The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Grave of the Fireflies

Title: Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka
Company: Studio Ghibli
Genre: Drama
Format: Movie; 88 minutes.
Dates: 16 Apr 1988

Synopsis: In the final months of World War 2, the teenage boy Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko lose their home and their mother during an air raid on their home town. They start to live at their aunt’s, but Seita refuses to do “productive work” as he wants to devote all of his strength to making the war bearable for his sister. After a quarrel with their relatives, the children move out to live on their own. But caring for the two of them proves too much for a boy of only fourteen years…

The Highlights
Plot: Wonderful tear-jerker based on autobiographic novel.
Directing: Shows war without pulling any punches.
Art and animation: Impressively detailed and lifelike.
Imagery: Masterfully done and gripping.

War drama is a difficult genre, and even moreso if children are involved. How do you show the effect of wartime conditions on their daily lives? How do you show their terror, their sadness, their confusion when everything around them literally goes up in flames and they can only partially understand what is happening? For Takahata Isao, there was only one answer to these questions: Show everything.

Grave of the Fireflies pulls no punches when it comes to showing the impact of World War 2 on the lives of Seita and Setsuko. Based on the semi-autobiography by Nosaka Akiyuki, the movie spares neither terror nor hunger nor sickness, and it doesn’t come as a surprise that the entire plot ends in tragedy – in fact, it even begins with the revelation that Seita, the main protagonist, dies in the end. The focus of Grave of the Fireflies, however, is rarely on war and destruction but mostly on the daily lives of Seita and Setsuko. This is where the movie really shines: in showing a teenager who genuinely loves his sister and is willing to do everything to spare her the terrors of war even though he cannot possibly hope to succeed. It’s these little things that make the plot such a gripping experience.

As expected from a Studio Ghibli production, the plot is delivered with absolutely stunning visuals. Background and character art alike are as detailed as can be in a 1988 production, and the animation is so lifelike that even most current anime don’t come even remotely close. Again, it’s the little things that matter – people giving small sighs, children moving clumsily, a small frown on the face of an older woman. One cannot help but admire such attention to detail.

The true strength of Grave of the Fireflies, however, lies in the powerful imagery it evokes. A train in the sunset symbolises the passage from life to death (later repeated by Miyazaki Hayao in Spirited Away), a quicky emptying box of fruit candies stands for disappearing hope and the gleaming little fireflies that die all too quickly are a symbol for the soldiers of the Japanese navy. In the end, the only thing that awaits them is a collective grave.

Grave of the Fireflies is, without a doubt, one of the best anime productions ever, and it’s probably Studio Ghibli‘s masterpiece until today. Brilliantly animated and with a plot that’s guaranteed to touch even the coldest of hearts, it will appeal to children and adults alike. If there’s a single anime out there I consider an absolute must-see, it’s this one.

The Rating: 10

Reviewed by: Taleweaver

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