It is the last year of the Second World War. American bombers drop napalm canisters on Kobe, Japan, setting the picturesque city of wood, canvas, and paper alight. A young mother is caught in the conflagration, suffers greatly, then succumbs to her disfiguring burns. With the father fighting at sea, her adolescent son Seita must fend for himself and for his 5-year old sister Setsuko as famine stalks the country. In spite of all his efforts, Seita must watch as Setsuko, an imaginative, fun-loving child, becomes emaciated, sickens, weakens, and eventually dies of malnutrition.
This is the story told in Studio Ghibli’s 1988 animated film Grave of the Fireflies, and it is no less harrowing and haunting for being a “cartoon.” As Roger Ebert wrote in his 4-star review:
“‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. (…) ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to ‘Schindler’s List’ and says, ‘It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.’ (…)
Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
The director Isao Takahata has denied its characterization as an anti-war film. But as Clint Eastwood has said, “any war told realistically is an anti-war movie.” And Fireflies is unsparing in its portrayal of the realities of war, especially for being based on a semi-autobiographical novel, whose author lost his adoptive father to the firebombing of Kobe and afterward had to watch his baby sister Keiko die of hunger.
Kobe was only one of the 67 Japanese cities burned by the United States Air Force, under the direction of Curtis LeMay. Nicknamed “the Demon,” LeMay was instrumental in the US shift from high-altitude bombing with general purpose explosives to the low-altitude incendiary bombing of Japanese cities that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and the famine-inducing ruination of the economy. He later became a tireless advocate for bombing Vietnam, as he put it, “back to the Stone Age,” and for bombing the whole world back to the Ice Age by launching a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union.
LeMay also oversaw and championed the enforcement of the total blockade of Japan by filling the waters around its port cities with aerial-dropped mines, which, for example, caused shipping through Kobe to plummet by 85%. This campaign was dubbed, with a refreshing lack of hypocrisy, “Operation Starvation.” Thus, the starvation of little Setsuko/Keiko was not “collateral damage,” but a premeditated murder.
When Leslie Stahl asked Madeline Albright about the half-million Iraqi children deprived to death by US sanctions (“more children than died in Hiroshima”), the then Secretary of State famously answered “we think the price is worth it.” Of course elite war-bringers like LeMay and Albright do not themselves pay the “prices” they decide are acceptable. The costs of their decisions are externalized onto the victims of their economic and shooting wars.
Fireflies tells the story of two children who actually paid the “price.” That is why it is such a powerfully anti-war film regardless of the director’s intentions. It tells the story of war realistically from the perspective of its most vulnerable victims, as opposed to just the “derring-do” of fighters. And that is more than enough to inspire any decent human being to curse the name of war upon watching it. More specifically, it will move any heart not corrupted and hardened by nationalism to look on policies like the Israeli blockade of Gaza, US sanctions on Iran, and the new Saudi blockade of Yemen, as the infanticidal atrocities they are.
Takahata co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, and the anti-war message in Miyazaki’s work is more subtle, yet also much more deliberate.
In western fantasy, wars are traditionally depicted as worthy struggles between unalloyed good and pure evil, with the protagonist firmly on the side of the angels and against the devils. Even The Lord of the Rings trilogy falls victim to this tendency, as George R.R. Martin has pointed out. In Miyazaki’s fantasies, however, wars are portrayed as senseless and horrible. The heroes are generally not on either side of the war, but are caught between the two. And their struggle is not to win the war, but to defuse it.
The characters who pursue war — generally government officials — are portrayed as vainglorious and arrogant schemers who rashly court cataclysm for the sake of their grandiose ambitions.
Yet even these antagonists are not treated as devils, but as deeply flawed human beings. The heroes do not harbor vendettas and thirst for vengeance against them, as the typical western action hero does. Rather, the heroes try to convince them to abandon their disastrous plans, while also striving to foil those plans directly. The climax of the film comes not with the hero impaling or detonating his foe, as in so many Hollywood movies, or in the villain falling to his doom, as in so many Disney animated films. Miyazaki’s heroes achieve victory, not through the destruction of their enemies, but by foiling their plans enough such that the belligerents finally relent. The loving and forgiving attitude of the hero sometimes even prevails to the point of converting villains into friends.
“Stop! Don’t kill any more!”
Miyazaki’s first and most paradigmatic masterpiece was initially written by him as a comic (manga) and then scripted and directed by him as an animated film (anime) shortly before Studio Ghibli was founded. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), two post-apocalyptic kingdoms, Tolumekia and Pejite, are locked in an existential struggle over control of an ancient weapon of mass destruction called a “Giant Warrior.” The struggle becomes so desperate that one side is even willing to almost completely destroy itself for the sake of completely destroying the other side. Here we see a portrayal of the Dr. Strangelovean logic of men like LeMay, written by a man from the only country that has thus far been attacked with nuclear weapons. One of the characters even defends the mad ploy by saying, “It’s to protect the world. Please understand.”
Another factor in the war is the Ohmu: a race of giant, nigh-invulnerable semi-sentient bugs. The Ohmu are herd creatures that lethally stampede when enraged by violence perpetrated against their own kind. As Randolph Bourne taught, this is basically what happens to human beings as well when they develop war fever, especially when provoked by atrocity stories (whether real or manufactured). For more on this, see my essay “The Herd Mind.” At one point, this characteristic of the Ohmu is deliberately stimulated and exploited by the government of one of the warring kingdoms, just as real-life governments and other terrorist organizations exploit and engineer atrocities so as to induce war fever. For more on this, see my essay “The Symbiosis of Savagery.”
Nausicaä is an earnest, peace-loving young princess who becomes embroiled in the war between the two kingdoms when the Giant Warrior crash lands in her little country, which is then brought under the brutal military occupation of the imperial Tolumekians for the purpose of securing the WMD. Even after her homeland is attacked by both kingdoms, she strives for peace and understanding, going so far as to save the lives of members of both royal houses. And rather than try to destroy the rampaging Ohmu, she endeavors to stop the crime against their young that is provoking their violent rage (blowback) in the first place.
The first official Studio Ghibli production was Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (1986). As in Nausicaä, the chief villains are agents and soldiers of an imperial government, hellbent on rediscovering and exploiting an ancient weapon of mass destruction. And like Princess Nausicaä, the young heroes of Castle in the Sky, Princess Sheeta and Pazu, seek to avert war, in this case by destroying the WMD.
“What exactly are you here for?”
“To see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
In Princess Mononoke, the chief hero is Prince Ashitaka, who, like Nausicaä, is thrust into world affairs when his little country is impacted by the spillover effects of a war abroad. And like Nausicaä, he strives to defuse the conflict instead of taking a side in it. At one point, one character asks in bafflement, “Whose side is he on?” The most representative image of this characteristic of the Miyazaki hero is the moment when Ashitaka steps between the main figures of both sides of the war, and prevents them from killing each other, even at the cost of grievous injury to himself.
Throughout the film, warlike hatred is portrayed as a mystical, contagious, fatal disease that materializes as a black ooze and turns rational beings into rampaging, brute beasts. Again, think of Bourne’s “Herd Mind” concept.
“Is it the enemy’s or one of ours?”
“What difference does it make? Stupid murderers.”
Miyazaki was so angered by the Iraq War that for a time he boycotted travel to America. He said that his outrage over the war had a major influence on his Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). That film centers around a war between two neighboring countries (repeatedly referred to as “this stupid war”) in which even magicians have been enlisted. Howl is a draft-dodging renegade magician who stays free by roving from place to place in an ambulating, teleporting magico-mechanical castle and by keeping multiple identities. When asked by his beloved Sophie how many aliases he has, he answers, “as many as I need to keep my freedom.”
One side of the war is masterminded by a Palpatine/Dick Cheney-like sorceress who had originally trained Howl. Now, she wants her errant “Sith” disciple either conscripted, drained of his powers, or dead. She serves as sort of a magical prime minister to the country’s king, a ridiculous figure who boyishly exults over his war and fancies himself a brilliant strategist. I strongly suspect Miyazaki had George W. Bush in mind when creating this character.
When Howl finally does intervene in the war, he does so, not by partaking in the slaughter of civilians perpetrated by both sides, but by wrecking the weapons of war being used for that slaughter.
The film’s most glorious moment is when Howl and Sophie see a flying battleship appear and violate the beautiful serenity of his long-time refuge: a lovely little cottage amid a field of flowers.
Howl: “What is that thing doing out here?”
Sophie: “A battleship?”
Howl: “Looking for more cities to burn.”
Sophie: “Is it the enemy’s or one of ours?”
Howl: “What difference does it make? Those stupid murderers.”
Then, with a wave of his hand, Howl disables the ship by magically disconnecting its wiring.
This is Miyazaki at his finest. The bombing of cities is mass murder, regardless of whether it is done by our government in our name or by “the enemy.”
In Howl, as in both Nausicaä and Mononoke, true victory comes, not from the conquest of one war belligerent by another, but by both simply choosing to cease to fight, having seen the futility of the war, thanks to the exploits of the heroes.
“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”
A similarly anti-military, anti-nationalist, and anti-conscription note is struck in Porco Rosso (1992), a story about a former World War I Italian fighter pilot who is transformed into a humanoid pig, foreswears military flying and war profiteering, and embarks on a career in private security.
My favorite scene in this movie involves a surreptitious meeting Porco has with an old friend in a movie theater in Fascist Italy.
Porco Rosso: You're a major, eh? You've come up in the world, Fierrali.
Fierrali: You fool. Why did you come back?
Porco Rosso: I make it a rule to go wherever I want to.
Fierrali: The authorities aren't going to let you go this time. Did somebody tail you?
Porco Rosso: I gave them the slip.
Fierrali: A warrant for your arrest is being issued for refusal to cooperate
with the state, illegal coming and going, decadent thoughts, being a lazy pig, and display of indecent materials...
Porco Rosso: Ha ha ha ha
Fierrali: You idiot, this is no time to laugh. They're threatening to
confiscate your fighter.
Porco Rosso: This is a terrible film.
Fierrali: Marco, come back to the Air Force. We'll use our influence to work
something out for you.
Porco Rosso: I'd rather be a pig than a fascist.
Fierrali: The age of daredevil aviators is over. Now we can only fly in the
service of worthless causes like "country" or "nation".
Porco Rosso: I only fly for myself.
Bretigne Shaffer has written an excellent appreciation of the film, in which she wrote:
When he makes a large cash withdrawal from the bank, the teller asks him if he wants to make a contribution “to the people” with a Patriot Bond.
“I’m not a person,” is Porco’s terse reply.
Later, when his arms merchant warns him that the government may pass laws against what he does, he replies “laws don’t apply to pigs.” (After Porco leaves, the merchant’s son asks “how’s war different from bounty hunting?” His father replies “war profiteers are villains. Bounty hunters are just stupid.”)
Anti-fascist, renegade, capitalist, pig. Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s greatest characters: a veritable Malcolm Reynolds with a snout.
Miyazaki is now retired. His final film, The Wind Rises is a beautifully fitting swan song in two ways. For one, it is perhaps his most expressly anti-war film. For another, it is his most clearly expressed paean to the splendor and tragedy of human flight.
The film is a fictionalized telling of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Japanese World War II dogfighter the Mitsubishi A5M and its successor the A6M “Zero.” Miyazaki was inspired to make The Wind Rises when he read that Horikoshi had allegedly once muttered, “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”
“Mei, we’re the wind!”
The exhilarating beauty and freedom of human flight is a theme that pervades Miyazaki’s entire corpus, including his films that do not address war.
One such film, My Neighbor Totoro was released simultaneously with Grave of the Fireflies. It is Studio Ghibli’s and Miyazaki’s signature film. It tells of hope and joy in the face of childhood adversity just as movingly as its counterpart tells of despair and grief. Satsuki, a girl about Seita’s age, and her sister Mei, a girl about Setsuko’s age, both struggle with their mother’s serious illness and long absence. Like Setsuko, Mei comes into peril in spite of her older sibling’s efforts to protect her. But since this story is 20th century fantasy, and not a biographical tale set in the actual history of that grim century, things play out very differently. Rather than “aid” from a wicked and incompetent government (like the rice dole in Fireflies), the children receive saving help from forest spirits, including especially the giant, furry Totoro.
At one point, the Totoro takes the two girls flying through the air on its magic, spinning top. As they soar unseen over their neighbors, and rustle crops in the field as they pass, Satsuki exclaims in delight, “Mei, we’re the wind!”
Similarly exhilarating moments can be found in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (flying on a broom), Whisper of the Heart (riding the wind with a humanoid cat), and Spirited Away (a flying dragon). When Howl first meets Sophie they walk on air together. Nausicaä, Sheeta, and Pazu ride the wind on gliders. And of course Porco Rosso soars through the air in his plane.
“Airplanes are beautiful cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”
Miyazaki is clearly enchanted with flight and the wind. He generously shares that enchantment with us by translating it into beautiful films. In The Wind Rises, he portrays Jiro Horikoshi as similarly enchanted with the beauty of aircraft. He has Jiro meet, in shared dreams, his hero, the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni. Caproni teaches him that “Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” but warns him that they are also “cursed dreams.”
Nobody is more familiar with what a curse airplanes can be when deployed for evil than the Japanese. Airplanes dropped the canisters that burned their cities, the mines that starved their children, and the nukes that instantly made vast irradiated graveyards out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — for the first time in history visiting solar-temperature hell upon human habitations, and hinting at mankind’s full capacity for suicidal madness.
But their intimate familiarity with the “cursed dream” of airplanes also stems from the Japanese state’s own misuse of the great invention for its imperial dreams. This truth is intimated throughout The Wind Rises in the tension between the desire of several of the characters to simply build graceful, well-designed aircraft and the knowledge that their beautiful creations will be used to perpetrate the hideous horrors of war.
When Jiro first meets Caproni in their shared dream space, Jiro is just a boy and Caproni’s Italy is embroiled in World War I. They look up at Italian biplanes departing into the sky. A gunner salutes them. Caproni says:
“Look at them. They will bomb an enemy city. Most of them will never return. Well, it will all be over soon.”
The scene cuts to an image of one of the planes crashing into a burning city. But Caproni insists that “airplanes are not tools for war.” The two board a different kind of plane and take off. Caproni explains:
“This is my true dream. When the war is over, I will build this. What do you think? Magnificent, isn’t she? Instead of bombs, she’ll carry passengers.”
They climb out onto the wing, where Caproni shows Jiro an even grander plane, filled with happy tourists.
“She is beautiful, yes? She will carry 100 people across the Atlantic, both ways!”
Caproni’s true dream is to give people the joy and freedom of air travel: to use his creations, not to slay, but to serve his fellow human beings.
Jiro is dazzled and deeply affected. Years later, Mitsubishi sends Jiro and his friend Honjo to study Nazi Germany’s G38 passenger plane, which the company plans to purchase and convert into a bomber. Echoing Caproni’s sentiment, Jiro remarks:
“Look, passengers sit in the wings. It’d be a shame to put bombs there.”
In another dream-meeting in the middle of Jiro’s career, Caproni says:
“Humanity has always dreamed of flying. But the dream is cursed. My aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction.”
The fictional Jiro then echoes his historical counterpart, saying:
“I just want to create beautiful airplanes,”
Later, during a planning meeting with his design team attended by his bosses, he discusses how weight is a big problem for one of the possible designs. He half-jokingly, half-hopefully proposes:
“One solution could be: we could leave out the guns.”
Of course, everyone bursts into laughter, and Jiro moves on to the next design.
Before World War II even began, Japan was already using its new planes to try to crush a Chinese rebellion against its imperial yoke by terror bombing major Chinese cities, burning and asphyxiating thousands of civilians. Then, goaded by the American-led embargo of its islands, the planes were used to attack Pearl Harbor, as well as British and Dutch colonial holdings in Asia. Taking the American bait, and thinking that inflicting such a blow would induce Washington to negotiate an end to the embargo was a spectacularly disastrous miscalculation. The Japanese policy makers fatally underestimated both America’s industrial capacity and its political class’s appetite for blood and empire. Now Washington had just the excuse it needed to overwhelm domestic opposition and visit hell upon Japan for the sake of establishing its hegemony over east Asia. The real-life Horikoshi himself wrote in his diary:
“When we awoke on the morning of December 8, 1941, we found ourselves — without any foreknowledge — to be embroiled in war… Since then, the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.”
The Empire of Japan’s imminent use of their advanced planes in foolish aggression and its disastrous consequences are continually foreshadowed throughout the film.
A friendly German expatriate named Castorp warns Jiro:
“Make the world your enemy? Forget it. Japan will blow up. Germany will blow up, too.”
Later, Honjo shares with Jiro his frustrations over his work designing Japan’s first advanced bomber. Jiro asks, “And who are they going to bomb with it?” Honjo answers wearily, “China, Russia, Britain, the Netherlands, America.” Jiro echoes Castorp, darkly predicting, “Japan will blow up.”
After much of Japan does blow up, Jiro and Caproni meet one last time. After walking through the wreckage of his planes amid a bombed-out city, he mourns that his “kingdom of dreams” has become a “land of the dead.” They look up together as a squadron of Jiro’s planes ascend into the sky. Caproni congratulates Jiro for finally completing his masterpiece of graceful flight. In a moment that bookends their first meeting, one of the pilots salutes Jiro. “Not a single one returned,” Jiro says. “There was nothing to return to,” Caproni responds, referring to the devastation of Japan. “Airplanes are beautiful cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”
The beautiful/cursed dream of flight dichotomy can be found throughout the Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli catalog. In Nausicaä, there are graceful gliders but also lumbering warships and Zero-like dogfighters. In Castle in the Sky, the characters fly in wondrous bug-wing aircraft, but are also strafed by warship cannons. And it turns out that the “Castle in the Sky” itself is a massive suborbital Death Star that deploys an entire armada of killer drones.
Just as Fireflies vividly showed what World War II air raids did to the lovely cities of Japan, Howl’s Moving Castle visually referenced the fate of the beautiful old European cities, like Dresden and Hamburg, that were firebombed in that war. The movie begins with the pomp and circumstance of patriotic war preparation. This nationalist virus lives amid the prosperity, activity, and commerce of a beautiful and bustling European port town. Tragically the virus kills its lovely host, as later we see the bombers that Howl worked to sabotage turn this jewel of civilization into a lake of fire. The human toll is not displayed nearly as graphically as in Fireflies, but the message is clear.
The horrors of firebombing are given a reverse image in another scene in Howl, in which falling stars (dying fire spirits) create a beautifully illuminated display.
“Why do fireflies die so soon?”
A similar contrast can be found in Fireflies. As Ebert wrote of the napalm canisters at the beginning of the film:
“These bombs, longer than a tin can but about as big around, fall to earth trailing cloth tails that flutter behind them; they are almost a beautiful sight. After they hit, there is a moment’s silence, and then they detonate, spraying their surroundings with flames.”
This film’s reverse image of firebombs are the fireflies that so enchant Setsuko. In a beautiful moment amid their tribulations, the brother and sister gather fireflies to dazzlingly illuminate the cave they are living in. Setsuko’s look of wonder is heart-piercing.
But the magic disappears the next morning when she finds that the fireflies are all dead. This memento mori causes her to think of her mother. She buries the fireflies in a grave as she thinks her mother was buried, and asks her brother, “Why do fireflies die so soon?” The question foreshadows her own unbearably untimely death and the flickering brevity of her life. Life indeed is already so brief, which makes it all the more a crime for war bringers to make it even shorter for so many, and so painful in the duration.
Studio Ghibli is often called the Japanese Disney. Yet nothing in American animation can compare with it: not Disney, not even Pixar. The Miyazaki heroine, for example, is much more worthy of emulation than the Disney Princess. More than that, even most western fantasy cinema and literature in general pales in comparison, including much that we consider great. For example, as much as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a profound meditation on the corruption of power, its discussion of war and peace is crudely Manichean. Yet on this subject, and so many others, the fantasy of Studio Ghibli — especially the work of the creative genius Hayao Miyazaki— is wise and deeply moral, as well as exhilarating and achingly beautiful. It is a cultural treasure that stands and soars in a class of its own.
Miyazaki’s films are beautiful dreams. May time never swallow them up.