Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hotaru no Haka: A Different Perspective

Note: Just got back from an insane one month tour of China and Hong Kong, and still too tired (i.e. lazy) to do anything substantial. Therefore, chew on a pre-composed essay that's been lying dormant in the draft bin for ages.

Almost every review I’ve read of this movie waxes lyrical of its portrayal of the horrors of war, by forcing viewers to watch two orphaned children survive in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. All concur, more or less, that Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) is a must-watch movie for anime fans.
I am not going to do the same. Oh no. I refuse to. I don’t care if movie directors, professors of animation or obsessed fans from Armenia to Zimbabwe squeal in fits of righteous indignation. They can have a seizure for all I care.

You’re probably thinking that I’m being rather mean. You’re quite right, and in my defense, I have my reasons. First of all, as I type this, I am suffering from a most irritable flu. The fact that it’ll be gone tomorrow is of no relief. It’s most infuriating to pause every five words to take a sniff.

Secondly, I have other reviews to write up. I’m not buying that, you say? There’s more to it. It’s just that there I was, making a list of shows to be reviewed, and there it was far down the list. With so many other shows that I actually like and deserve to have gleaming reviews written, why this show?

I chose to review this show now because I couldn’t stand it, and I want to get it over with as soon as possible. Don’t get me wrong. Hotaru is, I admit (most reluctantly), a powerful (huh) anti-war movie. The thing is, I hate it. I loathe this movie.

Why do I hate it, then? To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have thought much of it if not for the character of the brother (no, I can’t remember any names), who ended up taking care of his kid sister after his parents died and their house went up in flames.

The two kids eventually end up staying at an aunt’s place, and everything seemed to be fine, but after some time, the brother had several petty quarrels with the aunt, and decided to leave, bringing his sister with him. Looking around for a place to live in, they ended up in a cave. He’s probably been reading Robinson Crusoe. And in case you’re wondering, he does not save a lone Japanese aborigine from rampaging US Marines and name him Kinyoubi (Friday).

Things take a turn for the worse soon after. They run out of food, and the brother is ends up stealing food from nearby farms, and loots empty houses during air raids. His sister gets increasingly sick. She’s hallucinating, and eats onigiri made from dirt. Not surprisingly, she exits the stage soon after.

The sad thing is that all this could have been prevented if he’d just swallowed his pride and went and got a job as his aunt suggested. The aunt started out nice, but grew colder as the movie progressed. I don’t think that critics have been entirely fair with her. Sure, she could have handled things in a more, shall I say, diplomatic manner. Even so, the kid should have been aware of his position as a freeloader- and they were running out of food after all. In the end, it was entirely his fault that his sister died. If he’d put his ego aside, his sister would have survived- he might have died from work stress at some factory, but his sister would still be alive, and that’s what’s important, isn’t it?
The story is based on the semi-autobiographic novel by the same name, whose author, Nosaka, lost his sister due to malnutrition in 1945 wartime Japan. He blamed himself for her death and wrote the story so as to make amends to her and help him accept the tragedy.

So says Wikipedia. The novel, then, tells the 'truth' (it's semi-autobiographical, after all). However, almost everyone's immediate reaction to the movie was to vilify the aunt as a two-faced Medusa. I'd tell you to skip the movie for sanity's sake and just go for the original book if you're still curious. Then again, if you're already in a curious mood, you're probably not going to waste time searching for the book and just watch the movie, no? Very well. Watch it then, and take your side.


  1. @A20-man: Hmm, while I don't necessarily love or hate this film, I did feel it was very powerful. But forget about my opinion. Or the critics' opinions for that matter... Here's yet another perspective: If I remember what Autumn-chan told me, until this film came out in 1988, Japanese school children were never taught about or exposed to the truths of World War II. Particularly the "loss of face", their loss of racial superiority, in losing WWII. They never knew. Until this film brought it out into the open. The fact that it was animated, reveals that it was intended for children to see, ask questions, and force this history to be taught. Finally. Yeah, very intriguing from her Japanese perspective. I'll ask her if I remembered her words correctly.

  2. @Jay: I might have liked it if the brother wasn't so pigheaded. Interesting point by Autumn-chan there. I did get the anti-war angle, but not that. I didn't really notice the "loss of face" or "loss of racial superiority" in the movie, though. At least, I don't remember seeing scenes showing Japanese being looked down on by Americans or anything of that sort... then again, coupled with how I already know something of it, and blinded by my irritation with the brother, maybe it was too subtle for me to notice. Something like General MacArthur converting the Imperial Palace into a discotheque would have brought it to my attention, though... hehe. Interesting point though.

  3. Well said.

    I know my dad liked this movie, but I'm more on your side of the fence. Although I haven't analyzed my reasons for disliking it, what stuck with me for this movie was bleak, bleak, bleak, which is definitely not my cup of tea. Produced by Studio Ghibli, the graphics and animation sets the tone and atmosphere well, but like you, I found it hard to commiserate with the plight of the siblings. Instead, I found myself solely pitying the younger sister and questioning the elder brother's priorities.

  4. @TJ: Gracias- now to win more people over to my side of the fence.
    You haven't analyzed your reasons for disliking it? I'm pretty sure that "I found myself solely pitying the younger sister and questioning the elder brother’s priorities" is reason enough, no? ;)