If there’s anything positive that has come out of the pandemic for me, it has been my newfound love for Studio Ghibli movies. Although my journey began with the seemingly obvious, Oscar-winning Spirited Away, I was quickly drawn to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a less-known but extraordinary film I had only heard about for years, but never quite had the courage to watch.
After far too many moments of going back and forth, I pressed play. I decided to watch the film in Japanese. When it ended, I realized I had managed to survive the most distressingly moving hour and thirty-three minutes I had experienced in a long time.
Early on in the film, there’s a moment that sees four-year-old Setsuko expressing to her fourteen-year-old brother Seita that she wishes to see her mother. When her brother disapproves, Setsuko slowly sinks to her feet, and the next few incessantly claustrophobic minutes are filled with the sounds of her tears. What bothered me most, was that Setsuko’s wailing wasn’t child-like: it was mature, and incredibly real. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, and even months later, the scene is perfectly etched in my memory, refusing to be replaced.
The film chronicles World War II and its impact on the lives of civilians, but it doesn’t get into any technicalities, and only bases itself on the devastating experiences of Seita and Setsuko, which means the viewer doesn’t learn anything about the war other than what the characters allow them to. The viewer follows Seita and Setsuko, siblings who struggle to survive in the final months of the war. Their home, along with most of their city Kobe, is annihilated by an American firebombing. The siblings escape unharmed, but their injured mother eventually succumbs to her severe burns.
Seita and Setsuko move in with an aunt, who puts a roof above their head and food on their table. She later convinces Seita to sell his mother’s silk kimonos for rice. Desperate, Seita hands over his possessions to his aunt, everything but a tin of Sakuma drops, fruit-flavored candies that Setsuko adores.
When times get tougher, with the war bringing the weight of the world onto her shoulders, their aunt becomes resentful towards them for doing nothing to earn the food she prepares. The young siblings grow tired of her insults, pack up their lives and move to an abandoned bomb shelter on a hillside cave, with Setsuko’s giggles breathing life into their loneliness, even if just for a while.
It’s seemingly obvious that the film, which is structured as a flashback, doesn’t end well, and becomes harder to watch by the minute. It is ground-breaking because the viewer realizes that unlike popular belief, this isn’t an animation film for all ages. You don’t just watch Seita and Setsuko’s confusion or see their heart-break, you feel it as if it were your own.
Through its depiction of two orphaned children who struggle to survive an aerial bombing, the film reveals itself as a personal account of director Isao Takahata’s experience, who himself survived an air raid on his hometown of Okayama as a child. It has some of the most incredible animation you’ll see, especially when the children release fireflies to bring light to their new home, but it’s just a stepping-stone to a gut-wrenching ending that unravels itself slowly and painfully.
The fireflies, a self-proclaimed metaphor for light, have a different meaning in the film. Setsuko asks an unanswered question, “Why do fireflies die so soon?”, while digging a grave for the dead insects, her words disguising themselves as a question asked by the victims of war, “Why does one have to die so soon?”
There’s so much you take away from Grave of the Fireflies, if you’re fortunate to make it to the end. You realize that the real casualties of war aren’t just the countries who lose or surrender, but that both sides have their hands drenched in blood. You learn that the real heroes are the victims who never asked for their heroic actions and their struggles to survive, to be recognised, and that the personal stories of these victims who lost their lives as quickly as fireflies do will never be remembered by history.
You remember the unwavering love shared by a brother for his sister, his anguish, her despair, and their aching hearts that would never be the same again, even if the world around them transformed into the one of their dreams. Grave of the Fireflies reminds you to be grateful, to be grounded, and never lets you replace the heart-breaking visual of Seita and Setsuko reuniting in the film’s last few moments, even if it is in a world far away from our own.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.