Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is one of Studio Ghibli’s most hauntingly memorable films, one that will leave an everlasting imprint onto those who brave it. Based on the the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, this story is brought to life by one the the studio’s masters Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) who wrote and directed this film.
The animated Japanese masterpiece is set in Kobe, Japan and tells the story of two children trying to survive the the final days of World War 2. Its opening lines, “September 21st 1945, that was the night I died,” narrated by a teenage boy, quickly establish the tone of the film and sets the mood for what’s to follow.
Teenager, Seita and his younger little sister, Setsuko (who looks to be aged five) become homeless once they discover that their mother has become a victim of an air raid bombing. With their father away serving in the military, they stay with their aunt for a brief period only to eventually move out and create a home for themselves in a small cave.
Seita now faces the responsibility of not only taking care of himself but also his sister. That constricting feeling in your heart gets worse the further you watch as it quickly dawns on the viewer that Seita and Setsuko are among the most innocent victims to have been affected by the war.
Grave of the Fireflies is a heart-wrenching film, that much is certain, but what truly separates this animation from others like it is its unnerving realism. It’s a film that shows what humanity faces not only during war but after it. It’s fascinating that an animated film like this can affect one’s heart and cause a shiver at the haunting images of war. The bombs falling, Seita kneeling by his mother’s maggot-riddled corpse, her corpse casually being dumped into a pile of other dead bodies – these are all images that are hard to shake off.
That isn’t to say to say however that Grave of the Fireflies is an entirely horrific watch as Takahata does a beautiful job of crafting moving scenes that bring life to relatively simple moments. The sight of Seita and Setsuko standing in a field of fireflies, or Seita and Setsuko laughing and running around the beach are moments that stand out within a film that is quite tragic.
There aren’t too many animated films that have gone to this extent of depicting the human experience, let alone attempting to do so by touching on the the topic of war. Grave of the Fireflies is extremely memorable in this regard and, on a personal level, it had me crying a bucket-load of tears at my first-time watch.
Grave of the Fireflies has recently been given the high-definition treatment and is currently available to own on Blu-ray thanks to Madman Entertainment. It is also available on DVD.