Deserted schoolyards: an analysis of wartime melancholy in Grave of the Fireflies

In this film scene analysis, I want to talk specifically about the scene in Grave of the Fireflies at minute 16, where Seita and Setsuko are in the schoolyard after the air raids destroy their hometown and fatally injure their mother.

The schoolyard in which the children are ‘playing’ is deserted, not only in terms of the lack of activity, but also in terms of the scenery. There is a single set of hanging bars (like monkey-bars) on a piece of land that seems to stretch on forever. The schoolyard’s surroundings have been completely demolished by the Allied Forces’ bombs. All that remains is rubble. The colours used—yellow and orange—all have undertones of grey that make the landscape look like it’s had all the life sucked out of it.

Until now, most scenes have not been set to a score. The lack of background music in this scene is representative of the struggles that our main characters are facing. As we know, filmmakers often use background music to help viewers understand emotional undertones. But what if there is no emotion? What if there’s nothing to feel? I suspect that Seita is so overwhelmed with emotion that he feels nothing. Just as being ‘apolitical’ doesn’t absolve oneself of a political stance, this lack of music certainly does not remove any emotional ties to which it is associated.

In this scene, we see the role of caregiver transfer to Seita, as he realizes that his mother’s life is coming to an end. Seita starts spinning himself around the bars in an effort to entertain Setsuko. I would posit that the cyclical nature of this spinning represents life ahead for Seita and Setsuko: repetitive and arduous. At this moment, the score starts up, and the sad tone of the music really sends the message to viewers that life must go on—but it certainly won’t be easy for these two orphaned children. As this scene comes to a close, we must ask: is Seita the one keeping Setusko alive, or is Setsuko the only reason for Seita to keep going?