jon lebkowsky on Mon, 1 Feb 1999 02:49:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Fireflies

Cyberdawg: Fireflies: 1/31/99

Yesterday I had a chance encounter with the 1988 Japanese animé "Grave of
the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)," based on the semi-autobiographical novel
of the same name by Nosaka Akiyuki. This film was released in Japan on a
double bill with the upbeat postwar fantasy "Totoro."

In "Grave of the Fireflies" two children, Seita, 14, and his sister Tetsuo,
4, lose their mother in a fire bombing of Kobe. They live with an aunt for
a time, but after a disagreement they strike out on their own and live in
an abandoned bomb shelter. Though Seita has access to money his mother left
in the bank for them, he doesn't withdraw it, but tries to find other ways
to get food. Setsuo weakens and eventually dies from malnutrition. As
striking as the plight of the children is others' indifference to it. I
doctor diagnoses Setsuo's malnutrition, but does nothing to see that she is

Author Akiyuki lost his sister to malnutrition, and he blamed himself. I
suppose in writing the novel, he was capturing his sadness and guilt, and
dealing with it as well as he could. 

The film captures both the beauty and innocent vulnerability of childhood
and the horror of war, and its climax, the death of Setsuo, completely
knocked me on my ass.  I'm a cynical jerk who never cries, but I found
myself sobbing away... there's something about the death of innocents that
grabs me by the gut. Susan Smith's murder of her two children struck me the
same way...I couldn't get that horror out of my mind for the longest time.

My whole life is about building things and fixing problems, but I can't fix
suffering, I can't end the suffering of innocents. The sad tiny death of
the real Setsuo happened before I was born. Millions of children die every
day. Some of them are killed by their parents, adults in whom they must
place their love and trust.  Many more children are neglected, dismissed,
fail to thrive.

Sometimes the children who live and become adults, their souls distorted by
ugly, demeaning, sometimes horrifying childhood experiences, are worse off
than those who don't survive.

"Oh doctor, please help me, I'm damaged/There's a pain where there once was
a heart..."  The Stones were singing about the vagaries of romantic love,
but they were also singing about the human condition.

The Buddha said "all life is suffering," it's inescapable. Our contemporary
culture is schizoid about this truth, admitting then denying, admitting
then denying.  A film like 'fireflies' slams us with a reminder... the
firefly imagery resonates with the message of another Japanese film,
_Rashomon_, at the end of which a character says "Truly, life is as
ephemeral as dew."

After watching "Grave of the Fireflies" I felt that my own child had died.
As a parent and grandparent I've wondered how anyone can cope with that
loss. Tabloid television is filled with the images of parents who've lost
their children, but it's hard to get beyond the surfaces of contemporary
media, to see the reality of those who populate the sound bites.

Here's my poor unpracticed take on the Buddha's vision: he says that
suffering comes from attachment, and his way is about getting behind
attachments and  understanding the unity of all process and being.  The
compassionate Buddha, the Bodhisattva, sees the end of personal suffering,
understands how to cut loose from samsara, but vows to remain in the cycle
of birth and death until all beings are liberated.

So there is the promise of nirvana, and the commitment to sustain one's
suffering until the suffering of all beings is resolved.

In Setsuo I saw my own 3-year-old granddaughter, which is probably one
reason I was so profoundly affected by the film. I can do nothing about the
dying of Setsuo's tiny spark, but I can commit myself to the nurturing of
that spark in those whose lives I touch.  All fireflies die too quickly,
all sparks eventually fade, but our business should be to find wisdom while
the spark is vital, and bring wisdom to all that we can reach with our
words, deeds, and lives.


jon lebkowsky          
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