By Jerry Chandler
On April 16, 1988 in Japan, 30 years ago now, an animated film, an early film for the just shy of three-year-old Studio Ghibli, opened in movie theaters in Japan. The film itself was based on a 1967 semi-autobiographical short story, Hotaru no Haka, from writer Akiyuki Nosaka. The story itself had become well known in Japan, and Akiyuki Nosaka had reportedly turned down several offers to turn his story into a live action movie or television film believing that live action would not capture the intended spirit of the story. He had never considered animation, but first the pitch from Studio Ghibli and then the early storyboards convinced him that the story could not be properly told at that time in any medium other than animation. There are probably a lot of people all around the world who are glad he came to that conclusion, because had he not done so we would never have seen Grave of the Fireflies. Of course, that’s as much a blessing as a curse for some.
Grave of the Fireflies is not the type of material one first thinks of when animation (American or Japanese) or Studio Ghibli are brought up. When I first saw it as a VHS tape being shown sometime in the early 1990s at a small convention, my impressions of the film were mixed. As far as animated movies went, it was perhaps one of the most beautiful films I’d seen. Visually it was and still is an absolutely amazingly rendered film. The animation is gorgeous; if not at points absolutely stunning to look at. But when it came to the story the film told and how it told it, it was perhaps one of the most emotionally brutally ugly films I had ever seen. It is ultimately a very dark story told in very human terms, and I have seen the film cause entire audiences to break down sobbing. I’ve actually had people tell me in discussions about the film that it was one of the best animated films they’d ever seen, but they literally had not been able to bring themselves to watch it again since they first saw it.
Ernest Rister wrote a review of the film where he called it the most profoundly human animated film he’d ever seen and compared it on some levels to Schindler’s List. The late Roger Ebert praised it as one of the best and most powerful war films ever made, and he went on to included it on his "Great Movies" list. Believe it or not, none of that is unwarranted hyperbole.
Yeah, it’s that damned good. Yeah, it’s also that damned disturbing.
The film’s story opens in Japan in 1945 (just after the end of World War II) so that we can see a young boy, Seita, dying of starvation in a beaten and battered train station. After his death, his body is removed and we see an individual digging through his belongings. What’s deemed as useful or valuable is taken, but one of his belongings, a candy tin filled with dust, is thrown out into a field. As the tin rolls on the ground and opens, a cloud of fireflies and the spirit of a young girl, Setsuko, come out of it. Setsuko is greeted by Seita’s spirit and he convinces her to board a train with him. As the train prepares to begin its journey, Seita begins to tell us the film’s story in partially narrated flashback.
The story proper begins in Kobe, Japan during the bombings of early 1945. As the first bombs begin to fall on their city, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko begin to secure their home as their mother is assisted with reaching the local shelter. Suddenly, everyone is caught off guard as the bombers begin to release wave after wave of incendiary bombs. In very short order, their neighborhood is almost completely destroyed and much of the city is likewise devastated. Having lost almost everything of material value they owned, the two children soon learn that their mother was one of the townsfolk badly burned during the bombing. She dies shortly after they learn this.
The two of them salvage what they can find of their family’s belongings and begin to try to survive. Their father is a member of Japan’s military and is already fighting the war, so the two of them turn to an aunt for help. The aunt takes them in, but once she does her motivations are not always in their best interests. She convinces Seita to sell what little of his mother’s belongings he salvaged in order to buy rice, although she doesn’t share most of the rice with them. She begins to berate them and push them for more. Seita goes out and retrieves some supplies he hid before the bombings began and brings them back to his aunt. He gives her all of it save a small tin of fruit candies that he gives to Setsuko throughout the film.
This does little to change her attitude towards the children. As the days go by and turn into weeks, the rations begin to become tighter and tighter. Slowly, their aunt begins to withhold more and more food from the two of them, giving some of their share to her own daughter and a local man staying with them. She also grows increasingly emotionally abusive towards the two of them the longer they stay with her.
Eventually, Seita decides that they have better chances elsewhere and convinces Setsuko they need to leave their aunt’s home. After some searching, the two of them finally settle into an abandoned bomb shelter. To give them (primarily Setsuko) some light at night, Seita starts capturing fireflies and putting them inside the shelter. Setsuko wakes up one morning to find many of the fireflies have died. She becomes emotional and starts demanding that Seita tell her why they had to die. She then asks why their mother had to die. As Seita does his best to explain, Setsuko begins to bury the fireflies; creating a makeshift grave for them.
As the days go by, their situation grows worse. Their supply of rice is running out, rations as a whole in the town are being reduced, and the natural resources they might otherwise seek to live off of have become as battered and damaged as the cities thanks to the war. Seita begins to risk his life by going into the town when the air raid alarms go off so that he can loot homes or businesses during the evacuations to the shelters. This nets him very little, and he’s eventually caught and turned over to the police. He’s released a short time later and returns to the shelter to find his sister in dire need of medical attention. He takes her to a doctor in town and is told she’s suffering from extreme malnutrition and some dehydration due to both the inadequate supplies they have access to and the diarrhea she’s had for some time now. What the doctor doesn’t give them is any substantial help.
Seita goes out to find a bank in order to withdraw whatever money might still be in his parent’s account. Once he finally finds a bank and obtains some money, he learns from others in the town that the war is over and Japan has unconditionally surrendered to America and the other Allied Powers. He grows angry and then despondent as the news comes through to him and the townsfolk. Not only has Japan lost the war, but he learns that most of the Japanese Navy has been destroyed at sea. From the information about how the war has actually been going, it becomes clear to him that his father has most likely been killed in the war; perhaps having been dead for some time.
Seita goes back to the shelter and finds Setsuko delirious and near death. She’s hallucinating and talking to herself or to people who are not there and is not completely responsive to him. He gets her to lay down and begins to prepare the food he’s brought with him. He finishes cooking the food, brings it over to her, and tries to get her to eat it. He refuses to acknowledge for a moment what he seemingly already knows as he continues to try to get her to put food in her mouth and chew, but it becomes clear to him that she passed away while he was preparing the meal.
The next morning, he places her body and her ever present stuffed toy into a small straw box and burns them until they’re cremated. He scrapes together the ashes and places them in the now empty fruit candy tin in order to carry them with him. Seita continues to travel and try to survive for a few weeks more before succumbing to malnutrition himself. Eventually, the film reaches the point in the story where we first see him dead in the train station.
The movie attempts to end on, if not a happy note, a less downbeat note. It succeeds to a degree, but by the end of the film most viewers are emotionally destroyed.
That’s not to say that the film is unrelentingly grim. The storytelling genius of the film is in the fact that quite the opposite is true. There are moments had between Seita and Setsuko that are moments of sheer joy even as their country and their very world collapses all around them. The filmmakers knew they had to give the audiences some moments of respite; not only for their emotional wellbeing during the film but also so that the audiences weren’t emotionally deadened to what they were seeing before the final acts of the story.
The pacing of the film and the construction of the various scenes is also brilliantly done. Many scenes- whether joyful or grim and everything in between –are given moments where the story pauses. You’re forced to dwell on the moments when they happen, because the filmmakers take their time with them and don’t simply force the story quickly into the next scene or moment. There is a surprising absence of music from many scenes as well. Where many films- especially of the animated variety –attempt to force emotion by combining the visuals with an affecting score, the filmmakers here wisely let silence occasionally be the powerful emotional force it can be when used properly. It works in scenes of great beauty and scenes of tragic sadness equally well throughout the film.
Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that everyone should see at least once. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like animated films or war films or films with historical settings or films tightly or loosely based on real events. Grave of the Fireflies is a film that transcends its genre, the medium it was created in, and even on many levels the setting for the story in ways that few films can. It’s a film that cannot be fully understood by reading an explanation of it or being told about it by others no matter how detailed they get with the explanation. It is a film that has to be experienced in order for the power of it to be fully understood. Of course, the interesting thing with this film, it’s also one of those films where once you experience it, even if you cite it as one of your favorite movies, you may find yourself reluctant to watch it again any time soon if ever again.
Grave of the Fireflies is available in the United States on Blu-Ray. You can order it through most brick and mortar stores as well as through most online merchants. There’s an out of print DVD you may find while looking as well, and that one is worth it if just for how loaded it is with special features. But, in all honesty, even though I believe it’s absolutely worth owning, you might want to seek it out for a first time viewing as a digital rental to see how you handle it. I was not exaggerating earlier. I have met people who truly love this film and appreciate the fact that they saw it, but they cannot bring themselves to watch it again on their own.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.