Movies & TV

Here's the Heart-Wrenching True Story Behind Grave of the Fireflies

And you thought the movie was depressing? Wait till you hear about the true story it was based on.
ILLUSTRATOR ANTONELLA P. VENTURA
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In times of devastation, it’s common for anyone to turn towards entertainment as a means of escape. Fictional movies and books, specifically, are some of the most sought-after remedies to any sort of emotional turmoil. Though the fantasy lasts ony a couple of hours, fiction is still used time and again to help us cope. 

But does this same idea apply to fictional tragic films? Perhaps the classic Grave of the Fireflies can clarify this. The `80s animated movie tells the dark tale of young siblings Seita and Setsuko as they brave through the tragedy of a war-torn Japan. It’s only the second Studio Ghibli film, but it’s considered to be one of the best that they've ever produced. 

Its notable animation style may give the impression that the film is directed towards young children, but its themes aren’t exactly for the young or faint of heart. Even if it seems to be fully fictitious due to its gripping storytelling, the acclaimed movie is actually based on a real-life experience—that is, the one of writer Akiyuki Nosaka.

Photo by IMDB.
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He managed to garner great success before he passed in 2015. Nosaka wrote the book that the film was based on, which was also titled Grave of the Fireflies, around 21 years before Studio Ghibli released its take on it. Prior to the movie, Nosaka’s work had already gained attention when his book won the Naoki Award, which recognizes new talents in Japanese literature.

The book is considered part of the post-World War II works that revolve around the experiences of ordinary Japanese citizens. Living in the daily tragedy of bombs and air raids created a new era called Sengo, which translates to “after the war”. This period valued the concept of peace as a way to never let the devastation of the war happen again. It was an era that was founded on not only rebuilding but coping as well.

Photo by IMDB.

This was what Nosaka attempted to do as he wrote the book. His own life as a young teenager mirrored the harrowing events of the classic film. The writer, much like Seita, had a younger sister during the time of the war. 

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Nosaka's early life was filled with experiences of loss as a result of the war. Nosaka’s mother passed away after giving birth to his sister, and his father never stayed in contact with them. The boy was soon adopted by his aunt, although she was horribly injured by the bombs while Nosaka’s adoptive father died because of the same bombs.

Photo by IMDB.

But perhaps the most tragic death that Nosaka lived through was that of his younger sister. An infant while Nosaka was a teenager, she was not able to live past 16 months due to starvation. The writer blamed himself for his sister’s passing even decades after. In the movie, Seita treats his sister with kindness but this wasn’t the case in real life, at least according to NosakaHe believed that he could have done more, as he ate the food that he felt he should have shared. And at 14, he didn’t know much about taking care of an infant, so he would hit her on the head to make her stop crying. 

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And so Nosaka wrote Grave of the Fireflies ridden with guilt and sadness after much reflection growing up. The book was his way of honoring his sister whom he felt that he’d wronged. What came from all of this is that which was born from a man’s need to cope after a tragedy. The words that Nosaka penned were not exactly a means for escapism—rather, they were an avenue for grief that stems from the guilt of a little boy who managed to survive.

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