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War & Hope : Firefly and Grave of the Fireflies

By Jiffy Burke

Saturday 8 May 2004, by cally

War and Hope

Firefly and Grave of the Fireflies

by Jiffy Burke

Wars are fought to clarify a struggle for control of resources. Specifically, war is waged to determine precisely who has control of mineral wealth, production facilities, farmland or strategic ports. Both of the narratives that I use as examples throughout this article deal with the direct impact and the lasting consequences of war. Firefly is the story of a crew of veterans, mercenaries and fugitives thrown together by circumstance, trying to survive in a post-War universe. Grave of the Fireflies, an anime masterpiece, tells the story of a brother and sister and is set in a Japanese village during World War II. Firefly deals primarily with life after a war that recently ended with an uneasy peace, while Grave of the Fireflies examines a period of time toward the end of a prolonged conflict.

I was inspired not only by the use of the firefly as a symbol but also that both Firefly and Grave of the Fireflies feature war as a predominant theme. A firefly is a short-lived insect whose glow is a beacon to others of its kind. The firefly represents hope - for a mate, for society, for communication. It is no mistake that both narratives chose to feature this insect in some form. In Firefly, the ship that serves as shelter, transportation and security for the rag-tag crew is a firefly-class cargo ship called Serenity. These vessels have bright engines that strongly resemble the glowing end of the insect for which they are named. In Grave of the Fireflies, the brief life-spans of these insects serve as a metaphor for the shattered lives of the main characters. The red-glowing ghosts seen throughout the film are surrounded by fireflies, symbolizing their lost innocence. In both narratives, the firefly represents the spark of life and the joy for life that war so often utterly tramples underfoot.

Math and Aftermath of War

The term "aftermath" is used to refer to tragic losses or brave sacrifices on the battlefield that have since been memorialized in speech, song and statue. Remember, the history books are written by the winners. In an example from Firefly, the opening scenes of the pilot episode are of the historic last stand by the Independents against the Alliance forces in Serenity Valley. The Independent Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds places all of his faith in the leadership and in the cause for which he is fighting. His devotion holds his battle-weary troops together as they face overwhelming odds and await air support. We see Malcolm kiss the cross that he wears around his neck as he prepares for the final push against the encroaching enemy.

The Independents seem to take one step forward and then immediately fall two steps back. Their defensive position is pounded by enemy shells. Just as Sergeant Reynolds hears his air support approaching, the order comes through from the Independent leadership that they are pulling out of Serenity Valley and that all soldiers must lay down their arms and surrender. As the Alliance assault ships roar overhead, Malcolm stands transfixed in horror as his beliefs crumble. The long-reaching aftermath of this battle and the scars left on the protagonists are examined in subsequent episodes of the Firefly series.

Aftermath also refers to the spoils of war, both the gains for the victors and the losses by the defeated. In Firefly, the Alliance scored a victory at Serenity Valley and the Independents routed. However, throughout the series there is an undercurrent of unrest, indicating that the Alliance did not destroy the browncoats’ (Independents) spirit. The post-War fate of the outer planets is one where smuggling, scavenging and vigilante justice are commonplace. For example, Persephone, a more populated spaceport than most outer planets can boast, is as much a "hive of scum and villainy" as any spaceport found in science fiction. The Alliance patrols Persephone, but has little control over the thriving underworld on the planet. The typical outer planet in this post-War period has been terraformed, hastily colonized and populated by settlers who are given only rudimentary tools with which to survive. It is plain to see that, no matter what the official outcome of the recent War, most respectable citizens remain near the Alliance core planets and avoid such uncivilized border regions.

At best, the aftermath of war is a general accounting, without regard for the lives and livelihoods of those swept up in or trampled by the recent conflict. Often, the "math" of war is plotted out for all participants to see before they engage in war. Goals are defined and costs are outlined. This math is inherently flawed. Once war is engaged, goals and costs are found to have been misrepresented or miscalculated. Such shifts in accounting can happen through malicious intent, by self-deception or through the siren-song of the lust for battle itself.

Costs of War

The costs involved in any war extend beyond the human level, encompassing damage to the cultural underpinnings of those societies that indulge in war. This is an indulgence that most societies can ill afford. War’s greatest extravagance is the waste of human life - both in the instantaneous destruction of life and in the long-term disruption of the ability to sustain it. At first glance, all of the characters in Firefly are simply carving out a place for themselves in a post-War ’verse (short for universe) and that there is just a constant struggle for existence, even subsistence. People either act lawfully and barely survive or they risk being bound by law for the survival tactics that they employ.

One of the strongest portrayals of the waste of human life during war is shown in the opening scene of Grave of the Fireflies. A train station attendant pokes his broom at one of several limp bodies clothed in rags - it is Seita, an 11-year-old boy. Mournfully the attendant says, "This one’s a goner too - you can see it in their eyes." The attendant throws away a rusty, dented tin he has found with the body. Seita’s ghost picks up the tin and it appears shiny and new just as a happy little girl, his sister Setsuko, is seen trying to catch the red-glowing fireflies around her. Seita’s ghost, also surrounded by the red, spectral fireflies, appears as he once was, before tragedy and loss stole away his childhood.

Seita and Setsuko’s lives are changed forever on the day that a hail of firebombs land among the houses and quiet alleyways of their village. Others rush to gather their belongings before the flames reach them as Seita watches, fascinated, with his small sister clinging to his back. The two children see the village entirely swallowed by flame. In a sheltered alcove, Setsuko’s quiver of fear is heart-wrenching as ash and debris blow in the wind. A black rain falls as they creep out to view the complete devestation of the only home they have ever known - their society, their whole world, their village. That village was an insignificant loss to the Empire of Japan, but the cost of that loss to the local residents is immeasurable.

War vs. the Human Psyche

In spite of all the destruction he has witnessed, Seita’s faith that his father will return to help him remains absolute. His innocence is shaken, but he is sure that his family will come together. In the meantime, he needs to wait patiently and learn to care for his sister. Seita learns that his sister can be coaxed into obedience by giving her fruit drops. That shiny red tin of candy comes to represent their lives with their parents, when their days were carefree, as these two young refugees try to survive in a world that appears to have no place for them.

During World War II, the Japanese people displayed incredible pride and belief in the power and strength of their Emperor, and the ancient culture represented by that figure. The armed forces and the citizens provided unwavering support to the war effort, and this is a strong undercurrent throughout Grave of the Fireflies. A soldier stands in the middle of a shower of firebombs, a silhouette against the flames shouting the glory of the Empire. In contrast, Seita’s aunt complains that he is old enough to learn to be a soldier or to work for the war effort. The aunt is understandably proud that her daughter and a lodger who is living with them both work for the cause. Seita’s aunt nags that he should not run with his sister to the shelter during the raids; instead, he should help to defend their home.

Childhood is precious, but there is no time or spare resources to properly nurture children during war. Seita and Setsuko’s aunt offers no adult guidance. She only sees them as a burden imposed upon her household, and Seita as a young man who should already know his path and his place in the world. This is painfully obvious when she suggests that they go stay with other relatives in Tokyo. Even though they have their mother’s savings and could afford the trip, they do not know the address. Again, the aunt only sees Seita’s confusion as laziness. The aunt wants Seita to show her proper respect during this difficult time. His pride, combined with his ignorance, will not allow him to bend to her will or ask for her assistance.

Pride goeth before a fall, as the saying goes. Without the guidance of any parents and in the face of his aunt’s spite, Seita’s pride dooms Setsuko and himself to a bleak attempt at survival outside the strict system of rationing. He cannot control the vital resources he needs in order for himself and his sister to survive. Seita discovers that his mother’s savings will not help him, as the local farmers will not trade away their meager crops. They cannot feed their families with money.

In contrast to the dire situation surrounding them, the two children find ways to distract themselves from their lack of food and family. During one of the most charming scenes in Grave of the Fireflies, the children catch dozens of fireflies and bring them inside to light their shelter. Setsuko is enchanted by the light that they cast. As they fall asleep, the glow of the fireflies slowly fades to darkness. In the morning, Setsuko digs a small grave for the many dead fireflies. When he discovers what she is doing, Seita is stricken with grief as he watches his sister learn how to deal with the death all around her. Setsuko asks why fireflies have to die so soon. The fireflies during these summer nights represent a fleeting hope for life as it was, a childhood free from worry. As their world changes, Seita gives up his innocence, realizing that he needs to do whatever it takes to feed himself and his sister.

War vs. Society

One obvious, lasting consequence of war is continued struggle. War often results in ongoing, localized conflicts to obtain and maintain control of basic resources - food, clothing, shelter. There is only so much to go around. War, while intended to secure those resources for one population or another, often wastes them in the most despicable manner possible, making the struggle that much more difficult for those who survive the conflict. In Grave of the Fireflies, as the children run out of food, Setsuko begins to get sick and weak. Seita takes her to a doctor, who says that she is simply malnourished. Seita steals food at night and is caught and beaten. Later, a constable is disturbed at the sight of Seita and his starving sister running away together, but does nothing to find them or help them. These two orphans exist on the edge of a small community, yet every adult who encounters them remains indifferent to their obvious plight. The ongoing struggle to survive, even in areas where war is not actively being waged, distracts those who might otherwise show concern for those less fortunate.

There are some striking similarities in the internal and external conflicts faced by the lead characters in both Firefly and Grave of the Fireflies. Both characters exist outside the larger social structures, yet because Mal is a full-grown man with life experiences, his chances for survival are much higher in a post-war world than are Seita’s. As a boy, Seita is not yet fully-formed, either mentally or physically. He lacks the knowledge and the strength to survive as the social structures that once supported him come crashing down. Malcolm Reynolds was a sergeant on the losing side of a huge war; he is basically a good person yet he regularly makes shady deals to keep his crew together and his ship flying. Despite his leadership experience and competency as a ship’s captain, Mal’s pride does not allow him to live the life of a fully lawful citizen under Alliance rule. Comparitively, Seita is a loyal citizen and a good boy, but without the guidance of any adults he resorts to stealing during bombing raids to feed himself and his young sister. Each character’s choices appear to be shaped by the ways in which war has destroyed their trust in and connections to the larger social structure.

War In the Family

The essential "resource" of love is often undervalued by survivors of war - the desperate need for the basics of food, clothing and shelther temporarily overshadow the needs of the psyche. A sustainable quality of life cannot be achieved or maintained without love. This is most often provided by family, the smallest stable unit within a social structure. In Firefly, Mal has formed a "found family" made up of Serenity’s crew. Mal has cast himself as the leader, protector and provider for this family. He may not always realize it, but Malcolm Reynolds has also created a support system that he can rely on, should he find himself in a situation where he needs such support. In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita tries to provide a family environment for his sister. However, the two children are lost souls on the fringes of society and cannot achieve what only a family can provide - a nurturing and protective environment. Perhaps if they had remained in their aunt’s home and Seita had learned to respect and obey her, these children could have survived the war. Seita, on his own, was ill-equipped to provide for both himself and Setsuko. He could not be everything that she needed him to be - father, mother, playmate, protector.

War In Memoriam

War is an entity that seduces through the simplicity of generalization and oversimplification. Look at the big picture of wars throughout history and fiction, and you will probably find justification for the loss of life. Quite often, there is much to be gained, defended or prevented by waging war against one’s enemies. However, war enslaves the human mind with its inherent destruction of logic, communication and basic common sense. War is ultimately human, in that no other species indulges in it, and is ultimately inhuman on every measurable level. The equation of its math balances only when despair is entered, and war does not care which side inherits this burden. The equation of a war’s aftermath is only solved by the introduction of hope. Hope of returning to the life that existed before war, hope of an existence without war.