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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

February 5th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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“September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.” A teenage boy, Seita, lies on the dirty floor of a subway station in Japan. He whispers one word, “Setsuko” and by the time custodians sweep the platform in the evening, he’s left this world. Across the tracks, the spirit of a 5-year-old girl rises from the light of fireflies. Seita’s spirit appears by her side, and they smile.

Moving back in time to the port city of Kobe, air raid sirens sound. Seita buries goods in the backyard of his house. He tells his mother to go to the bomb shelter, and that he’ll meet her there with his sister, Setsuko. He grabs a photo of his father, a naval officer, but is caught in an American B-29 raid. As firebombs hail around him, Seita finds shelter for him and his sister.

Black rain falls from the sky, and Seita discovers most of his town has been leveled. He makes his way to an elementary school with the other survivors and discovers his mother completely wrapped in bandages. Seita and Setsuko are taken in by an aunt. The next day, Seita goes to watch his mother be cremated with all the other victims, but doesn’t tell his sister about it.

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Life’s necessities become scarce. The aunt is initially pleased with Seita for recovering supplies from the ruins of his house. Spending days at the beach and nights chasing fireflies, unable to go to school because it was bombed, Seita and Setsuko soon wear out their welcome with their aunt, who expects the children to do something for the war effort.

Seita has too much pride to endure this, so he moves out, taking refuge with Setsuko in a shelter dug into a hill, overlooking a pond. They survive for a while, but run out of items to trade for rice. Refusing to accept defeat and return to his aunt, Seita starts stealing vegetables by night. He ransacks houses emptied by the air raid sirens. When Setsuko falls ill, his options start to look more and more grim.

Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies was adapted by Takahata from the 1967 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost his sister to malnutrition during wartime. Some critics charged that the film ignored Japan’s World War II atrocities and its role in the devastation of its own people. It was banned in South Korea for this reason.

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The film was produced by Studio Ghibli, and due to its dark subject matter, was released as a double feature in Japan with Hayao Miyazaki’s whimsical fantasy My Neighbor Totoro. It was not a box office success, but many critics – including Roger Ebert – have since hailed it as one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

Like all of Studio Ghibli’s films, once I got acclimated to its illustrated world, I was completely blown away. There were moments that evoked the awesome wonder of Empire of the Sun, war seen through the prism of a child’s eye. But unlike the “sun will come out tomorrow” Steven Spielberg film, Grave of the Fireflies goes much, much further depicting both the scale and the human toll of war.

The animation and music didn’t knock me out, but they were well crafted and complemented the story extremely well, instead of getting in the way. Grave of the Fireflies says everything that Schindler’s List does, but in 88 minutes, and with just as much power. The film’s haunting final image – a post script for those who’d rather forget the ghosts of the past – will stay with me for awhile. Highly recommended.

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Tags: Animation · Military

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ann // Jan 26, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    A lovely, heartbreaking film. I was very moved.

  • 2 thomas // Jul 12, 2008 at 8:33 am

    love this movie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 3 Chris // Jan 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I wept when I watched it. Then I showed it to my brothers, and they wept. Then I showed it to my whole family, and even my stoic dad wept. Among my friends it’s known as the greatest movie we’ll never watch again.

  • 4 Bupbe_Thienthan // Aug 24, 2009 at 12:01 am

    I know this film. I have just seen this film for 2 week ago. It a sad film. I hate war

  • 5 paul // Aug 23, 2010 at 1:51 am

    in a world full of hollywood garbage, a stunning & beautiful story .

  • 6 juan // Nov 30, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    i watched this movie in my film study class and as a boy it’s kinda hard to cry but i teared, a lot. this movie touched me so much, especially the image of setsuko. i fell in love with her character, she reminds me so much of my two year old sister because of both actions and appearance. this is by far one of the greatest films i have and will ever watch.

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