Grave of the Fireflies, or Hotaru no Haka, is a powerful and emotional anime based on the experiences of author Nosaka Akiyuki during the World War II firebombing raids that ravaged most of the cities of Japan. Although there is very little of the actual war shown and no mention of the American forces in the film itself, the war is an important facet of the story. Please be quiet for today’s lecture, class, as we take a look at a part of history that is the backdrop of Grave of the Fireflies: the firebombing of Japan in 1945.
Fleeing the firebombs
By 1945, air raids had already begun over the cities of Japan, but precision bombing was not accomplishing its goals. Targets such as military factories and installations were often missed completely, and the Japanese will to fight was as strong as ever. General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force had the answer. To shorten the war and ultimately save lives, General LeMay proposed a new use of the B-29 bomber planes for low-level incendiary attacks on Japanese cities.
Many industries were supported by or carried out of the home, so residential areas became the target along with the factories. The planes would fly lower, not carry guns or ammunition, and not fly in formation. Firebombing is designed to create a firestorm, using incendiary bombs to start a massive fire as the high winds carry the flames across the city. The fires would burn intensely and most were inextinguishable.
The first four targets of Japan were selected as Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. On the night of March 9th, 1945, the first large-scale firebombing mission over Tokyo began. Already a repeated air raid target, residents of Tokyo had grown accustomed to the wail of the air raid siren and wore protective clothing of long-sleeved shirts, pants, and protective hoods seen often in Grave of the Fireflies. But there was no way to be prepared for a raid of this magnitude. The bombs fell like rain from the sky.
The intense heat and walls of flame made firefighting impossible. Over 100,000 people were killed in the first raid on Tokyo, and a million made homeless. With a loss of fourteen B-29s from the three hundred that left for Tokyo, the ineffectual Japanese defenses, and the destruction level of the city, the raid was considered a great success. The raids on Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe proceeded as planned.
Kobe is where Seita and Setsuko of Grave of the Fireflies lived with their mother as the film begins; author Nosaka Akiyuki had spent his early years in the city. The sixth largest city in Japan and the largest port, Kobe was also the largest source of shipbuilding and shipyards for the war effort. According to US military reports, only ten percent of the city’s buildings were made of concrete, steel or brick, and there was no large source of water for any firefighting efforts, making the city a perfect target. The first firebombing raid on Kobe was devastating. An estimated eight thousand people died on March 17th, 1945, and more than 650,000 lost their homes.
As the year went on, the firebombing raids increased in number, hitting the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe several more times, along with other smaller cities home to factories and industries. One of those subsequent raids on Kobe is the starting point for Grave of the Fireflies. Seita and Setsuko flee from the bombs dropped by the B-29s overhead and bear witness to the destruction caused by the firebombs.
Takahata Isao, director of Grave of the Fireflies, is himself a survivor of the firebombing in Okayama and tried to capture the experience. Nosaka, upon viewing the film, felt that Takahata succeeded.
“It was really amazing how many of the scenes of the novel set in wartime Kobe were represented with simple lines that even I had long forgotten,” Nosaka once said in an interview. “All of the pieces of my memory connected with the movie.”
The firebombing and air raids continued until August 1945, when it was clear the Japanese will had not been lessened enough to force a surrender. On August 6th, 1945, a single B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and still surrender was refused. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th, Emperor Hirohito insisted on the surrender of Japan. 112,000 people died in the atomic bombings.
It is an often overlooked fact that more people died in the firebombing raids than the devastation of the atomic bombs, with estimates of over 300,000 people losing their lives and millions more injured and homeless. These raids are considered to be the most important factor in destroying Japanese morale, leading up to the end of the war and ultimately saving lives by preventing a full-blown invasion of the country.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Edoin, Hoito. “The Night Tokyo Burned.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.