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Andrew Osmond on the truth behind the anime classic

Released in 1988, and now the subject of another live-action remake, the anime war film Grave of the Fireflies has been analysed as drama, as poetry, and as one of the most heartbreaking films ever made. There’s been less said, though, about the real events that inspired it, barring a hugely informative essay by David C. Stahl, called Victimization and “Response-Ability.” The information in this article is from Stahl’s essay; if you want to read the original, it’s in an anthology called Imag(in)ing the War in Japan: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Postwar Literature and Film.

The film of Grave of the Fireflies, animated at Studio Ghibli by Isao Takahata, is based on a 1967 story by Akiyuki Nosaka, itself inspired by Nosaka’s horrific experiences during World War II. Nosaka was born in 1930; his biological mother died soon after. He was adopted by his maternal aunt, Aiko, and her husband. Their hometown was the city of Kobe, near Osaka and Kyoto. In 1944, the family also adopted a baby called Keiko, who became Nosaka’s little sister.

In June 1945, in the last days of the Pacific war, Kobe came under air attack from American B-29 bombers. The family house was destroyed, though Nosaka and Keiko survived. Nosaka was fourteen; Keiko was one and a half. After the attack, they moved in with a relative of Aiko’s, a widow. Food soon ran short, and Keiko, who was so young that she couldn’t even swallow hard foods, was malnourished.

In July, the children moved out, apparently because of Nosaka’s tense relationships with the widow and her neighbours. They stayed a month in a bomb shelter beside a pond. In August, the children were moved to another house, but Keiko’s decline continued. Years later, Nosaka described how his toddler sister reverted from walking to crawling, and finally to sleeping as her body wasted away. She died on August 21st, six days after Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the nation.

After the war, Nosaka went back to school for two years, but failed a high school entrance exam and dropped out. That year, he was caught stealing, and sent to a detention centre in Tokyo. Nosaka was shut in a filthy room with fifteen or twenty other boys, some of whom died while he was there. After a month, his biological father (now a politician) learned of his situation, and Nosaka came into his care. Two decades later, in 1967, Nosaka published two stories about the war, including “Grave of the Fireflies.” The next year, they won a literary prize.

Viewers of the Grave of the Fireflies film will see many of the story’s details match Nosaka’s experience. As Stahl explains, though, the history is complicated because Nosaka, by his own admission, didn’t always tell the truth. Until 1973, he said he was a war orphan, having lost his family except Keiko in the air raid. In fact, not only did his biological father survive, but so did his foster mother, Aiko. In the fictionalised Grave story, the mother character is terribly injured in the air attack, and dies shortly after. In reality, Aiko was burned – when Nosaka saw her after the raid, she was indeed covered in bandages, as the mother is in the story – but she survived and apparently lived into the 1970s.

Stahl suggests that Nosaka lied to protect himself, “to garner sympathy and deflect possible inquiries concerning his conduct during the attack.” In Grave, the fictional boy carries his sister to safety during the air raid. He has a loving relationship with her, and struggles to bring her food, even at the risk of his life. True, the story also shows how the boy cannot cope with his bullying aunt – based on the widow with whom Nosaka stayed – and decides to move out, with fatal consequences. Still, the character idealises the real Akiyuki.

As Nosaka confessed in his non-fiction writings after “Grave,” on the day of the air raid, he saw his family house burning, called out to his foster parents – and then fled. It was Aiko, not Nosaka, who saved Keiko from the air raid, despite her horrendous burns. Nosaka also confessed that, in the time of deprivation, his terrible hunger meant he sometimes ate food without sharing it with his baby sister. “I loved her,” he wrote. “But my gluttony overrode my affection and concern for her.”

In the Grave story, the boy is shown walking at night with his sister crying on his back, trying to coax her to sleep. In reality, Nosaka wrote, he was so exhausted and maddened by Keiko’s crying that he abused her. First he spanked her; then he hit her hard on the head, knocking her out. He also said that during his time at the widow’s house, he became smitten with her teen daughter, so much that he hardly thought about Keiko’s condition, or the injured Aiko in hospital. Despite its horror and tragedy, the Grave story often shows what Nosaka wished had happened. Stahl suggests that might extend to the fictional boy’s death, shown at the start of the story, taking the author’s survivor guilt to its conclusion.

Stahl also argues that both Nosaka’s fiction and his later confession reflect a traumatised man working through his nightmares, “marked by conflicting motives of atonement, dissembling, testimony, evasion, repentance and prevention.” One trigger was the birth of Nosaka’s daughter in 1964. After what had happened to Keiko, Nosaka was terrified she would die in infancy, and envisioned their house burning down. Nosaka also cited the war in Vietnam. “Complacently living as we do in peace and prosperity, we naturally think that Vietnam has nothing to do with us. But one misstep, war breaks out and women and children suffer.”

Stahl points out that Grave is not just derived from Nosaka’s memories of his poor dead sister, but is an amalgam of experiences. For example, it reflects his own later suffering in the Tokyo detention centre. Moreover, the little girl in Grave, Setsuko, may represent Nosaka’s sister Keiko, but she was based on someone else as well. On the day of the air raid, when Nosaka fled his burning home, he reached a hillside bomb shelter outside Kobe. In the shelter was a girl by herself, about four or five years old. She was holding a doll and a basket, and seemed calm despite the grim situation. For half an hour, they talked together while they looked out on the burning of Kobe, before Nosaka left the girl to find his family. Stahl notes, “Nosaka has written that the origins of his fictional character Setsko can be traced back to this brief but memorable encounter.”

The film version of Grave further overlays the experience of its director, Isao Takahata. Like Nosaka, Takahata was a child of war; aged nine, he and his older sister fled through their bombed town when the B-29s came. As part of that generation, Takahata views wartime in a different light than we do now. He said that he wanted Grave’s viewers to reflect on the actions of the boy in the film, his terrible mistakes that kill him and his sister. Of course, our chief reaction is grief and sorrow for the children.

Grave of the Fireflies is available on UK DVD from Studio Canal.

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