Japan History Lab

The War on Self: Selective Memory and Historical Revisionism in Grave of the Fireflies

by Kelly J. Clark


There are few films about war that tell the story of civilian suffering with the raw, emotional power and impact of Grave of the Fireflies. Released in 1988, this film was produced by anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli and has received countless accolades since its release for its soulful adaptation of Nosaka Akiyuki’s acclaimed short story of the same name, which follows two orphans as they attempt to survive and ultimately fall victim to the brutal reality of living in a war torn nation. This paper will argue that the theme of victimization by war itself within the film Grave of the Fireflies in an example of how the post-war retrospective memory has rebranded Japan’s true enemies in World War II from the United States and Allied Forces to that of the institution of war itself and the consequences of blind nationalism on the Japanese home front. This revisionist ideology fundamentally alters the narrative regarding Japan’s role in the war. That the themes of war and aggressive nationalism serve as a replacement antagonist for a more conventional and historically relevant enemy, such as the United States, will be argued by analyzing the film and the short story it was based on and their internal similarities and discrepancies, the original author’s experience during World War II, and the choices of overt metaphor use throughout.

Nosaka Akiyuki and Grave of the Fireflies

The story of Grave of the Fireflies begins on September 21st, 1945, with the death of its protagonist, Seita. The slow depiction of withered, sickly boys dying from starvation in Kobe Train Station a month after the unconditional surrender of Japan is haunting. The film then flashes back to March 16th and 17th of 1945: the days of the infamous firebombing of Kobe, where Seita, age fourteen, and his sister Setsuko, age four, escape the bombings, but lose their mother in the process.


"Unknown - Japanese book "Showa History of 100 million people: Occupation of Japan Vol.2" published by Mainichi Newspapers Company. "Kobe after the 1945 air raid." Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They are forced to find shelter with their father’s sister, a woman whose pettiness and thievery drives them away from her home and to their ultimate fate1. The overarching narrative of the anime was adapted from the semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by author Nosaka Akiyuki. Nosaka, unlike his fill-in protagonist Seita, did survive the war and its aftermath; his sister, however, was not so lucky. Nosaka stated in his biography that the story itself was untrue because Seita’s displays of love and unflinching devotion to his sister’s wellbeing were far greater than the author’s own had been. For example, unlike Seita, Nosaka recounted eating meals first and striking his sister when she would cry out from hunger. The girl would eventually die of malnutrition and Nosaka would be haunted for years by the knowledge that his actions had contributed to his sister’s death. He would later write the short story as both a posthumous memento of his sister and as part of his ongoing struggle with survivor’s guilt.2 Critic Igarashi Yoshikuni wrote that the work itself had been “a form of exorcism” for Nosaka and that the author had offered up Seita’s life at the end of the story as a substitute sacrifice for himself in order appease his long suffering sister’s ghost (40)3.The overwhelming guilt that Nosaka’s felt for his actions during the war profoundly impacted his writing for years afterward. In fact, these emotional wounds would remain even long after the publication of Grave of the Fireflies, more than twenty years after the end of World War II.

Grave of the Fireflies - Setsuko's Death Scene1

Nosaka’s alterations to the events of his life in his short story were made in a very personal effort to amend his own past after two decades of grief, but the anime adaptation, a further twenty years removed from that the short story’s publication and thereby more than forty years removed from the events therein, adds additional layers of historical revisionism to the already guilt laden retrospective of the short story. While no adaptation is perfect, the anime not only takes liberties with the plot of the novel, but also its essential themes and symbols. For example, the anime adaptation omits much of the filth and rawness found in Nosaka’s work and instead focuses on the theme of the wonder and innocence of childhood being made into a casualty of war. This is a fundamental, if subtle, shift in tone replaces the short story’s depiction of war as what can be describe as an almost environmental condition, such as the aftermath of an earthquake, with the anime’s depiction of it is as an active and assaulting influence in the lives of the characters. This tonal shift and the alteration of the role of war is echoed in the single most critical instance of symbolism found within each work: that of the firefly.

On Fireflies

While the firefly is an active symbol in both the original short story and the anime its significance differs greatly between each work. For example, fireflies in the short story are used as a device to foreshadow Seita and Setsuko’s deaths, whereas in the anime they serve as a metaphor for joy and innocence. As the film progresses the symbol becomes more and more in line with the morbidity of the original work, but crucially differs in that it never becomes a symbol of inevitability, but rather evolved into a metaphor for the fragility of human life and happiness: at once paramount and transient. Goldberg believes that fireflies are a crucial element of the film, symbolic of the themes found within and “yet at the same time nostalgic for a past that never was—or perhaps nostalgic for a future that never came to be. Since Japan has rebuilt and, especially in the 1980s, has thrived economically, the film asks the viewer to remember this wartime history paradoxically through the act of viewing the natural"(40)3.

While the fireflies themselves serve as a symbol in both works how the characters interact with them provides yet another example of Japan’s identification as a victim of war and nationalistic fervor. In a pivotal moment in both the short story and anime, Seita and Setsuko capture a group of fireflies to use as a light source in their dark shelter. While in the short story the pair catch the fireflies with a net and keep them inside of it until morning the anime shows them catching the insects with their bare hands and trapping them in a jar. While this may seem like and incidental change the result of these two different methods is remarkable: in the short story half of the fireflies survive whereas in the anime they are all dead by dawn(457)4. Both the net and bottle serve as symbolic representations of how the author and the director respectively viewed the war from their time period. In the short story the net serves as a metaphor for both war and the tools of war that create an environment of death and suffering. However, in the anime it is literally by direct actions taken by the hands of the Japanese people that the fireflies, a symbol for happiness and innocence, are killed. The death of the fireflies in the anime is a direct metaphor for the suffering felt by the Japanese people created by their own hands.

Japan the Victim

In an article for Asia in World History, “Grave of the Fireflies and Japan’s Memories of World War II”, Dr. Masako N. Racel discusses the how the film has been labeled as anti-war, and despite Japan’s initiation of the conflict in the Pacific it is shown repeatedly throughout the film as a recipient of tragedy rather than an instigator of war (58)”2. Indeed, she also states that Japan seems determined to self-identify as victims almost exclusively during the events of 1945 and that memories of victimization remain in greater relief in the minds of survivors “due to a constant fear of air raids [and] a widespread shortage of food"(58)”2. Japan’s revisionist memory allows itself the permission to self-label as the victim of the war rather than an aggressor facing retaliation for its actions. However, in doing so Japan refocuses the source of that victimization from the enemy forces attacking them to the concept of war itself and the underlying reasons for their continued involvement in the war: the very same militant nationalism that is repeatedly shown throughout the film. As Goldberg writes:

While the film presents a realistic picture of suffering, it is also critical of a blind patriotism that masks selfish impulses during the war and, afterward, of Japan’s inability to confront this past. Seita, who is not only the author’s doppelganger of guilt, is also a figure who expresses selfishness masked by nationalistic fervor. When he, like others in the film, acts in the “name” of communal ideals, he is really performing for personal gain or pleasure. Throughout the film, Seita dreams of his father rescuing or revenging their wrongs (overtly, against Japan’s enemies who are bombing their town, and, tacitly, against the alienating Japanese society) and pays the ultimate price for this choice. His fantasy world of righteousness and revenge is a mirror to the society in which he lives; visually and textually, Takahata links him to this national fantasy of war. Setsuko, on the other hand, is as much his victim as a victim of the war (40).3

The Nationalist Tragedy

As can be seen in this passage, blind nationalism is shown to be even more to blame for Japan’s suffering than the United States and Allied Forces ever were. This internalization is the definition of historical revisionism. Goldberg’s point becomes inherently clear later in the film when a farmer instructs Seita to “swallow [his] pride and apologize1.” The orphans have long since set out on their own from the caustic household of a relative whom they had stayed with since their mother’s death. Now living in a cavernous bomb shelter, another grim metaphor for life in wartime Japan, they struggle to even feed themselves as Setsuko’s health fades away. With these words a rice farmer rebukes the war orphans Seita and Setsuko and bids them to return to their aunt in humility. They have nothing to barter with him and therefore he has no rice for them—he can offer them nothing except that advice: place survival before stubborn pride.

This is a turning point in the film and the beginning of its tragedy. This scene itself does not appear in Nosaka’s original story and, beyond a brief mention of an impending bad harvest and of farmers’ reluctance to sell crops(459)4, the short story contains nothing resembling it. And yet the fact that director and screenwriter Isao Takahata felt compelled to include this scene raises questions about what benefit its addition provides the narrative. While it could be that it was intended to raise dramatic tension or to call out the obvious solution to the children’s problem and thus increase the tragedy of the ending, Goldberg’s nationalistic interpretation seems just as likely a culprit. The Seita of the film serves as a metaphor for the retroactive memory and shame surrounding the actions taken under the stubborn and unflinching morale of Japanese nationalistic ideology during World War II. Such actions prolonged the suffering of victims like Setsuko long past any point of gain and this concept is further reinforced by Racel’s article, wherein she states that “the aerial bombing and starvation experienced by the Japanese during 1945 was so widespread that for millions of people the very term ‘war,’ became associated with the tragedies of 1945, whereas ‘peace’ represented a hoped-for permanent end to misery, hunger, and suffering"2.

USA: The Missing Enemy

Finally, although the institution of war itself is the film’s chief antagonist it must be noted that, shockingly, throughout its length there is not a single negative statement about the United States. In fact, the concept of war as the enemy is so prevalent that the US is hardly mentioned beyond a few brief statements of fact to bolster the setting, such as that the US will invade soon or the US has sank the Japanese fleet. Even during the film’s first moments when fire rains down on Kobe the US bombers are depicted similar to thunderclouds--more a part of nature than an attacking force. Only in hindsight could such a shift in perception be made.


"Extent of destroyed areas of Kobe as surveyed in 1946." Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In fact, the US war strategy banked on the idea of heavy collateral damage as a tool of economic and psychological warfare. Though the American Air Force declared that in their policy “civilian populations are not suitable military objectives” (174)5 and that, in reference to the firebombing of Dresden, "our policy never has been to inflict terror bombing on civilian populations"(174)5 there is substantial evidence to the contrary. For example, it was less than a month after the horrors of Dresden that FDR was briefed on the progress of the atomic bomb and only five days after that, on February 18th, 1945, that the fire bombings of Tokyo began (174)5. The total war strategy employed by the United States Air Force against civilians was not only known by the public at that time, but accepted as a part of necessary action in wartime. “Even the religious press seemed to accept, if it understood, the changes in American strategy"(174)5. That such warfare could be committed by a foreign enemy and not be a focal point of Japan’s identity of victim-hood in the film shows evidence that it was a wilful choice to exclude it from the narrative.


The film Grave of the Fireflies is a prime example of Japan’s retroactive reinvention of its identity during World War II from instigator and aggressor to that of victim. The twenty years separating the film and short story and further twenty separating the short story and the actual events of the war have allowed the presentation of a narrative that follows a very selective memory of both Japan’s past and that of its wartime enemies. The film embraces the sentimentality of victimhood and places all of the blame for Japan’s suffering not on their aggressive instigation, or on the United States and Allied Forces, but onto the very institution of war and the blind nationalism on the home front that left it unable to achieve peace.