“September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.”
If someone were to ask you for an example of the power of animation, what would you say to them? I would say “Grave of the Fireflies“.
Anime may be a category of animation which is plagued by bizarre ridiculousness all its own but Grave of the Fireflies is a testament to the impact an animated film can have. It is the most powerful of all films in the Ghibli canon. It’s realism and tragedy are so potent that I would have to agree with the late critic Roger Ebert who said:
“Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Since the earliest days, most animated films have been “cartoons” for children and families. Recent animated features such as The Lion King, Princess Mononoke and The Iron Giant have touched on more serious themes, and the Toy Story movies and classics like Bambi have had moments that moved some audience members to tears. But these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief. Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated…”
Grave of the Fireflies takes place in Kobe, Japan toward the end of World War II, prior to the Japanese surrender. It opens with a young boy named Seita dying in a train station. A janitor discovers his body and a tin of candies the boy was carrying. He tosses the tin outside and from it springs fireflies and the spirit of a little girl, Setsuko, beside the spirit of her older brother, Seita. We are already told that they are dead and we’re left to discover how and why. The rest of the film is seen in flashback from the perspective of the teenage brother and his four year old sister as their home is destroyed during air raids and they are forced to take care of themselves.
Grave of the Fireflies may just be the most important war film ever made and the greatest war drama in motion pictures. Why do I think that? Consider with me that this almost unbearably sad film takes a view of war which is indirect.
Generally, war films are set from the perspective of soldiers, and even sometimes civilians and victims. This film is told from the perspective of children. As such, there’s no typical divide between the glamorization of war or the denouncement of it. That consideration is irrelevant to Fireflies. Of course its director himself, Isao Takahata, knew best when he said:
“[It] is not at all an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no such message.”
He’s right, you know. While the action-hero summer blockbusters and ever-present first-person shooters turn the making of war into adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled hype, and while the grittier tragedies of personal loss and trauma are told with the soldier/survivor in mind, there is little to none of that in Grave of the Fireflies. At one point, while the Japanese houses burn and the women and children are huddling weeping, a single man stands up above and shouts as if to the smokey heavens: “Long live the Emperor!”
His defiant cry was irrelevant. The suffering of the citizens, the suffering of the two character leads, are at the real center of this story. There’s no room for the consideration of justifying Japan’s actions, or the Americans’ for that matter, during the war. This isn’t about the “good vs evil”. The competing ideologies, the coalition Allies against the Axis, the politics, it’s all of no concern to two children caught up in the wake of a war of adults. All that matters to them is survival. They hardly even ask “why”. It’s not about politicizing the war, if you could put it that way. For them, there is just a war happening which is claiming everything from them.
I have sometimes read responses to this film which say “I hate the Americans for what they did!” or “Japan deserved it!” but in essence all of those kinds of statements are simply beyond (or beneath) what Grave of the Fireflies has to say.
I think of the horrific images we’ve seen recently of toddlers lying face down in the sea, or children with faces bleeding. The saddest thing about Fireflies is its accuracy. Presenting the true victims of war, Fireflies is unlike nearly any other war drama I can think of. It’s hard to look at. It’s a hard movie to watch because you know that this isn’t merely entertaining fiction.
Compounding the sense of its gravity and realism is the fact that it was based on the semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. Nosaka based his Grave of the Fireflies on the experiences he had during the firebombing of Kobe in 1945.
He lost two sisters. The youngest died of malnutrition. He wrote the story as a personal apology to his sister, Keiko, since he blamed himself for her death. Nosaka created Seita and Setsuko as archetypes for himself and his sister, so the story isn’t entirely based on exactly true events.
Grave of the Fireflies is critically acclaimed. Takahata’s first time in the director’s chair with Ghibli and he crafted a timeless examination of human suffering. It bears all of the hallmarks of authentic storytelling, raw emotion, brutal realism in its tragedy.
Understandably, it is one of the more obscure Ghibli films. It’s hard to envision that the same animation studio which brought us the furry Totoro, the fast-talking Calcifer, and the guardian robots of Laputa also gave us this sweetly heartfelt and bitter tale of loss and the frailty of life. I do hold that it’s nearly impossible to watch this without crying, though I actually have a friend who managed it, but there’s no shame in weeping for the unfairness of the suffering of children under the indifferent feet of war.
Grave of the Fireflies was originally shown as a double-feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro, though those who saw Totoro in theater didn’t want to stay for Fireflies, and so they skipped it.
If you skip it, you’re choosing in some small way to not face the reality of the world we live in. Suffering exists. It’s hard to stare suffering in the eye. However, it’s my opinion that movies like this have to exist. They must exist in the same way that Holocaust museums must exist. The stories of those who suffered greatly under the hands of tyrants and wars need to be told, if only so that we can make the right decision to avoid that suffering at all costs for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Isao Takahata proved once and for all that there is no limit to the power of animation. Its scope can tell any story and in some cases, such as here, the story is better suited to the timelessness of the animation process. If you know anyone who doubts what animation can accomplish, show them Grave of the Fireflies. It is the most honest of Studio Ghibli’s films if not one of the most honest films you could ever find. Its unique, unapologetic perspective on war and suffering and its emotional power make it one of the greatest films of all time.
Forget being a fan of anime or not. This is a movie which must be seen.
The 8-bit Review
It is erroneous on the part of many to call the Studio Ghibli films “Miyazaki movies”. Certainly Miyazaki played a large part in forming the majority of them as a founder, animator and director. But he was not the only founder, animator or director there. Isao Takahata makes his directorial debut with Grave of the Fireflies. It is perhaps this “change of hands” which denotes the marked difference between the presentation of Fireflies and the previous Miyazaki-directed movies: Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky. I can’t be sure but maybe it was even a conscious effort by Takahata to distinguish his film visually from Miyazaki’s.
Fireflies demonstrates the versatility of an animation studio that by this time had only had technically two releases. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was completed before the founding of Studio Ghibli, though it is commonly ranked alongside their works. With that film we saw a markedly fantastical and dystopian world. With Castle in the Sky we got a literally high-flying adventure with much lightheartedness. Grave of the Fireflies dismisses the tones of both of those films and strikes out on its own, achieving an oft sepia-toned drabness that at once looks both stylized and realistic.
I discovered that the animators who worked on Fireflies did not use black unless it was absolutely necessary. Instead, they used shades of brown to give the film a softness. It feels as if you’re looking at memory, which is exactly what we’re shown through the eyes of the spirit of Seita.
Grave of the Fireflies depicts the shattered ruins of Japanese towns, burnt bodies, the graphic, bloody victims of the war, and the shriveling body of a little girl. It is sometimes too much to take. There is not a moment in Fireflies where the animators pulled their punches. There is a lavish attention to detail, if not sheer perfectionism at their master craft. I think of the scene when Seita and Setsuko release dozens of fireflies into their mosquito net and we see the lights of the insects playing across their faces as if they had real contours.
This is one of the few Studio Ghibli films not scored by Joe Hisaishi, further separating it from the rest of their anime canon. Michio Mamiya was brought in to score the film and succeeded in creating a main theme of chimes and bells, musically evoking the lights of the fireflies surrounding the spirits of the children. It’s memorable, haunting, and irresistibly sad.
The film also knows how to mix silence in with dissonance and noise. The hissing sound of the firebombs falling through the atmosphere is horrifying. You can feel Seita and Setsuko’s panic through this sound design. The cries of babies, the weeping of women, the angry shouts of the men, the thunder of the aircraft overhead, it all sounds so palpable.
Music serves one of the most moving scenes in the film toward the end when a record plays the song “Home Sweet Home” to visions of Setsuko playing innocently. I can’t even express how much of an impact that moment has in its reverie of stillness. It’s impossible for me not to get a lump in my throat just listening to it after having seen the film. I have yet to shed tears when writing for The Well-Red Mage… until now.
The choice of that song specifically is the perfect summation for all the Setsuko and Seita’s failed wishes together.
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home;
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met elsewhere.
Home! Home! Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home!
Seriously, Up, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Old Yeller, bring your A-game all you like because this may just be the saddest movie in existence.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
We already know that Grave of the Fireflies tells a story of personal human suffering and tragedy. There’s no expecting a sunny ending. After the firebombing, Seita and Setsuko are separated from their mother. Their father is out fighting the war in the navy. They eventually catch up with their mother in the hospital. She has been badly burned by the bombs and she dies shortly afterward, her body unceremoniously cremated on a pile of other corpses.
Seita and his sister locate one of their relatives, an aunt who becomes increasingly cruel to them, cheating them out of the food they earned by selling their mother’s kimonos. The children eventually leave their aunt and try to live on their own. Seita shows that he isn’t mature enough to properly care for Setsuko and she falls into malnutrition as they live in a muddy bomb shelter. They increasingly find themselves isolated from adults who are too busy or too uncaring to look upon even a homeless four year old with compassion.
What does it take for a human being to kill their own feelings toward even a little child like that?
Setsuko eventually dies after presumably eating rocks she thought was food. Seita cremates her body on a hilltop and seems to be so overcome with guilt that he allows himself to waste away, dying in the opening sequence of the movie and joining his sister as a spirit watching over modern Kobe. This of course is the departure from the real events of Nosaka’s life, since he survived to write about his sister’s death and Seita did not. I don’t think it’s too hard to guess that Nosaka lets Seita die in the story almost as a way of atoning for being unable to take care of Setsuko.
At times Seita simply tried to placate Setsuko’s needs with candies until those ran out. We even see him reach out for her affection when he tries to embrace her as they lay down to sleep. He’s wrestling with his own feelings of being alone. He’s clearly incapable of supporting her, and eventually he ends up stealing and is beaten for it. The farmer who beats him takes him to the authorities, who treat Seita gently, but even they do nothing for him.
The suffering in the film is as much the fault of the warring adults as the civilian adults. The total lack of empathy they have for Seita and Setsuko is disgusting.
On suffering, if you’ll allow me to put on my theology-hat for a moment. This is something I did reflect upon when watching this film.
The problem of pain is a steep challenge for me as a Christian. With it, I’m confronted by the concept of a God who is all-good and all-powerful yet could not or did not prevent the meaningless deaths of children like Seita and Setsuko through history. I think there is no easy answer to this question, but our very sense of justice being denied to these children points to an ultimate standard for justice, if not a desire for ultimate justice to be enacted. To approach the question of the problem of pain in any fashion here, I can merely say that the product of human suffering seen in Grave of the Fireflies is the direct result of human free will being abused to cause war. We find ourselves as such creatures that have free will, a fundamental gift which grants meaning to our actions, yet every virtue can become a vice, and while free will affords us meaningful love, trust, friendship, charity, choice and independence, it can also lead to horrors as black as those in this film. Which is why I think we have moral responsibility.
Grave of the Fireflies is about the premature death of children. The clearest metaphor in the film is its title, which comes when Seita finds Setsuko digging a hole in the mud for the fireflies that died in their mosquito net the night before. Seita hadn’t told Setsuko that their mother was dead but Setsuko says “Mommy is in a grave” and that their aunt had told her. As Setsuko buries the insects, there’s an image that flashes across the screen of their mother’s body being thrown into a public grave. Then Setsuko looks up at a weeping Seita and asks “Why do fireflies die so soon?”
The brevity of life seems to be a distinctly Japanese concept with their love of the cherry blossom and elements of their history in poetry and so on, but we here in the West have a different perspective on temporal life. Perhaps this hits us so hard because it took the death of a child in this movie to make us see that life is short and life is precious.
“Why do fireflies die so soon?” Her question is prophetic. Like lights that burn brightly for an evening, the children lived their happy lives until they were cut short by isolation, by uncaring adults, by malnutrition, by the war.
Yet despite this, Seita and Setsuko demonstrate the innocence and sweetness of children who just want to live happily together. For all of his bottled frustration, Seita never becomes furious with his baby sister. He thinks of her happiness above his own. Even when their aunt berates them, Seita shows a calm meekness.
In a bittersweet way, they do end up truly happy and at peace after all that they suffer, as spirits sitting on the hilltop at the end of the film.
Okay so I decided that rather than include a low score for Family Friendliness, I would swap that out for the Scariness score. Not exactly appropriate but more so than pretending this is a “family” film. Here’s my perspective on family friendliness in light of how graphic this film is. Grave of the Fireflies is definitely graphic. It’s a tough movie to watch. The first time I saw it I saw it alone and I was glad for it because I was overcome with emotion. I’ve seen it three times now, once in Japanese, and it’s still just as moving. With all of the terror and devastation that’s depicted, this is no lighthearted adventure to watch with your children. However, I think that this is an important movie to show to your kids at some point, once you believe they’re able to process the reality of what it depicts. I want my own children to know what our history as a race has been. All of it, whether happy or sad. I think it’s important to look straight on at this human suffering and not pretend like it isn’t there. Someday, our children will have to learn about the way things are.
In the Sentai Filmworks dub, Seita is played by Adam Gibbs. He does a good job of capturing the youth of the character but also his attempts at being an older brother to his young sister. Little Setsuko was played by Emily Neves who is unable to believably sound like a four or five year old girl. She certainly does her best but you can’t escape the notion that it’s an adult giving the lines. That’s unfortunate considering Setsuko is at the heart of the drama. I can’t say that her performance ruins the film but it may be this version’s biggest (or only) flaw.
The only Ghibli film never dubbed by Disney or GKIDS and it’s easy to understand why. Can you picture an excitable John Lasseter giving a brief prologue for this film? I can’t. Grave of the Fireflies is hard-hitting in its distinct perspective on personal suffering, guilt, loss, and atonement. Not exactly Disney/Pixar material. As moving as some Pixar films have been, they can’t hold a candle to the emotional storytelling here in Fireflies.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Many of our readers may never have seen Grave of the Fireflies but I cannot recommend it more as a movie that must be seen once in a lifetime. Many have skipped it because they know that it’s hard to face the reality of the world. Grave of the Fireflies puts a hard gaze right on top of the injustices of the world, yet it is not joyless. Even in the face of terrible tragedy, Seita and Setsuko have an enduring love for each other as brother and sister that’s so much more profound than the cheap romance of frivolous modern day filmmaking.
I walked away from this film with a greater appreciation for life, because no one knows how long we each will have it. After seeing this movie again last night, I just had to hold my 1 year old son and spend another moment with my family. And that is a lesson that only a masterpiece of animation could teach.
Aggregated Score: 9.6