Movie Name: Grave of the Fireflies
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Release Date(s): April 16, 1988
MPAA Rating: Unrated
The war is raging and the Japanese Empire finds itself under attack from United States forces. When Seita and Setsuko’s mother is killed during the bombing and their father is fighting the war, Seita and Setsuko are left homeless and forced to live with a relative. As the war continues, Seita and Setsuko quickly become a burden and though he is only fourteen, Seita takes Setsuko, and they sets off to live on their own. Trying to make the best things by living in a bomb shelter, Seita finds himself quickly shedding childhood for adulthood. War however has more effects on than just those killed in the battle. Food supply is dwindling and Setsuko and Seita must eat.
Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies (or the original Japanese title 火垂るの墓 Hotaru no haka) was animated by Studio Ghibli and based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka which he penned in 1967. The movie was released to wide acclaim, and Roger Ebert really touted the movie as one of the best films of ’80s and best war films. Since its release, the movie has been remade twice as a live action film, but both live action films never reached the critical acclaim of this version.
When a film starts out with the dying of a child (or young adult), you know you are in for a rough ride. The movie is a tear-jerker and reminds you that even something like an animated film (if done right) can elicit immense response from its viewers. The movie has a gentleness and honesty to it that many live action films do not have.
The story of Grave of the Fireflies is quite heavy. The movie is populated by scared people and of people of different economic backgrounds. While it is always a burden to take on children, during war time it becomes even more so and the question of what happens if there is no system in place to protect them is the primary focus of this movie. I don’t know if any of the people in the film are truly evil, but war can effect everyone in different ways and when it becomes survival of the fittest not everyone can be fed. As a result you get children like Seita and Setsuko forced to live on their own.
The writer Akiyuki Nosaka said he didn’t believe a film could be made of this movie because it would be too hard for children to get the emotion presented by Seita and Setsuko. Here, the animators capture their character perfectly. We see fear, pain, suffering, and through it, we still see them trying to be children with imagination. The film is relatively short, but Seito and Setsuko become instantly identifiable. They remind you of your childhood while making you question if you could even do as well as they did in their situation.
The movie is also aided by the fantastic animation. I love Studio Ghibli, and I feel people that say they don’t like anime probably are basing this on lower quality TV animation (which I admit is almost unwatchable). Here, we get rounded character with real heart in a setting that also feels very real. Scenes like the nice firefly scene are in great contrast to images of Seito rushing into the village being bombed just in the hopes of getting more food to keep Setsuko alive.
Grave of the Fireflies feels like one of those important films that you should probably see. With a strong message and a sad, sad story, the movie might surprise those who are “anti-anime” and give you a different perspective since it is neither sci-fi or action, but a touching drama that tries to remind you of the other victims in a war.