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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Studio Ghibli's Most Misunderstood Film!

A girl mesmerized by fireflies. Inspired by the Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies.
Fanart © Japanese Cinema Archives

Director: Isao Takahata

Cast/Voices: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Related films: Barefoot Gen, Black Rain, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio: Ghibli

Year: 1988

Verdict: 5/6


Introducing Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is known as one of the saddest animes ever made. Yes, there are some truly gut-wrenching moments, and happy Hollywood endings are nowhere in sight, but the film is far from as hard to watch as its reputation might suggest.

Grave of the Fireflies isn't exactly uplifting. Still, the tale of the two siblings, trekking through a bombed and torn asunder Kobe at the end of WWII, approaches wartime atrocities with encouraging innocence.

The story grabs hold from the very first sequences and holds you tight till the end credits roll. Do not let the dead-serious theme stop you from checking out Grave of the Fireflies. Behind the heinous exterior hides a profound and heartfelt story that is not to be missed.

Background & Circumstances

Grave of the Fireflies stands out in the Ghibli back catalog in more ways than one. Not only is it their gloomiest film to date, but it is also the only one produced by Shinchosha Publishing Co, Ltd. For this reason, Disney did not get distribution rights for Grave of the Fireflies in North America.

Initially, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were meant to be a double feature. They were released on the same day and set up in tandem at the cinemas, but no matter the order of the two films, they proved too contrasting for the general audience.

«By and large, the message in Grave of the Fireflies

was misunderstood by the entire world»

- JCA -

The story was based on a semi-autobiographical short story written by a politician and novelist called Akiyuki Nosaka. Anime director Isao Takahata intended to make this WWII story into a wake-up call for the coming generations. He felt that the young people of Japan had become too reliant on post-war materialism.

Grave of the Fireflies was only moderately successful in Japan when it was released, but it quickly got rave reviews abroad. Over the years, its reputation kept growing. Today it is labeled one of the most significant anime films ever made, even though its main message is frequently misunderstood to this day. (See the analysis chapter for more details.)

Plot Points of Pain

The opening of the film is a hard blow to swallow. It tells the story of two young children whose father is out on the front lines when their mother suddenly passes away. This leaves the siblings in a hopeless situation.

The determined boy Seita decides to meet the challenge head-on. Soon, he leaves the family home with his sister Setsuko on his back. They head for their aunt’s in the hope of finding somewhere to stay.

The aunt is struggling just as much as everyone else in the war-torn landscape, and she takes it out on Seita. She constantly complains about him being a burden who's not working to support his family.

So unwelcome is Seita made to feel that he takes his sister and leaves to seek shelter elsewhere. On the outskirts of the city, they move into an abandoned bomb shelter. There, they create a makeshift home of sticks and stones.

In the daytime, Seita rummages the city ruins for scraps of food and other loot. In the nighttime, the siblings try to forget their hunger by entertaining themselves as best they can in the close-by wilderness.

Firefly Mass Destruction | Anime Analysis

The title of the film refers to a scene in which the siblings catch fireflies to light up the bomb shelter. They are amazed by the creatures’ beauty and saddened by the heaps of dead fireflies the next morning.

The concept of appreciating fleeting beauty is a time-honored tradition in Japanese art and culture. More so, the juxtaposition of a firefly mass grave next to piles of wartime casualties makes you think about the meaning of it all.

The brutality of war seems not only a senseless waste of life and beauty, it makes us realize our own fragile nature. Are our lives as fleeting as that of fireflies? Does our existence hold any profound meaning at all, or are we just vessels made to create and observe passing moments of beauty? One message shines through a little stronger than others: Good things never last.

(Spoiler ahead!)

Though anti-war angles of interpretation are most often applied when discussing Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata never intended to comment on WWII. At least not the war in itself but rather the developments that followed thereafter in Japanese society.

Viewers abroad commonly see Seita and Setsuko as victims of war. Takahata actually held Seita responsible for his actions, though. Takahata blamed the boy for making selfish choices that led to the death of himself and his sister.

Seita was supposed to be a reflection of Japanese youth in post-war Japan. He chose to leave his aunt, which obviously was unwise, to fight on his own terms. His display of arrogance was a comment on Japanese modernism, a message that failed to translate in most cases.

Perhaps the backdrop was too powerful to overlook. Even after learning about Takahata's intention, it is hard to not question the senselessness of human behavior in war when watching Grave of the Fireflies.

Why do we always behave like this, and who is to blame? Was it Japan for attacking Pearl Harbor? Was it America for retaliating? Let's leave the larger issues for another discussion and look at humanity in all this; the individual acts that led to suffering and ruin.

Was it not the mistreating aunt’s fault that the siblings decided they’d rather starve than stay? Or was it the doctor who provided no other help than advising the siblings to eat more to combat malnutrition?

(Spoiler end!)

Ultimately the elder brother decided to live outside the confines of a broken society, but his choice led him down a dark path. The message might be that staying together makes us strong, but at what cost?

The siblings could have chosen to stay in a constant state of mistreatment but instead opted for freedom and a constant fight for survival on their own terms. In many ways, Takahata's message appears to voice the opinion of his generation, an opinion that seems to linger in Japan.

As such, the youth of Japan are considered slackers who care more about themselves than the common good of society. They are not considered victims of war but arrogant slaves of modernism. After all, the Japanese have always looked after their own at the expense of personal needs. Might Seita be the image of individuality’s final demise in postwar Japan?

Atrocity & Accessibility | Production of Grave of the Fireflies

The scenery and details in Grave of the Fireflies are as spectacular as in any other Ghibli film. The Studio’s unmistakable feel - most often associated with cute childlike fantasies - proves to effectively underline most types of topics, even one as grim as wartime atrocities.

Grave of the Fireflies holds up exceptionally well. It does not look much dated, even compared to Ghibli films released 25 years later. (Bear in mind that this review is based on the Blu-ray release from 2013.)

The animations arguably gave the film a unique atmosphere. Most of the outlines were drawn in brown rather than the usual black. This was done to soften the tone of the film, and supposedly, it was an unprecedented move in the world of anime before Grave of the Fireflies.

«I haven't depicted Japan before. (Laughs) That's because, in Japanese

animation, you're not allowed to depict Japan with much realism.»

- Isao Takahata | Interview with Animerica Magazine -

About the production, Takahata told Animerica Magazine that drawing realistic imagery was a challenge. For one, he never drew images of such a young girl before. On top of this, the norms of Japanese anime at the time forbade any realistic drawings of Japan.

As it turned out, Nosaka's writing was realistic enough. And Takahata's anime interpretation found the perfect balance between atrocity and accessibility. The chemistry between the siblings turned out to be the heart and soul of the film. Because of this, Grave of the Fireflies stand strong, even 30 years later.

The voice acting of Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi deserves extra mention. At only five years of age, Shiraishi gave a most impressive and believable performance. The tragedy truly comes alive through these child actors’ voices. Coupled with the classic Ghibli style, it made for an anime film that will outlive us all.

Japanese War Film Parallels in Grave of the Fireflies

The 1983 anime Barefoot Gen is comparable to Grave of the Fireflies, at least in terms of the historical setting and the apparent anti-war sentiments. The latter is more clearly outlined in Barefoot Gen since Grave of the Fireflies was never intended to convey such messages.

As such, even though the impact of Barefoot Gen echoes through Grave of the Fireflies, the parallels appear coincidental. Grave of the Fireflies arguably applies a more philosophical angle, which results in a larger emotional impact. Its reliance on personal tragedy, as opposed to the huge action sequences in Barefoot Gen, is more moving than shocking.

Seeing Seita drift through a city in ruins also brings to mind Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989). At times, the imagery of the aftermath of air raid firebombing is comparable to Imamura’s film. Naturally, Grave of the Fireflies is like a PG-13-rated version of Imamura’s horrific vision, but it still carries a lot of weight.

Final Verdict for Grave of the Fireflies

Successfully adding a trickle of encouragement and beauty to such a gruesome tale is no small feat. It certainly reflects the idea that the good things in life should never be forgone.

Even though Takahata intended to criticize the frivolous post-war generation in Japan, his film turned out to conjure tidal waves of emotions and interpretations.

In hindsight, his message is clear for all to see, but so are the ramifications of war. It makes us remember that life is precious and should not be tossed aside or ignored. Just like the siblings push aside the death and destruction around them, Grave of the Fireflies diverts our gaze away from the horror and onto fleeting moments of beauty.

In a way, the story of Seita and Setsuko tells us to pay attention because we are all to blame. Our perceptions might differ, but our acts are no less excusable, no matter our standpoint. It was deplorable of the aunt to let out anger on innocent kids, and it was selfish of Seita to not stand tall and take a beating for his country. In the end, all I could think was that lost humanity is the root of all evil, which is not a bad message to be left with in any context.

Grave of the Fireflies is timeless, both because of its stunning cinematography and because of the humanity it displays. Its tale is presented in a manner that can be understood and related to by audiences of all ages. For all these reasons, it is a film that should never be forgotten. Simply put, it belongs in any serious anime or Japanese film collection.


The Hayao Miyazaki Web: The Disney-Tokuma Deal

Like most other Ghibli films, Grave of the Fireflies was looking pretty great on DVD, but the remastered Blu-ray edition offers crisp images on another level. If you’re aiming for an evening in doom and gloom, why not do it properly, in full HD?

For some reason, Grave of the Fireflies only appears available for streaming on Amazon UK. But fret not; American readers can stream the film on Hulu.

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