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Anime Movie Review & Analysis: “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

Charlene is interested in being a Film and Television major. She is a big fan of Disney, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stranger Things.

The pond in Grave of the Fireflies is based on Niteko Pond in Nishinomiya, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

The pond in Grave of the Fireflies is based on Niteko Pond in Nishinomiya, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

Summary

  • Writer/Director: Isao Takahata
  • Release Date: April 16, 1988
  • Runtime: 89 minutes
  • Production Company: Studio Ghibli

Based on Akiyuki Nosaka's 1967 short story of the same name, Grave of the Fireflies follows a pair of siblings—Seita, a fourteen-year-old boy, and Setsuko, a four-year-old girl— who survive the firebombing of Kobe, Japan, on March 17, 1945, during the last months of World War Two. The attack killed 8,841 residents and, unfortunately, their mother was one of the casualties, succumbing to severe burns.

Most of the film is a flashback of the siblings’ journey, and it beautifully (and heartbreakingly) demonstrates perseverance in the face of insurmountable tragedy. Grave of the Fireflies is not a lighthearted animated film in any way; it has a serious tone with a mature story.

Likable Sibling Protagonists

The characters are relatable, endearing, and inspirational.

Seita is a strong and solid protagonist who has overwhelming love for his sister. He wants to protect her from the horrors of the situation they are in and makes sacrifices just to ensure their survival. There are times when he makes mistakes while trying to be responsible for her, but this is what makes him a believable teen—he learns, picks himself back up, and tries the best that he can. Life doesn’t have an all-around instruction manual; experience is one of the biggest teachers in life.

Setsuko’s cuteness and innocence adds a more emotional touch to the film, exploring a theme of loss and protection of childhood purity. Without her, the movie would not be as impactful as it is. She conveys a heartfelt message: as innocent as young children may and should be, they too are not spared from the traumatic effects of war. Tragedy is inevitable. What happens to both of the siblings throughout their journey of survival only reinforces that message.

Seita and Setsuko are unable to survive, and it greatly emphasizes how humans are never invincible and why it is important that we hold our loved ones close for as long as we are able to. The movie offers insight on the impact that war can have on familial bonds. Families are often a form of unity and community, and generally, humans are wired to seek out connections for improved health and well-being. For example, Seita and Setsuko are brought closer together because of the war. However, war also separates families, and the movie proves that it is wrong for that to even happen in the first place. Even Seita and Setsuko’s aunt expresses resentment towards them because of the war (or more specifically, Seita’s behavior). No family member should be resentful during a tough period of time, and no family should ever be forcibly split, which is why it is necessary to appreciate loving family members before it is too late.

Seita and Setsuko try to find hope and make the best out of their dire situation, and it reminds viewers to be mindful of those who may be struggling with or battling anything major. The world is full of people who need to use their resources to find at least some improvement in their lives, and it is what makes Seita and his behavior towards his sister so realistic and human.

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Emotion, Emotion, Emotion

I must admit that I do not cry over movies, and Grave of the Fireflies is no exception, but the movie is incredibly meaningful. This movie has a lot of memorable sequences: Seita’s last conversation with his mom before her death, Seita and Setsuko’s cruel aunt, Setsuko’s malnutrition (and the discovery of marbles in her mouth), and more. They all evoke a sense of sadness and create an overarching gloomy tone for the film. Not only that, but it further puts significance on the characters’ actions.

Yes, the reveal of Seita and Setsuko’s deaths at the beginning of the film does lessen the impact of them, and one may ask: what is the point of watching a film if the ending is already known? While a reasonable concern, this reveal also makes viewers curious as to what happened. Why it happened. How their story all unfolds. When confronted with the fleetingness of life, it challenges us to expand our knowledge of how events carry out.

But with war being at the center of it all, it makes for a more compelling and honest narrative. It depicts war as it really is. There is no glory in war; it is one of the ugliest manifestations of human nature. A few politicians crave power, and as a result, they dangerously put non-guilty citizens in vulnerable positions, forcing them into poverty, wrecking their homes and property, and having no regard for human life.

The Symbolism of Hope and Hopelessness

Symbolism is extremely common in storytelling, and a small part of what makes Grave of the Fireflies brilliant is its symbolism. There are two main symbols: fireflies and candy in its tin-can packaging. These symbols signify what it means to hold onto hope and what it means to lose it. They also add to the movie’s themes of loss and death, calling attention to the fragility of life. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and for many, the thought of it is reasonably scary. Yet, there is still a sense of freedom that can be embraced, and that is to make the best of what is left.

Sometime during the movie, fireflies are released at night to provide light inside of Seita and Setsuko’s pitch black shelter. The day after they are released, Setsuko sorrowfully buries them and asks her brother why fireflies die early. Through this, she also reveals that she knows about their mother’s death, which is something that Seita had initially tried hiding from her. What Setsuko asks also hints at her reasonable belief of their mother dying too early. The fireflies are reflective of these characters in a few ways. Fireflies emit light and are most commonly seen at nighttime. Light in darkness often represents hope, promise, encouragement, and guidance in ways that are supposed to be comforting for those dealing with hardships. The siblings are brave enough to keep on fighting for their lives during the difficult realities of war. However, fireflies have a short lifespan, only living as adults for about a couple of months. Even though Seita and Setsuko hold onto hope and strength, they eventually pass away and do not get to experience how their lives could’ve turned out post-World War II. Setsuko, Seita, and both of their parents are the fireflies who go to the grave.

The candy from Grave of the Fireflies are known as Sakuma drops: Japanese hard candies flavored with real fruit juice. Like fireflies, Sakuma drops are another prominent symbol of the film. When people think of candy, they usually think of positive feelings, such as joy, satisfaction, and excitement. The Sakuma drops help make Setsuko a bit more cheerful and enthusiastic, but the fruit drops don’t last forever. Once the candy runs out and the tin can is empty, it starts to represent hopelessness. Hopelessness in a war-torn country may compose of feelings such as “Life will never get better,” “There is no future,” and “No one is able to help.” The box is later refilled by Setsuko’s cremated ashes, which represents high awareness of loss. Loss can be one of the most painful feelings in life because what is lost may never come back.

Subtle Music, Breathtaking Animation

Although the soft music is used in small quantities, it blends with the images on the screen amazingly, and the animation itself goes well with the story. The animation is not ostentatious or flashy; instead, it is true to life and captures emotions in a heart-wrenching way.

The film has slight gore and a lot of destruction, but it is not graphic. Brutal depictions of violence are minimal, as the movie focuses less on the technicalities of war and more on storytelling and art. By not adding excessive gore in its animation, more attention is placed on the personal relationships between the characters.

The interactions between the two siblings in the landscape rural settings are actually quite breathtaking, and they are all drawn with nice care.

In Conclusion

Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film that demonstrates how children can be affected by war, ultimately moving anyone who watches it to be shocked by war’s effects and to be inspired by the love Seita has for Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies is not exactly a film to be watched more than once; however, it is a film that merits a viewing and can never be forgotten after that first viewing.

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