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Grave of the Fireflies: Synopsis and Review
- 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 in the narrative of the film, the kids' 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
Seita and Setsuko are relatable, endearing, and inspirational. The brother is a strong 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 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.
Innocence as Casualty of War
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. She conveys a heartfelt message: As innocent as young children may and should be, they 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 vulnerable in the best of circumstances. It is important that we hold our loved ones close for as long as possible.
The Family Unit as Casualty of War
Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful indictment against war for wreaking havoc on familial bonds. Humans are hard-wired to seek familial connection because at its best, the family structure offers unity, community, and protection—all of which lead to improved health and well-being. Conversely, war rips away all of the built-in advantages of the family unit, leaving survivors completely at risk.
Seita and Setsuko are brought closer together because of the war. But, that only happened because the war took away their mother. And left without options, the siblings moved in with their aunt, who inexplicably belittled and resented the young kids.
No family member should ever be resentful during a tough period of time, and no family should ever be forcibly split. Seita and Setsuko try to make the best out of their dire situation, using all available resources to find some improvement in their lives. This is what makes Seita and his love for his sister so realistic and human.
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, and Setsuko’s malnutrition (and the discovery of marbles in her mouth).
They all evoke a sense of sadness and create an overarching sense of doom for the film. Not only that, but it puts further significance on the characters’ actions. Yes, the reveal of Seita and Setsuko’s deaths at the beginning of the film lessens the impact later on, so one may ask: What is the point of watching a film if you already know the ending?
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While a reasonable concern, the death reveal should make viewers curious as to what happened, why it happened, and how their story unfolded. When confronted with the ephemerality of life, we need to challenge our own assumptions and biases.
War being at the center of Grave makes for a compelling and honest narrative. This is 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 innocent citizens in vulnerable positions, forcing them into poverty, wrecking their homes and property, and having no regard for their lives.
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. 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. But, in the middle of war, with your mother dead and your hometown on fire, the idea of nothing being guaranteed is just brutal reality.
Fireflies = Light and Hope
However, even in this stark environment Grave shows that humans are capable of embracing beauty and freedom in an effort to make the best of whatever's left of the world.
Sometime during the movie, fireflies are released at night to provide light inside of Seita and Setsuko’s pitch-black shelter. It's a magical, wondrous scene, but it doesn't last. The next day, Setsuko sorrowfully buries the bugs and asks her brother why fireflies die early. In doing so, she is letting her brother know that she's aware of their mother’s death—which Seita initially tried hiding from her.
The fireflies are emblematic of these characters in a few ways. Fireflies emit light and are most commonly seen at night. 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 to keep fighting for their lives during the difficult realities of war. However, fireflies have a short lifespan, only living as adults for a couple of months. Even though Seita and Setsuko hold onto hope and strength, their environment doesn't give them a chance to experience life after the war. Setsuko, Seita, and both of their parents were fireflies who went to the grave.
Candy = Hope ... Until It Doesn't
The candies eaten throughout Grave of the Fireflies are known as Sakuma drops: Japanese hard candies flavored with real fruit juice. 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 consist of feelings like “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 never comes back.
Subtle Music, Breathtaking Animation
Although Michio Mamiya's subtle score is used in small quantities, it blends with the images on the screen to perfection. The cel 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 or exploitative. 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 rural settings are actually quite breathtaking, and the landscapes are drawn with care.
A Brutally Honest Anti-War Film
Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film that demonstrates how children can be affected by war. Anyone who watches it will be shocked by war’s effects and inspired by the love Seita has for Setsuko. Grave is probably not a film you're going to watch more than once. However, it is a film that merits that one viewing, and I promise you will never forget it.