When Seita takes the declining Setsuko to see an unconcerned doctor, it’s too late. His sister dies shortly thereafter. And it’s only weeks later that Seita himself dies at Sannomiya Station.

The blame for their deaths—and it should be noted that the film is a semi-autobiographical account, adapting a memoir of an author whose sister died during the war—can be laid at the feet of many: a government unable to protect its own citizens; the war machine that efficiently killed thousands of civilians; and even Seita himself, who refused to return to his adopted home when Setsuko became sick. But, in my opinion, the culpability lies with the adults who failed the children. We witnessed an aunt whose bitterness chased Seita and Setsuko away, a doctor who diagnosed and didn’t ask questions, and countless others who saw the siblings’ situation, but did little or nothing to help.

I wonder if we are different from Seita’s selfish aunt or Setusko’s uncaring doctor. Though 70 years and thousands of miles separate us from the stories of orphans suffering in Japan during World War II, misery and cruelty still dictates life for so many children in the world. Genocide, civil wars, atrocities, famines, starvation, and epidemics zigzag the globe. Besides whispering a prayer or making a charitable donation, do we do anything more to show that we care? Do we offer help to the most vulnerable of us in the most dangerous of situations?

All too often, the destitute and grieving are far away from us—from both our homes and our hearts.

Whatever the reasons—selfishness, thoughtlessness, or ignorance—we cannot be excused for our lack of involvement in helping the helpless. No excuse will bring a toddler back from the throws of starvation or emancipate a child slave. And no excuse exonerates us from the fact that we could do more, but choose not to.

Near the end of Grave of the Fireflies, a most telling scene occurs. With the war now over, several young women, dressed in expensive, western attire, return to their family’s mansion on a lake. While a phonograph plays, the women express how much they missed their home. Meanwhile, across the same lake, we see the children’s shelter. Nearby, Seita undertakes one more adult responsibility, cremating his sister’s remains. The contrasts are clear—rich and poor, together and alone, life and death.

Across the lake, across the ocean—over distance and time and culture and finances—will we bridge that gap and save those without a voice? Will we put aside selfish desires and make sacrifices to bring real aid and real healing to those who never had a chance? Or will we be satisfied within the comfortable confines of our lives and demonstrate what our hearts have decided to be true, which is, that, in the end, we simply don’t care?

Grave of the Fireflies reminds me that there’s more occurring in the world than just what’s before my eyes, that there are things I could be doing to help others who are in dire circumstances. I don’t want to be the aunt with the calloused heart or even the passerby who provides a small amount of food and walks away. I want to push aside my selfishness and be willing to make sacrifices so that the Seitas I meet are not left to die in misery. That is my hope and prayer during times of war and after.

Grave of the Fireflies is available for purchase.


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