Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Release Date: 16 April 1988

Directed by: Isao Takahata

Country: Japan

Let me just start off by saying that I’ve always been a huge fan of Studio Ghibli films, their movies are often deep, moving and full of meaning. Their soundtracks are also amazingly beautiful, it never fails to make me cry.

Grave of the Fireflies recounts the last six months of Seita and his sister, Setsuko, life and their struggle to survive World War II after losing both their parents to it.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 01.18.33.png
Setsuko accidentally squishes a firefly

Fireflies in the film symbolises the fleetingness and fragility of life as fireflies can only live for a day. This is again shown when Setsuko accidentally kills a firefly by grasping it in her hand too tightly.

The movie was really raw, showing the devastating and brutal reality of war: the mummified bodies from the bombings, wounded, starving and dying men, women and children, the fear and selfishness that drove the desperate. It was each man for himself, war truly makes monsters of us all.

Take Seita’s aunt for example, even though she offered to take them in after they lost their mother, I suspect she had her own selfish reasons. During the war, food was scarce and hence rationed, only people with connections in the Japanese military would have a chance of securing themselves more food. I have this inkling that his aunt probably took him in thinking that his father might help her family through him.

Even if she had good intentions, you can see her growing increasingly bitter, frustrated and desperate as weeks go by and food started getting scarce. As the war drags on, you also notice that the people around both Seita and Setsuko getting increasingly indifferent, the doctor, the janitor and the farmer. That said, there were still people around who cared for them, such as the police officer and his supplier (who advises him to go back to his aunt).

Although the film is a cartoon/anime, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less real. What happened during World War II must have been a thousand times worse and all the more heartbreaking. I would say that Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war film (but the director Isao Takahata has denied it fervently), however, after rewatching it (cause it’s so good and I was crying too much the first time) I definitely felt like there was more to it than that.

The movie seemed to criticise the blind patriotism the Japanese have, this is personified by Seita who blindly believes that his father and Japan will emerge victorious from the war. Perhaps the criticism was referring to the Japanese education system as their history textbooks about World War II were significantly less critical on themselves, even self-favouring.

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose noted that “The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: ‘One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us.'”

Also can I just say that Setsuko’s death was plain upsetting, all she wanted was for her brother to stay with her but he has to go find food or they’ll both die. The montage of her playing by herself while he’s away was just heart-breaking.. I really feel like it was Seita’s naivety and pride that ultimately led to his sister’s death.

After doing a little research, I discovered that Grave of the Fireflies is actually based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka. In both his novel and film, he dies along with his sister (but he actually survives, duh, hence the book), so the novel was meant to be his personal form of guilt, apology and reconciliation for having led his sister to death, as if saying that he should have died with her.

Verdict: so f@#$^*% sad I kennut

5 Comments Add yours

  1. chwnxng says:

    I agree that Grave of the Fireflies is a critique of blind nationalism and showed how toxic it can be, especially in this hopeless war. The elements of the film perfectly fit the anti-war genre, but it is surprising to see Isao Takahata denying that interpretation, given that he is a staunch advocate of anti-war himself. Then again, this story revolves mainly around Seita and Setsuko with war as the backdrop for the story, so it cannot be generalised as an anti-war film either. All in all, it is still all up to the audience’s interpretation as to whether it is an anti-war film or not. I, too, agree that the death of Setsuko was too tragic. If Seita had swallowed his pride and endured their aunt’s beratings, maybe they could have survived? After all, I believe that their aunt was not entirely at fault, albeit rather harsh on them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. celhxr says:

    I like that you talked about the symbolic meaning of fireflies in the film! With regards to your point on the realism of the film despite it being an animated one, I admit that I have always thought of animated films as unrealistic. However, after watching Grave of the Fireflies, it truly is one of the most realistic animated films ever. It displays the brutality of war and the tragic lives of the innocent citizens though Seita and Setsuko’s characters.

    It was extremely upsetting for me as well, watching the montage of Setsuko simply waiting for her brother to come home the weeks before she died from malnutrition. To be honest, I don’t think that it is Seita’s fault. It’s true that he made the decision to leave their aunt’s house, but ultimately I feel that it was their aunt who caused their deaths. As an adult, she should have known that the siblings would not be able to survive out there and yet she had the audacity to suggest such a thing, encouraging them to move out. Overall, a heart-wrenching film and excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. katinkabk says:

    Hi! Great review really enjoy reading it. This film also got me bawling my eyes out because how sad and heart-wrenching this movie is. I like that you mention about the symbolic meaning of fireflies and great observation that it is shown when Setsuko accidentally kills a firefly which i have missed out on. War indeed has the transformational effect that you can see as people become more and more selfish. I really feel the same, that maybe Seita’s ego is at fault here, when he refuses to talk it out with his aunt and leave the house. I would say Grave of the fireflies proves me that an animation does not identify as good when it looks more realistic but one is good when it touches your heart while watching it because how they put emotions into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed reading your review as you have thoroughly discussed the many aspects of this film! I agree that the movie has portrayed several attributes of realism. I have always perceptionalised animated movies as those fictional and unrealistic content. I am glad that I watched this film as it firstly, it showed an alternative angle of the Japanese as the aggressors that we them of and secondly, it changed my perception of animated movies.
    Over the course of the film, I grew fond of he brother-sister relationship on-screen and wished that the ending was different. The death of Setsuko was the saddest scene, in my opinion, as we see how scarcity of food takes the life of a child and the unconditional love that the siblings had for each other. Overall, it is a thought-provoking film that wrenches hearts with sympathy for the characters!


  5. jxprawnie says:

    Hi Yi Huai! I also feel that Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is an anti-war film! The portrayal of the suffering of civilians on the aggressor’s side shows that no one wins in a war, so war must be avoided.

    I also felt that Seita’s naivety and pride ultimately led to his sister’s death. Having left with so little, I thought it would be a more realistic depiction of teenagers of that period had Seita put up with his aunt’s insults for a roof over his head, while going to school or to work like his cousin. After all, school and work can be places for one to improve his situation, instead of idling at home.

    But apparently, it was the intention of the director (Isao Takahata) to portray Seita as a teenager who gives up when the going gets tough – much like the youths of 1980s Japan, who grew up in a time of economic boom. This was because he wanted to make Seita more relatable to the youths at the time the film was released.


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