A heartbreaking tale of 2 orphans struggling to survive at the tail-end of World War 2 and the fire-bombing of Kobe. As the Great Japanese Empire comes to pieces around them and Society turns on them, they have only each other to cling to, and the lights of the fireflies to guide them.
Produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by the late Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies focuses on 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko. Their fates are revealed right at the beginning as they describe their story in flashback. The story starts with the siblings living a happy privileged life in Kobe, Japan with their parents. Sadly, while their father is away fighting in the Japanese Navy, their house is destroyed and their mother fatally injured when Kobe is fire-bombed. Forced to look for pastures new, the children take refuge at their Aunt’s house in Nishinomiya. Their Aunt takes them in with welcome arms only to turn on them as food and supplies start to dwindle. She trades their mother’s kimonos for rice, takes the lion’s share of their emergency rations, and regards them as a pair of pests simply for trying to survive whilst acting like the children that they are.
Seita and Setsuko eventually decide to leave their Aunt and take refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter, determined to prove they can survive on their own. But food and supplies are becoming increasingly hard to come by and before long; Seita and Setsuko’s hopes of survival start to fade. With no one willing to come to their aid, Seita and Setsuko are forced to loot houses and local farms just to make ends meet. At the same time, Setsuko is becoming increasingly ill from malnutrition, and they have still yet to hear from their father.
Described as one of the greatest War films of all-time by the late Roger Ebert, this is a devastatingly accurate portrayal of the effects of War on Society. The bond between Seita and Setsuko is totally unbreakable. Nothing can separate them, and they feel absolutely hopeless without each other. To see them continuously attempting to salvage what is left of their once proud lives could potentially cause a lump in your throat. Even the odd scenes of happiness are tinged with sadness, such as Setsuko playing on the beach only to come across a covered-up corpse, which Seita wisely drags her away from.
The film is loosely based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by the late Akiyuki Nosaka, written with the intention of apologising to his younger sister, who died of malnutrition on his watch during World War 2. Akiyuki Nosaka was deeply affected by the tragedy and blamed himself for his sister’s death, so he wrote the novel as a way of helping himself to accept the tragedy.
The children are certainly very brave and determined, particularly Seita. He is a strong, proud young man who always looks out for his family. After his mother dies, he vows never to let little Setsuko out of his sight, but he is still very much a child himself and never stops hoping his father will return. Although Seita’s pride is his biggest weakness, it is hard not to feel sorry for him or Setsuko, who delivers probably the most poignant one-liner in the film, ‘Why do fireflies die so young?’ whilst making a grave for the fireflies they use as lights, a question that we may end up asking ourselves.
If there is anyone who we really should feel sorry for, it is definitely little Setsuko. So young, innocent and naïve, she does however, have a rough idea of what is going on. For instance, Setsuko simply requests a bathroom break when she and Seita are surveying the vast empty wilderness that was once their neighbourhood. Seita does whatever he can to prevent his little sister’s innocence from being destroyed, such as neglecting to tell her about their mother’s death, but fails to consider the possibility of their Aunt telling her herself.
I could go on forever about the events depicted in this film but I do not wish to spoil the film for those who have not seen or heard of it. I would strongly recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in War films, Anime, and above all, a strong heart. This is not a film for the faint hearted and certainly not for children. I myself have seen the film and it always leaves me with a heavy heart. So please, when you watch this film for the first time, it would be worth having a tissue or a handkerchief at the ready. Otherwise, you will learn a lot from this film which on the whole, is a powerful, thought provoking, example of the tragic consequences of War and one that has since had not one but two Live-Action re-makes in 2005 and 2008.