Japanese Title: Hotaru no haka
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Produced By: Toru Hara
Originally Released: April 16, 1988
If I sat down today and wrote out a list of the top ten most depressing films I’ve ever seen, I can almost guarantee you that Grave of the Fireflies would be on it. This is in no way a happy movie. This is a film about the consequences of war. This is a film about pride and how it is always ALWAYS our downfall. This a film about the final year of World War 2 from the Japanese perspective. But most of all, this is a film about two children who lose everything, and in their effort to enjoy life despite their horrible situation, they end up forgetting to care for themselves and ultimately are lost to the war. Not to the bombings or the bullets, but to starvation. It’s painful and brutal to watch, but despite all of this, it is masterfully crafted. Get out your tissues. This is going to be a rough ride.
Grave of the Fireflies is based on the Naoki Prize-winning novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, which was written in 1967. In the novel, Akiyuki explores the effects of World War 2 on these two children as a semi-autobiographical way of coping with the fact that he blames himself for his sister’s death. The concern was that this film, as well as the film which was being produced at the same time, My Neighbor Totoro, would not garner enough sales to keep the company afloat. It was thus decided to release them as a double bill. That’s right! For three hours, you could sit in a theater and watch the two films, feeling all sense of happiness in your soul die. While Totoro went on to become Ghibli’s mascot, Grave of the Fireflies solidified the fact that Ghibli was a force to be reckoned with.
Grave of the Fireflies is the tale of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, two youth who’s father is in the Navy while their mother cares for them. At the start of the story, their town in bombed with canisters of oil set on fire, which cut down the paper and wood buildings. Seita and Setsuko manage to get to a safe house, but their mother is burned alive in the raid and later dies from her injury. Orphans, the children go to stay with their aunt, but when it is realized that their mother and father won’t be coming to get them anytime soon, she becomes resentful of the two always taking resources and not contributing to the household or the town in any way.
And herein lies the folly of Seita. He’s not a hero. Not really. His pride and his lack of maturity quickly lead to him making poor choices like not helping out around the house or not trying harder to contact his extended family. Before long, he moves himself and his sister out completely and goes to live in a cave. All of these childish decisions seem like great fun at first, but before long he and his sister are suffering from mal-nourishment. Rather than swallow his pride, Seita begins stealing food from farmers and stealing from homes during air raids in which everyone is hiding out at the shelters. He sinks deeper and deeper away from humanity until at long last, he finally realizes that he needs to focus on feeding his sister and himself, whatever it takes. By that point, though, it is far too late. There’s something to be said for the message that during wartime, the needs of the many outweigh those of the few. By refusing to be an active part of the community, choosing only to aid himself and his sister, Seita dooms them.
The symbolic nature of fireflies can be found throughout this film. Early on, we can assume that the planes flying overhead and dropping fire are a bit like fireflies. Tiny buzzing beacons of light which seem small in comparison. Later on, Setsuko accidentally kills a firefly as she tries to hold it. This is perhaps her first glimpse of the fragility of life. “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” she asks. It’s a powerful question in the film, given the fact that human life is so fleeting. Yet this also speaks truths to her own death. A beautiful child full of life and happiness. A life which burns bright, but ultimately ends much too soon. Eventually we see the fireflies die and she buries them in a mass grave, similar to the one her mother was put in. Her can of fruit drops marks the grave, and eventually becomes the final resting place of her ashes.
In reading about this film and director Isao Takahata, I’ve come to understand Takahata as a perfectionist, and that definitely shows in this film. From the little moment of Setsuko shifting back and forth as she thinks to the detail in how they put on their clothes, to every little scene, this whole film feels delicately put together. In fact, most of the details are so seamless, it’s easy to miss them. Yet, at the end of the day, that is the job of the animator. Everything here feels so precise that you could easily be watching a live action film and get the same experience. It all feels very real. This detail extends to the characters, who feel very realized. These feel like two human beings. They have this amazing love for each other but, especially Seita, is incredibly flawed. And like most human beings, he simply can’t see past his own beliefs to see how flawed he is.
The most heartbreaking thing about Grave of the Fireflies is that you know the awful thing is coming. From the moment the film starts and we see Seita die and then find his sister in the spirit world, we know that this is going to get dark. A station janitor throws away an old canister, which we will only learn later is the final resting place of Setsuko. As the film continues, we flash back to put all these pieces together in a horrifying realization that we can’t escape. The upsetting part of knowing what’s to come is that you see all the poor choices that lead to it. You scream at Seita to get it together, but you know that ultimately he will fail at keeping himself and his sister alive. It’s soul crushing in the worst way. The most painful part of all is that when the two of them inevitably starve to death, the war has ended. They’ve lived through the awfulness, and still can’t manage to get it together. It’s almost as if Seita is banking on his father coming to their rescue, and when he realizes this can’t happen, he finally breaks.
Grave of the Fireflies is a truly beautiful film. It will rock you to your very core and I don’t recommend going into this film hoping for an uplifting story about the power of humanity. You won’t find it here. This is bitter struggle and one that ends horribly for our heroes. Yet within all of that, it provides perspective into the lives and times of this war and the innocent people who lost their lives during it. While most World War 2 movies focus on the naval battles or the airplane dog fights, Grave of the Fireflies chooses the quieter route, to show us the depths of humanity and what can happen if we don’t accept responsibility for our actions and learn to grow and mature. Human life is fragile and fleeting and Grave of the Fireflies reminds us of this in an extremely moving, masterfully detailed work of art, that left me thinking about it long after the credits rolled.
NEXT UP: My Neighbor Totoro