Studio Ghibli has always done a great job making characters that you can easily relate to, which makes it all the more important to you – as the viewer – to watch these characters face their challenges and grow over time as the story progresses. Though you only spend a short time getting to know the beautifully-crafted world (and the characters which inhabit it), you form something of a bond with them over this time you share together. I think that emotional bond is what makes Grave of the Fireflies all the more painful to watch since you know deep down that things are unlikely to end well, but you spend the whole movie hoping against hope for these two tragic characters. Making this story even more tragic is that it’s actually based in reality.
As with many of Studio Ghibli’s works, Grave of the Fireflies is based on a short story of the same name, penned by Akiyuki Nosaka.1 According to interviews with the author,2 the story is a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences in wartime and post-war Japan. But the question is, just how much of it is actually based on his life and how much of it was fictionalized to convey the general feeling of despair felt by those living in Japan at the time?
Nosaka’s family situation is actually pretty convoluted since he had lost his mother much earlier in life (a mere two months after giving birth) and he was taken in and adopted by his aunt and uncle’s family,the Harimaya family, when he was just six months old. Unfortunately, as happened all too often in World War II, tragedy befell the Harimaya’s as well and his adoptive father, Zenzo, died during the bombings of Kobe, which took place over March 16 and 17 of 1945.3
In contrast with the movie, Nosaka’s actual father, Sukeyuki Nosaka,4 did not serve in the Japanese navy or even in the armed forces at all. In fact, he was a civil engineer and worked in that position before, during, and even after the war. As for why he did not take custody of Akiyuki after the death of his mother, I couldn’t find any clear answer other than that his parents were separated (“living apart”) at the time of her death, which may be why he was adopted by his mother’s younger sister.
The Real Setsuko
In reality, Nosaka had two younger sisters. While the eldest was lost to sickness, the youngest ultimately died due to malnutrition while under Nosaka’s care in Fukui prefecture, which is where he was evacuated to after the bombing of Kobe. I was unable to find his sister’s real name written anywhere, though, so for now we will continue to refer to her simply as Setsuko.
While Setsuko’s age is never clearly given in either the book or the movie, taking into consideration that she is able to communicate reasonably well together with her height and general level of comprehension, general consensus is that she’s around four years old or so. In reality, Nosaka’s sister under his care was a mere year and a half at the time, meaning that there was no way that they could have communicated in the way they do throughout the story. She was still just a baby with no understanding of what was happening in the world around her.
Nosaka chose to write this story as an act of redemption since he, in his own words, wasn’t half as kind to his sister as Seita is in the story:
I would take what little rice we had and make a rice porridge (kayu) to feed my sister. When spooning up the porridge, I found myself angling the spoon narrower and narrower. I ate from the bottom of the bowl. I would eat the actual food, and feed my sister rice-flavored water.
As harsh as this may be, it’s easy to forget that Nosaka was just 14 years old at the time, living alone with an infant in a country devastated by war without any food or family. He made many tough choices, which he regretted deeply later in life.
The Candy Tin
One of the most iconic scenes of the film has to be the candy ‘drop’ tin which Seita carries with him throughout the movie and uses to cheer up his ever-weakening sister. In the movie, Seita keeps Setsuko’s bones in the tin so that he can keep her with him wherever he goes and it also serves as a nice symbolic gesture to put her back into something that had brought her so much happiness.
Surprisingly, this story is also apparently based in reality. Though Nosaka obviously would not have been giving hard candies to his infant sister, after her cremation he chose to keep her bones in a candy tin to keep her around with him.
As odd as this may sound, I find it oddly comforting to learn that the story in Grave of the Fireflies is based in reality. While there was obviously a great deal of suffering going on and this is truly a story portraying just how brutal the real world can be in time of hardship, I think the fact that it does in fact have a basis in reality better emphasizes that we need to learn from this story. It’s far easier to look at a work of fiction and write it off than to turn your back on real human tragedy. It’s definitely something to think about!