‘Why do fireflies so young?’
The quotation is probably one of the most remembered lines from Grave of the Fireflies but surprisingly, is one that does not appear in the original short story and yet, it encapsulates the story told by Nosaka in the best way possible.
For Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies, was part of his life. His foster home was bombed in Kobe and he ran away without turning back to look if his foster parents or foster sister, Keiko, were alright. This is the first change Nosaka made to his story where Seita carries Setsuko away from the home instead of leaving her behind. Nosaka and Keiko then moved to his aunt’s house, and as is the case in the story, they left their aunt’s home to live in a cave. Here, we are presented with the second fabrication: Seita looked after Keiko and always put her first, taking her out to see the fireflies when she cried at night and giving her his portion of food when she was dying. Nosaka did not do this for Keiko. Instead, he would beat her round the head so hard that she would pass out when she would cry and he would eat her portion of the food out of hunger and feed her the gruel. Of course, the last change he made to the story was Seita’s death. Nosaka survived and lived on to narrate his story but Seita died from malnutrition at the end of the story. Whilst there were these three significant changes to the story, Grave of the Fireflies, is, nonetheless, a recollection of Nosaka’s past, in what is believed, the past he wanted, the ending he desired to have.
Nosaka was both traumatised, and lived with survivor’s guilt. His guilt mainly rose from Keiko’s death and his inability to come to term with that. He believed that he did not do justice to her, that he played a role in her death and that was something he never got over. Even when his own daughter was born, he always feared that she would suddenly die and his anxiety grew so great that he left his family for three months but could not stop dreaming of his daughter suddenly dying. His anxiety became so bad that he would force his daughter to finish all her food, always with the regret that the leftovers could have been fed to Keiko. Nosaka could never forget Keiko nor the burden he felt over her death as he blamed himself for it. Whilst Keiko’s death was a result of malnutrition, would anyone really blame Nosaka for eating her food in order to survive what he confessed was a ‘hell of starvation’?
It is this that Nosaka changed in the story. By giving Setsuko a loving brother who cared for her until the end, in a sense, he gave Keiko what she truly deserved. Nosaka aimed to give Setsuko a brother he could not be for Keiko; the loving and caring brother he wished to be. There was no way Nosaka could undo her death, but he could try and come to terms with his guilt by recognising and working through his grief. By recalling his past and putting it down on paper, Nosaka began taking the steps to work through his trauma over Keiko’s death and provide a farewell that he felt she deserved.
The movie picks up where Nosaka left off and continues to work through trauma particularly through the imagery of the fireflies. They create a link between the fireflies and the innocent deaths, including Keiko’s, that were caused by the war. Traditionally there is a linkage between fireflies, the souls of the dead and the Festival of the Dead in Japan. By linking the deaths of the innocent to fireflies, the dead are memorialised, serving as seasonal reminders of civilian loses that were, and are, worthy of respect. This way, the movie provides Nosaka an eternal and natural symbol through which Keiko can be remembered. The montage of her happiness prior to her death, an extra addition in the movie, alongside the song that plays in the background help to give Keiko a proper and rightful farewell and resting place. It is her requiem.
Not only that, but the fireflies act as a symbol for all. Just like many fireflies come to life and vanish in a night, so were many lives extinguished during the war. The light of thousands of fireflies lighting up the night recalls these lives. The movie unites the lives lost and those who did not receive proper funeral rites and whose names are unknown through the fireflies. Beautiful and fleeting, they come and go but what they leave behind is hope just as the sacrifices of the war gave hope for the future.
You can find the English translation of Grave of the Fireflies here. It may seem fragmented but this is the most faithful translation.
“The Distance of Fifty Steps” is worth reading as it is him revealing his truth and his true feelings over the death of Keiko.
More information of Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies (short story and movie) and trauma can be found in:
Stahl, David C., ‘Chapter Six: Victimization and “Response Ability”: Remembering, Representing and Working through Trauma in Grave of the Fireflies’ in Imagining the War in Japan: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Post-war Literature and Film ed. David Stahl and Mark Williams (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010) pp.161-201