Screengem: The tin of sweets in Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

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Childhood sweets are happy memories. They’re treats from loving parents, for being good, for being loved. It’s wartime in Grave of the Fireflies, but a tin of sweets cherished by a little girl is an image that transcends culture and time. That the sweets are later replaced by her ashes remains one of cinema’s cruellest, most heartbreaking blows.

Seita recovers the buried tin of fruit drops from their hiding place, along with pickled plums, butter and dried fish. Food is scarce and times are hard, but the sky is blue, and Setsuko, his little sister, has her tin of sweets.

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When Setsuko has a tantrum, as children do, the sweets are used to soothe. They’re a temporary poultice for the not-quite acknowledged loss of mother and home, they’re moments of relief in an otherwise desperate situation. But we underestimate her awareness, and as the tin empties, she begins rationing her own supply, colouring the scene with sorrow as we witness a precocious child who’s very aware of loss and need.

The tin of fruit drops doesn’t just represent hope – each fruit drop gently punctuates the film’s descent into hopelessness. When they’re gone, Seita swirls water around the empty tin and gives Setsuko the sweet-flavoured water because they have nothing else. Finally, they become the image of loss, as the tin containing Setsuko’s ashes is taken from Seita’s hands and thrown away.

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Finding an item associated with happy memories, an old film or photograph, letter, or treasured item once belonging to a loved one since gone hurts the most. A hairbrush with a few stray hairs, a creased childhood photograph or a well-worn item of clothing sometimes feels more like the essence of a person than a fast fading memory. It’s a feeling that provides the emotional core of Todd Louiso’s film Love Liza (2002), as well as Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993) and Ted Hughes’ poem, A Short Film (1998) – which describes the sensation far more eloquently than I ever could. For Setsuko, it’s the loss of her mother’s silk kimonos that brings her to tears, and for Seita, it’s the image of his little sister burying the pile of dead fireflies. For us, it’s the discarded tin of fruit drops, and all that it represents.

The film’s closing scenes are of Setsuko enjoying herself, the recovering Kobe city in springtime, and the sprawling, thriving metropolis that it will become. Time goes on, and things can be beautiful again after suffering – but somehow, this sweetness makes the sense of loss so much more potent, and so much more profound than the shock of violence. In Grave of the Fireflies, a tin of boiled sweets hurts far more than wartime guts and gunfire on film ever could.

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