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Remembering the Horrors of the Past Through Film


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Over the course of the last week, discussions of one of mankind’s worst and deadliest creations have been buzzing. And with these conversations, it becomes more important than ever to acknowledge the impact of such creations from the past. Through film, we are able to learn more from different sides of one of the biggest historical times. And there are many films that depict the atrocities of World War II on all fronts. 

But it’s worth noting that several have received criticism for leaning on the side of propaganda and hiding truths, especially regarding conflicts between the US and Japan. However, there are two absolute must-see films that do not shy away from the reality of WWII’s ending: Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Mori Masaki’s Barefoot Gen.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata under Studio Ghibli and Shinchosha, Grave of the Fireflies was released in 1988 as an animated war tragedy film. The film is based on a short story of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka and depicts his real life experiences before, during, and after the firebombing of Kobe in 1945. While it is a fairly simple film, Grave of the Fireflies speaks loud and clear about the impact of the war on all fronts through the eyes of innocent children who are simply trying to survive. 

The film follows two siblings, Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa who reside in Kobe, Japan. However, when American planes destroy a majority of Kobe, the now orphaned siblings must now continue on a path of survival. While some truths are kept hidden from Setsuko and while both siblings receive aid through distant relatives, the means to keep on living are scarce. Food is difficult to come by, hospitals are rapidly being wiped out or destroyed, and the prospect of death draws nearer with each day. The film ultimately leads into an outcome that is understandably predictable but not at all isolated and most certainly heartbreaking. 

As mentioned before, Grave of the Fireflies is a simple film with a straightforward story. But a simple film doesn’t mean there is no emotional weight attached to it. For ninety minutes straight, we watch innocence fade over time. And for ninety minutes, we see hope and light gradually disappear. The film’s dialogue and animation stays hyper-focused on the small moments of life that give joy to the sibling pair, even when we as the audience have an idea of what to expect. Grave of the Fireflies ultimately takes on a much more subtle approach to the harsh impact of war. But its overall effect on the audience grows heavier as we approach the very end of the film. 

Barefoot Gen (1983)

Directed by Mori Masaki and released in 1983 under Madhouse and Gen Production, Barefoot Gen is another equally impactful film that dives straight into destruction in Japan. The film is based on the manga series of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa. Similar to Grave of the Fireflies, the manga series and the animated film depict Nakazawa’s real life experiences as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombings. 

The film follows Gen Nakaoka, a six year old boy who lives in Hiroshima with his family. As tragedy strikes their family throughout 1945, Gen is forced to find a way to survive along with what is left of his family, scrounging for food but while suffering from malnutrition. Barefoot Gen is the lesser known animated film, with many calling attention to it now as the discussion over the ending of WWII portrayals within media has garnered attention. 

It’s important to note that this film is incredibly graphic and much harsher than Grave of the Fireflies. The animation is much more specific in terms of the physical impact of war and conflict, indirectly pinpointing the consequences of one man’s creation. There’s no denying that this film in particular is difficult to stomach and it isn’t your average animated film as it is certainly not intended for young audiences. One could say it can serve as nightmare fuel, and purely because it was a nightmare that became a reality. Barefoot Gen does not shy away from the gruesome casualties of war and was made with the intent to have its audience face the reality of the situation. 

The Reality Is…

Neither film provides the ideal happy ending, but it’s important to acknowledge why and to understand the grave impact of worldly conflicts of the past. Every film depicting any part of the world’s history has the responsibility to tell the truth. But ultimately, it is also the responsibility of the audience to discover that truth and to hold meaningful conversations acknowledging those truths. And it’s the result of the film and television, and those who create these forms of entertainment that we are able to have these conversations. Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen are animated films that depict heavy subject matter that should be approached with caution. But if it can teach us all something valuable in the end, it’s worth appreciating and bringing attention to them. 

Writer’s Note: The films discussed in this article are under companies and studios that are not currently struck. Nerd Initiative stands in solidarity with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA as they strike to achieve equal and fair compensation and protections. For more information, please visit the links below.

WGA on Strike
SAG-AFTRA on Strike

Pooja Chand
Pooja Chand
Known on other platforms as Samosas and Popcorn, Pooja is a movie enthusiast topped with sprinkles of her love for TV. She can typically be found watching anything from the latest blockbuster movie to a feel good anime, and is always ready to start the discussion on movies and TV so you don't have to.

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