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In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita decides for himself and Setsuko to leave their aunt after a series of events—including her selling their mother's kimono dresses and then denying them the rice that she got for it—and this has been one of the more discussable parts of the movie.

However, by the end of the movie, Seita resorts to thieving and ultimately Setsuko saddeningly dies of malnutrition, which I've heard leaves lots of viewers wondering why he did not return to their aunt, considering how bad the situation had become by then.

The argument is even though their aunt was turning into a greedy, selfish woman, she wouldn't have let either of them starve, and they should have returned to her, as the farmer suggested.

Why didn't Seita go back to his aunt, apologize, and ask for help, as the situation aggravated?

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Two reasons:

  1. He is a child. They don't think clearly sometimes and as they both starved more and more, it was unlikely that his thinking will become clearer. There was always savings. Seita had those to fall back to. But he was too late once he decided to use them. It was sort of escalation of commitment problem also known as sunk cost fallacy.

    We will use savings once things turn bad.

    When things turned bad...

    We will use savings once they turn worse."

    and so on and so on.

    Until the moment savings couldn't save them. Thus tragedy.

  2. Seita's fatal flaw is pride. There is values dissonance here. He is proud, courageous and stoic. If you would put him into Hogwarts house, it would be Gryffindor. Prevailing against all odds thanks to your abilities and courage... that's what the proper fighting spirit is! That's what makes a hero, right? But pride is his flaw and cause of the tragedy.

By asking the question: "Why didn't Seita go back to his aunt, apologize, and ask for help, as the situation aggravated?" you have accidentally stumbled at the moral of the story. Western audiences are more likely to see the aunt as abusive guardian and to understand why the kids ran away. Japanese audiences are more likely to see Seita in the wrong for not apologizing to his aunt, which is in line with their values of familial piety and respect.

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