Spoiler alert: this post reveals the end of the movie Grave of the Fireflies.


Joy gave an inspired gift to our Munchkin for Christmas: the complete films of Studio Ghibli. This is the great Japanese animation studio, headed by Hayao Miyazaki, that has produced My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and other excellent movies. Now Munchkin can watch Kiki’s Delivery Service over and over with no more video rental fees. (Pixar writers and directors, please take note! I know you adore Miyazaki and frequently pay tribute to his movies, so have you noticed how many of his main characters are girls? Not tokens, not supporting roles, but the stars? If he can do it, so can you.)

So we have been watching these movies, and some of them get into more grown-up territory than Kiki. Our Neighbors the Yamadas are short pieces satirizing family life very funny for grownups, but a little over the munchkin’s head: picture a less frenetic, more realistic The Simpsons.  Munchkin enjoyed Whisper of the Heart, but it’s really a coming-of-age movie about a teenager’s falling in love and searching for a goal for her life. A few nights ago, we started watching Grave of the Fireflies, not knowing anything about it, and pretty soon I started to think we were in deeper than Munchkin or I was ready for. It takes place in Kobe, Japan, near the end of World War II, when the city was firebombed and much of it was destroyed. A teenage boy and his unbearably cute four-year-old sister are the main characters, and it isn’t long before we see the bombing that kills their mother.

Munchkin has a high tolerance for scary. She first watched Star Wars when she was about two. As she moved on to The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, Joy and I wondered at what point we’d have to skip scenes. It never happened; she watched them all with no ill effect. She loved Coraline at age three and only occasionally wants us to sit with her for the scariest part. She loves The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, we have a budding Tim Burton fan). Scary, scary things happen in these movies, including death, torture, and the disappearance of a child’s parents.

Yet with Grave of the Fireflies, I wondered if I should turn it off. The munchkin was doing okay, but I was trembling. Why? Because to her it is just a story, and to me it’s an account of something that really happened. I didn’t know at the time that it was based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, who suffered through similar circumstances when he was a teenager taking care of his young sister. I just know that Kobe really was firebombed: that human beings, not people long ago in a galaxy far, far away, do these things to each other.

We watched about half an hour of the movie, and then it was bedtime. I looked it up on the Internet Movie Database to see how bad it was going to get, and discovered among the parental warnings that the little girl dies. That settles it (Munchkin would say, “That does it!”). We are not watching a movie about the death by starvation of a child her age. So I told Munchkin that it turns out the movie is pretty grown up and we’ll have to watch the rest when she’s older. She suggested, “When I’m seven?”–an age at which she imagines wondrously grown-up capabilities descend upon us.  (The other mystical ages, judging from her games–which are dominated by her obsession with people’s ages–are 10 and 16.) For me, the question is terribly poignant. At what age is one ready to learn that children starve, that one’s own country drops fire on them? Seven, 10, 16, 30, 50? How does one prepare someone for the knowledge that life, not just fiction, is tragic?