I have accepted the fact that I am a treasure trove of information (some obscure, some not) and often at any given time the information is there and carefully adding and crafting what I see into a deeper (or desperately seeking a deeper or at least well thought out) meaning.
A.K.A a nerd.
This makes this question for me not really multiple choice at all but rather decisive.
There are arguably many scenes in anime that rank on my list of saddest scenes in anime (and believe me I could write you a list). But as a person who doesn’t really cry that much reducing me to tears is a feat I do not take lightly.
And doing so within the first five minutes of a show will make it all the more earth shaking for me. Till this day I cannot watch it in one sitting because I am bombarded by so much symbolism (intentional and otherwise) and emotional trauma that I can barely take it. It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel sharing the same by the author Nosaka, who lost his sister during the war time Japan due to malnutrition. This is a movie from 1988 by Studio Gibli and directed by Isao Takahata (高畑 勲):
Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka).
That’s right the very first scene.
Not because I knew what I was getting into when I was watching it but rather it’s presentation. I will always tell people that unless a movie is riding on it’s surprise twist it doesn’t matter to me if you ‘spoil’ a movie or show. What matters most is the craftsmanship. No amount of twists can truly save a movie if it’s badly made and vice versa beautiful movies and shows don’t really save horrible stories. The same is true with tropes/ cliches. I need to write a blog on the difference but for now I will focus on this movie and digress.
But I will warn you if you have not seen this movie and can’t stand spoilers do not read further. It is a beautifully done, artistic piece that comes full circle in a most lovely way and I encourage you to watch it. Very rarely will I say that something is such a work of art that it deserves the time to watch it but this movie does.
Now for those of you who are like me, don’t care, or have already seen the movie: why the first scene?
Well…it’s symbolism in both Western and Eastern are very…ponient and well done. First off I knew to expect tugs at the heart strings when I started watching this movie but I did not expect it to get me to such a extent. So let me allow you a quick look into my mind as I watched the first scene.
“Septermber 24, 1945, that was the night I died.”
This single image pretty much sets the tone. The ‘life flashing before one’s eyes’ before death sequence. Sure that’s been done but I then realized that they are inside a station. Why?
It is a connector; a waiting point; a space that if you have the right ‘price’ you can move on to another location, rather like waiting for a train rather than a boat; a tunnel rather than than a river. In this scene it’s used as a spiritual metaphor…Oh no…they know how to play with symbolism subconsciously..! I am in so much trouble.
We find that our main character Seita, is not the only child dying in this holding location. Rather like a purgatory. The colors are intentionally darker and the only spots of ‘light’ are rather cold and focused only on the children themselves. Like their faint halos are indications on how close they are to the other side. Yet…it seems those lives are hardly worth a second glance, certainly not a kind word.
The passing adults largely ignore them as ‘eyesores’ and ‘disgraces.’
Once someone attempted to show kindness but usually it’s too little too late.
Seita dies alone with the ashes of his baby sister as his only possession.
The night janitors find his body and the tin of ashes and, in their ignorance and perhaps slightly world weary nature, baseball throws it out into the night. Tossed away like trash treated with the same coldness as one would with garbage. Even if it was the last possession of a dead boy surely it had value to him. The opened tin releases strange white fragments and Fireflies rise into the night.
Oh no…please…that was a bone fragment…don’t…
Fireflies…fleeting…beautiful..ugh…please…why so hard so soon!?
Then there is a sequence of Setsuko (the little sister) standing up from the area of the spilled ashes looking distraught at the fading light around her brother only to be stopped and comforted by his healthy looking spirit.
Now I am a ‘southern’ girl and I grew up in a city with no fair share of ghost stories and beliefs. One of the beliefs is that when you pass on loved ones come back to your side to take you with them (provided you’re going the same location). So…this was a early gut punch… He then starts to help her fix her clothing.
The now sniffling me is stiff and fanning her eyes trying to be a tough girl:
So…the implications is that she came back or…she never really left. That maybe she was too scared to move on without her brother…that would explain why she was confused and upset to see him in such a state. If she was returning she would be aware that he was dead or dying and would be waiting to welcome him…
Wait fireflies don’t really look that orange…those look like embers, falling embers…funeral pyre? Wait WWII Bombs? NO STAP!! PLEASE!!
Finally, they both board a train to begin their ‘journey’ finally together again.
My stupidly detailed mind still manages to notice:
It’s a ghost train, just for them! Look even the colors are different from what they denote as ‘real life’ vs spirit realm! The colors girl, the colors~!
But this scene becomes harder and harder to remember and take as the movie proceeds. The parallels between fireflies and life are a consistent thing and often interchanged with bombs and embers on the breeze. The theme of how we treat the weakest of our society, especially in times of crisis, is a constant and the lengths those victims feel driven to do to survive. The use of color in this movie is a-mazing.
The real world is clearly colored in the colors you would expect to find in such a setting, the target lighting on each of the dead/half dead children is subtle but enough for you to pick up on. The sudden switch to warm mono chromatic oranges to denote the spirit realm is telling as well as impacting .Instead of using a ‘cold’ color for the realm of the dead a ‘hot’ color is used to stir up your senses and emotions. And then we move into the mortal world to the events leading up to this and everything is ‘normal’ again in colors for the most part.
It was all very calculated and shows off Takahata-san’s Italian Neorealism influence. This movie especially. A very telling scene is where the sister is looking in at the body of the brother, notice how the mortal world is a predictable color scheme while it’s like she’s standing in the heart of fire? It happens a few more times through out the course of the movie hammering home the fact that mortality was the past for these two children.
None of this is happenstance. These little things combined with the symbolism and telling emotional content…oh gosh it hurts. It’s the subtle things that help make a story such as this have such a impact. From the fireflies to the scene of someone carrying what seems to be a small box probably containing a loved ones ashes on the bus echoing the boy that we are all silently rooting for, though we know from the outset that it is in vain.
All of these reasons and the fact that the beginning becomes harder to deal with (I feel) on the second or third viewing because you know this is the end and everything that leads up to it. It becomes one big circle of angst and sadness. That almost everything is futility and you wonder why do you even bother?
*Takes a deep breath and pulls back*
It gets you thinking, feeling, and questioning your own thoughts on the matter all in the first five minutes of watching. And possibly getting misty eyed in the process. It’s hard to find a comparable scene that goes all the way through the artwork and brings you back around to the beginning so artfully.