It’s hard to find a single dry eye in the room when the credits roll on one of the great masterpieces produced by Studio Ghibli, and one of the most powerful war films in cinema history. Although its seemingly anti-war message has been denied repeatedly by the film’s director, Isao Takahata (himself a survivor of the Okayama bombing during the Second World War), there can be little doubting the graphic, extremely emotional depiction of the horrors of war that Grave of the Fireflies manages to convey in its 89 meticulously crafted minutes.
The film actually begins with its ending. Protagonist Seita dies of starvation in a Kobe train station shortly after Japan’s surrender, having lost the will to live after the death of his sister Setsuko – the only family he had left. From the get-go it is revealed that the war has completely wiped out a whole family, just one of many erased across the country. The rest of Grave of the Fireflies takes place in flashback, beginning with the first firebombing of Kobe. The siblings lose their mother in the attack, and are then sent to live with a distant aunt. Their father never actually appears in the film. It is mentioned that he is a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy, later implied that he too has died in one of the many engagements with the US.
Seita and Setsuko’s aunt proves to be cruel and abusive to the young orphans. They are forced to leave her house and take refuge in a bomb shelter, where every passing day becomes a more desperate battle for survival. Setsuko’s only respite seems to come from playing with a group of fireflies, producing a calming source of light when released at night. Their situation grows dire as she and her brother slowly succumb to malnutrition. In a panic Seita manages to withdraw the last of his mother’s bank savings, but his help comes too late for Setsuko who, in her brother’s words, “never woke up” one rainy evening. After Seita’s own death, their spirits are shown, happy and healthy, playing on a hill overlooking the present-day city of Kobe – surrounded by the fireflies Setsuko adored so much.
Grave of the Fireflies made 1.7 billion Japanese Yen at its homeland box office, which may sound like a lot of money, but its performance was actually rather modest compared to other popular anime films. Perhaps this is a sign of the film’s strength: the raw and hopeless depiction of the realities of war, one that turned away audiences on release, continues – even three decades later – to serve as an essential reminder of what conflict wreaks upon the innocent and most vulnerable members of society. The experiences of Seita and Setsuko are still a reality for millions of people across the globe today, those not lucky enough to live in places that have only ever known peace.
Watch the trailer below: