The Ugly Color of Childhood Starvation
by Kristy Sakano
Unbeknownst to some fans of Studio Ghibli’s colorful imagery and childlike wonder lies a darker film focusing on issues of childhood malnourishment and abandonment, resentment of the vulnerable by modern society, and the absence of empathy in bystanders. In Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, protagonists Seita and Setsuko are orphaned after the Kobe Firebombs during World War II Japan and forced to survive on their own. Initially empathized by grieving mothers and sympathetic villagers, these orphans find shelter with a distant aunt, only to be ejected to the streets when starvation threatens their adopted family. After months living on the fringes of society and forced to scavenge for food, Setsuko succumbs to starvation, Seita soon following. The reduction of children’s lives to annoyances experienced by passersby reveal the ugly truth of a modern society smothering the weak and vulnerable in exchange for self-centered survival and personal greed.
Theoretically, the quantity of food available in the village Seita and Setsuko inhabited would have been enough to sustain several starving children, as we see gardens of sweet potatoes flourishing and even ice, a luxury to the Japanese, being delivered to rich neighborhoods. But the abandonment of vulnerable persons, including starving children, the sick and ill deprived of medical facilities and equipment, and widows left without an income, indicate the desperation the Japanese government was experiencing in World War II as it was unable to attend to personal crises within its own country.
The markers of civilized society include a centralized government, organized religion, job specialization, and social classes & the arts. When vulnerable individuals are no longer protected, the society collapses into chaos. When food is regarded as a privilege granted to upper class citizens, the vulnerable begin to suffer, discarded to the wayside by a government unable to erect welfare and public assistance. The reduction of Seita and Setsuko from human beings to pests signify a shift in the morals not only in the government, but also fellow citizens witnessing their suffering and eventual demise.
In general, Grave of the Fireflies relies on the color red to describe the agony of victims of the firebombing. Red welts cover Setsuko’s body caused by her malnutrition, and are openly visible to several community members, including doctors, nurses, and even policemen who appear indifferent. The red blood oozing between their mother’s bandages is stark against the muted browns and greys of the background. And as Setsuko hallucinates only minutes prior to her death during the climax of the film, Seita offers her a slice of red watermelon to appease her pain. The color red is symbolic of life; it is the color of blood which exists within us, but death on its exit. The red watermelon discarded between Setsuko’s lifeless fingers is symbolic of a society that is unable to care for the weakest members, and apathetically watches children suffer.
Grave of the Fireflies. Dir. Isao Takahata. Perf. Tsutoma Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi. Toho, 1988. [65-DVD9756] 06 April 2018.