Spectrum Nexus

Anime Info

Director: Isao Takahata
Genre: War, Drama, History
Length: Movie (1:33)
Official Site: View


+ Sadness in film alleviated by moments of natural beauty
+ Setsuko is a charming, cute child
+/– Not the fantasy type of film usually associated with studio Ghibli
+/– American bombers are depicted as ominous and anonymous villains


Grave of the Fireflies is a sad film. At the same time, it is the film I would share with the significant other who thinks that all anime is giant robots, sexy babes and action set pieces. It is a criticism not only of war but of the beliefs that lead nations to engage in wars and the indifference and cruelty that often follow. Although set in Japan during World War II it could just as easily be set in any of today's war zones including Afghanistan or Iraq.

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Score of 4.5 out of 5
4.5 out of 5 · Highly Recommended

Grave of the Fireflies Anime Movie Review

Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 10/2/2006


Wars are instigated by governments and are fought by the militaries of nations but the brunt of the suffering is carried by the civilians, especially the children. Few films have captured this truth better than the anime Grave of the Fireflies.

Released in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka which he intended as a personal apology to his late sister. Written and directed by Isao Takahata for studio Ghibli, it couldn't be more different from the majority of films by that studio's most famous director, Hayao Miyazaki. While Miyazaki's films tend to be fantasies set in imaginary worlds or ancient Japan, Takahata's films with a few exceptions tend to be realistic films about the foibles of modern and contemporary Japanese life. Miyazaki's character designs tend to follow anime archetypes and a few of his own motifs, Takahata on the other hand uses designs which have ranged from ultra-realistic to cartoony-comic strip style. In Grave of the Fireflies, with the exception of over large eyes, the characters are designed with appropriately realistic features and wouldn't be out of place in the real world.

The film tells the story of Seita and Setsuko, a brother and sister struggling to survive in Japan towards the end of World War II. Their mother has been killed in the allied bombing and their father, a serviceman, is away from home and perhaps dead. Following a quarrel with their aunt, the pair must find a way to live on their own. They scratch out a home in cave on the edge of town, dying from malnutrition; their only relief from the drudgery of existence are the fireflies who live near their cave. The film has been compared favorably to Schindler's List and Roger Ebert has referred to it as one of the greatest anti-war movies ever produced.


Grave of the Fireflies is a subtle, powerful film. It is filled with rich detail of daily life in wartime Japan and understated symbolism. The movie opens with a controversial scene as the ghost of Seita tells us he is dead. As in other movies with similar openings, the rest of the story will depict the events that led to the protagonists' deaths. Some have complained that this opening moment robs the film of suspense and therefore its emotional power. It can be argued that director Isao Takahata has given the film greater emotional impact by modeling his film on Greek tragedies. The plays of the Greek tragedy tradition were based on popular myths, the endings were foregone conclusions. Catharsis came, however, as the audience watched with fascination as the hero, driven by his own tragic flaws, made increasingly bad decisions that eventually led to his own downfall. Contemporary films built on this model include Titanic and Star Wars Episode III. In both films we watch as characters rush headlong into their own doom: Jack and Rose pursue a forbidden love affair onboard a luxury liner history tells us is destined to sink - we know from the moment that Rose is introduced as an old woman that Jack will be dead by end of the story just as we know that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader. The emotional impact comes from watching these characters make wrong decisions and knowing deep down that we could just as easily follow the same path. Grave of the Fireflies is no different. We know from the opening frames that Seita is dead. Over the course of the film we will watch him, driven by his pride, make increasingly bad, increasingly tragic decisions that will lead to his and his sister's demise and as we watch we will know, deep down, that in a similar situation we might make the very same decisions.

Show More It is September, 1945. World War II has been over for about a month. Janitors cleaning out a train station dispose of Seita's body. When one of them tosses out an old can filled with ash that Seita was clutching, he disturbs a number of fireflies. Fireflies will appear throughout the film - as themselves they are beautiful, a contrast to the harshness depicted in the film - as metaphors the short lived creatures perhaps remind the audience of the impermanence of life, the transitory nature of existence. The can will appear again as well as details of the story are revealed. The fireflies flutter into the air and in a quiet, lyrical moment, the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko are reunited as the film transitions into a gritty flashback depicting an allied bombing run on their home town, Kobe.

Seita and Setsuko live with their mother, their father, a Naval officer is away - off somewhere defending his home from the enemies of the Japanese Empire. In the chaos of the bombing, the children are separated from their mother. They witness the chaos of war first hand. Panicky citizens run for shelter as their homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship are burned to the ground by incendiary bombs. The children wander through the bombed out city as they make their way to the grade school where they will receive first aid and where their mother lays dieing. The film is in color but Takahata has limited the palette in these opening scenes so much (mainly washed out browns and pale blues) that it might as well be in black-and-white. The choice of such a limited palette helps make the film feel more period - many of the scenes remind me of hand colored sepia photographs but it also increases the film's emotional impact. The browns transform the city into a surreal nightmare landscape of burned out, hulking wreckage and charred ruins.

Show More
After the death of their mother, the children go to live with their aunt in a seaside town. Except for the constant talk of war, rationing, and time spent in bomb shelters their life could almost be a summer vacation at a resort - idyllic and peaceful. The director even allows us a bit more color - green fields and trees, the occasional bit of candy but brown is still the predominate hue. There is even time for beautiful memories of life before the war - a family vacation at the seaside and a family portrait with their father in full military dress. As their time with their aunt wears on, the children's aunt grows more resentful towards them. She makes it a point to limit their meals to rice porridge while giving the best food to her daughter and a border who both work in a war production factory. She berates Seita as lazy but both his factory and school were destroyed in the bombing. It is not enough for her that Seita's father is in the Navy; she believes that everyone must contribute in some way to the war effort. It never occurs to her that children without parents have a difficult struggle ahead both as the war progresses and in the aftermath. As compromise, Seita uses part of his mother's savings to buy a stove for Setsuko and himself and does his own cooking but the aunt sees this as spiteful rather than a compromise. Eventually, Seita's pride gets to him and he makes a tragic decision. He and his sister make a home for themselves in a cave-like bomb shelter on the edge of civilization.

At firs their life is idyllic along the edge of a stream or pond; they have enough rice and are able to forage soybeans, potatoes, roots, and even frogs to supplement their meals. At night, the children are entertained by the beautiful but short lived fireflies. Seita is even moved to reminisce about watching their father in a Naval review. He sings his sister a patriotic song glorifying the navy as she falls asleep on the floor of the cave. Eventually even their meager supply of food begins to run out and the first signs of malnutrition begin to appear. The film does not shy away from depicting some of these effects including sores and emaciated torsos.


Grave of the Fireflies is often described as an anti-war film, which it is, but it is also much more than that. Unlike most anti-war films it doesn't denounce military behavior nearly as much as civilian behavior in war. The adult characters are increasingly indifferent to the plight of the children. Seita is increasingly driven by his pride to the determent of his and Setsuko's health. Grave of the FirefliesThe film doesn't limit its criticisms to individuals either. The Japanese are often criticized for not taking full responsibility for their nation's violence in World War II - it has been said by many that they too often depict themselves as victims of Western aggression. This may be true but it is not a fair criticism of Grave of the Fireflies.The Japan depicted in the film is a nation that thoroughly believes its own myth and many of the people have thoroughly bought into government propaganda. During the first air raid scene, one man waves around a samurai katana and apparently commits suicide while screaming, "Long live the Emperor!" Looking over the destruction, Seita promises his sister that their Naval officer father will punish the Americans for the destruction they have wrought. The children's aunt continually praises her daughter and her border for their efforts working in a war factory. She tells Seita he needs to grow up big and strong to be soldier for Japan - as if there was no other alternative no other way to serve one's country.

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest films I've ever seen. Made all the more so by the small moments of happiness depicted in the film Setsuko playing, the children sharing food and making a life for themselves in their shelter - we know from the first frame that our protagonists are doomed but because of these happy scenes we can almost hope that Seita will find a way to overcome their situation or that their father will return from the war or... but such hope is in vain; the children are doomed as their nation is and for the same reasons.

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