Themes of Cinema: Cruelty to Children


Six films.

Magnolia. Grave of the Fireflies. The Night of the Hunter. Lolita. ChinatownEmpire of the Sun.

On the surface they are each different. Family dramas. War films. Hard-boiled detective noir. But they each have a core theme that permeates the bones of the film. Cruelty to children.

For some, this is an extension of The Loss of Innocence story. In Grave of the Fireflies, the war (and loss of their mother) forces the children to grow up. To become parent figures to each other. Empire of the Sun runs a similar theme. A child separated from his parents and forced out into a horrific world. In The Night of the Hunter the two children lose their parents and set out across country. In each of these examples the children all find themselves in an adult world. Alone. All adult figures around them are indifferent to them or look down on them.

Magnolia, Lolita and Chinatown focus on a different manner of cruelty. Active cruelty. Predatory cruelty (The Night of the Hunter fits here too). Their cruelty is action rather than the absence of action. In Magnolia a father forces his child to play game-shows for cash prizes. An impersonal environment to raise a child. We see the fate of a similar character, now grown up and the lasting damage. In Lolita we see the perverse hunt of two predatory men on a young girl; a long downward spiral.

It might not be the core theme of the film, but as a theme or a sub-theme it is there.

But why? Why do we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children? Are we supposed to? Film-makers have tapped into a nerve. Watching cruel things happen to children makes our guts turn. It makes us sad. But it makes us interested. It is a conflict. And conflict makes stories.

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of film is entertainment. That is one purpose. Other purposes are to make us think. To help us reflect. To provide perspective. And more. It’s not that we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children. But it resonates with us as humans because we are protective of them. This is why the scene in Under the Skin where Laura leaves the crying baby abandoned at the beach is so powerful in proving how alien she is. Because no human with conscience could do that.

It evokes emotions in us that are stronger.

The Loss of Innocence does not presuppose cruelty. Or even relate to the children. But cruelty to children is a direct relation to it. Watching children endure suffering on a road to destruction. We invest. We hope that these children will grow, become strong and withstand. When they don’t, it hurts us. And we reflect on this. We think about ourselves as a society and how we treat other people. Or, we think about the nature of harming innocence. We see struggle and hardship from a perspective that we might not relate to. And we hope that things might be better. And maybe we become better for thinking this.


Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
May 26, 2015, 10:03 am
Filed under: film review | Tags: , , , , , ,


Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by: Isao Takahata

It is rare to find a film that hurts the heart in as direct a manner as Grave of the Fireflies. There are films that bait emotion. And then there are films that provoke genuine heartbreak. Grave is the latter. It is heartbreaking. I think it is the saddest film I have ever seen. And it is a true story.

Grave of the Fireflies is an animated film that tells the story of two young children. It takes place in Japan at the end of the second world war. After losing their mother to a bombing raid, the two children move in with their Aunt. They stay for a while, but the Aunt fills them with guilt and makes them feel a burden. She sells off the belongings of the children’s mother for rice, but keeps most of it for herself. She berates the children for not contributing to the war effort and begrudges feeding them. So they leave, becoming homeless and living in a hillside bomb shelter.

But there is no illusion of hope for the children. The film opens with the death of the oldest child, Seita. Before the opening credits roll, we see his spirit reunited with his younger sister. We know how it ends before it even starts. Yet the film takes it’s time to wrap around to this ending. It is lingering on moments of true beauty between these two children. And in these slow lingering shots we watch them succumb to hunger and malnutrition.

There is a beautiful scene where the children collect fireflies and use them to light the cave where they sleep. The next morning Seita finds his sister burying the dead flies. “Why must fireflies die so young?” she asks. We ask the same question.

The most painful of all is the feeling that all the while, this tragedy could be prevented. If the people who surrounded the two children were a little more caring, maybe they would have lived. But it becomes about pride and about self preservation. For Seita, he could never return to his Aunt. An apology to her might have saved them. But pride prevented it. Seita tried to carve out a personal heaven in the hillside cave, but it became a tomb instead.

That being said. You can’t begrudge a child their naiveté. But you can begrudge every adult who showed no care for them. To the world, these children are nuisances, thieves, burdens. Even those who show slight compassion do nothing to help. Their inaction condemns these children to death.

Grave of the Fireflies is a war film. But it is not a film about war. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about soldiers or the military. It is about the impact that war has on innocent people. It is a beautiful, painful, emotional masterpiece.