Before watching this masterpiece, make sure that there are tissues somewhere in the room because you are going to cry. A LOT. Grave Of The Fireflies will have a huge impact on your life since you ‘ll be confronted with the worst side of the war: that of the innocent civilian. But what could possibly add more tragedy to this story? The fact that it’s actually based on a semi-autobiography….
Directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli, it is one of the greatest animated films ever made. I really hope this review does justice to it, although words will probably never be enough to describe this story. The 26 letters of the English alphabet are few to describe such feelings and pain.
Grave Of The Fireflies narrates the story of 2 children, Seita and Setsuko, as they struggle to survive in wartime Japan. After their father’s fate is unknown and their mother is killed during the city’s firebombs by Americans, they go to live with their aunt. But their cohabitation is not easy so they leave and try to carry on by themselves.
Plot & Story
Grave Of The Fireflies shocked me from the very first minutes. A boy is almost dead, and people just pass by him. No one bothers to help; they are just disgusted by his appearance and his ripped clothes. That’s where my heart got ripped off too.
Seita and Setsuko lived with their mother at a small city near the end of WW2, when the U.S.A. was firebombing Japan. During an air attack, the mother dies in a tragic way (I had nightmares after this) and the poor kids are left alone with nowhere to live. Everything disappeared in the blink of an eye. That’s war…
Seita takes the decision of not telling the 4-year-old Setsuko about their mother’s death. She’s a child after all and unfortunately, he’s the only one understanding their situation. They go to live with their bitchy aunt, a vicious woman, but after a while, she kicks them out in a ‘polite’ way, so they have to live on their own in the wild. That’s the toughest choice Seita had to make. How could this woman be a mother? I felt angry and jealous because the aunt gets to live and the mother doesn’t. NOT FAIR. While watching this film, it feels like you’re part of the story too. The emotions are so powerful and you feel all the sadness and the small glimpses of happiness. He is the strongest character I’ve ever seen in a movie. He was aware of how difficult his life will be. He was in extreme pain due to his loss. He was weak, hungry, ashamed, but he still managed to smile and make Setsuko happy. Setsuko was giving him life and she was his only hope and many times she adopted the role of their mother. It’s heartbreaking watching children living all this madness and still managing to find a way to play and forget -even for a minute- their worries. They learned to bring the light even in the darkest places -with a little help from the fireflies. One of the most powerful scenes that I will always remember is when Seita cheered during the last bombings because everyone was hidden and it was the perfect chance to steal some food for sick Setsuko. These bombs who destroyed their lives in the first place, surprisingly, helped them survive a little longer.
But sadly, since this film is based on a true story and life isn’t always happy neither generous or fair, the ending couldn’t be cheerful. It’s interesting that even though we know from the very first minute that the kids die, since the ending was revealed at the beginning of the movie, it does not make it less painful because it adds a sense of fatalism.
But maybe, in another world or in another life those children managed to grow up and are chasing fireflies every night…
Friendly advice, don’t watch this movie if you have a weak stomach.
Art and music
The soundtrack was composed by Michio Mamiya (and is the first soundtrack in Studio Ghibli films which is not made by Joe Hisaishi) who is also a music specialist in baroque and classical music. The music is melancholic and reminds me of a lullaby. It is soft, but it conveys strong emotions and -somehow- makes the pain less bitter. Perfection!
The artwork is stunning. The landscapes and the characters are amazingly drawn. Naturalistic colors are carefully picked by the color coordinator Michiyo Yasuda and art director/background painter Yamamoto Nizo. Most of the illustration outlines in the film are brown instead of black in order to ‘give the film a softer feeling’ -as said by Yasuda. Unfortunately, much detail was lost by pushing saturation and contrast for the earlier DVD transfer, but luckily in the Blu-ray transfer, everything is better!
Themes and Trivia
Grave of the Fireflies is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka. It is based on his experiences before, during, and after the firebombing of Kobe in 1945. One of his sisters died as the result of sickness, his adoptive father died during the firebombing, and his younger adoptive sister Keiko died of malnutrition in Fukui. It was written as a personal apology to Keiko, regarding her death.
The film was released on 16 April 1988, 20 years after the publication of the short story.
Many people proposed to Nosaka to make a film based on his book but he thought that those feelings could not be captured in a movie until Studio Ghibli proposed an animated version to which Nosaka agreed.
The film received universal critical acclaim. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times considered it to be one of the best and most powerful war films and, in 2000, included it on his list of great films. NTV in Japan produced a live-action TV drama of Grave of the Fireflies, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The drama aired on 1 November 2005. Like the anime, the live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies focuses on two siblings struggling to survive the final months of the war in Kobe, Japan. Unlike the animated version, it tells the story from the point of view of their cousin (the aunt’s daughter) and deals with the issue of how the war-time environment could change a kind lady into a hard-hearted woman. A different live-action version was released in Japan on 5 July 2008. The film stars Reo Yoshitake as Seita, Rina Hatakeyama as Setsuko, Keiko Matsuzaka as the aunt, and Seiko Matsuda as the children’s mother.
Many years will have to pass until I attempt to watch Grave Of The Fireflies again. I felt the sadness in every inch of my body. This was the first film I watched about war where no ‘heroic’ nations or brave soldiers were competing. This was a story about two innocent children who had their lives ruined.
The cruelty of people shocked me! Remember the fact that this is based on a true story, so HOW THE #$^%^$#!@ NO ONE HELPED THOSE KIDS? I would share even my last potato with these little souls. But war changes people. Or does it reveal their true selves?…
P.S. I am still crying while writing, thank God I don’t write on paper.
‘Why must fireflies die so young?’
Food for thought
Your face will be very hydrated by the tears
No happy ending, and it’s the first time I wished this much for one
This movie conveys the strongest messages (most than any other animated or live action I‘ve ever seen) and it just happens to be animated. So, convince even your ‘anime-is-for-children’ friends to watch Grave Of The Fireflies and they will thank you forever.
After you watch this film and stop crying -in 2 or 3 weeks- you will reconsider many things, like your attitude when someone is in need and how it could possibly affect his life. All that food you throw away. How people turn into beasts when it comes to survival.
Grave Of The Fireflies is a haunting masterpiece, a tragic story that has to be heard, and no matter how much pain you‘ll feel by watching it, by the end you will be a better person.