Classic Review – Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

grave of the fireflies setsuko

Setsuko passes the time outside her and her brother’s bomb shelter in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

(Hotaru no haka)

Directed by Isao Takahata

Voice work by Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamagucki

Review by Jordan

Why must fireflies die so young?

Grave of the Fireflies is a landmark achievement as both an animation and a war film. Directed by renowned Studio Ghibli visionary Isao Takahata (Pom Poko, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), it undeniably emits an anti-war message but without ever losing narrative focus to preach politics, and the moments in which the tragedy of the situation become most painfully apparent are not emotionally manipulative in the slightest, but rather honest and contemplative where required.

It’s been said that the difference between a tragedy and something tragic is inevitability. The conclusion to this tale is made known at the beginning, and the heartfelt journey to get there is harrowing indeed, with accurately depicted moments detailing the optimism reserved for children and genuine happiness serving to heighten the feeling of sadness one will ultimately take away from this. Instances of death are not dwelled upon, but rather perseverance and a will to endure, and where there is death it is a life to live (or once lived) that is focussed on.

Grave of the Fireflies follows courageous 13 year old Seita as he searches for a place to live and take care of his 4 year old sister Setsuko in a Japan reeling from a devastating bombing attack near the end of World War 2. With all that they’d known destroyed, they soon learn to take pleasure in the small things in life that offer nourishment and comfort; a container of fruit drops serving as a small vessel of hope amid an achingly bleak landscape. In trying to keep the worst from Setsuko and food on the plate, Seita displays a level of courage that belies his age, which stands out all the more when compared with his selfish Aunt who feels no responsibility to children who aren’t her own and who can’t contribute to the efforts of the war.

A time of hardship for the whole province means there is little help offered from any source. When food rationing reaches untenable levels, food is prescribed by doctors as treatment for malnourishment but nigh impossible to obtain, and learning from the well-hidden urgency in her older brother’s eyes, Seita grows resourceful and in a heart-breaking manner learns to preserve the small amounts she gets.

As has become a trademark of the famous studio, where villains threaten the peace it is nature that looks to restore the balance, and here it is the earthy beauty of the fragile firefly that brings light to the darkness and later in the film a still pond and it’s bank that proves its homeliness. Released alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s magical and eternally optimistic My Neighbour Totoro, Takahata’s drama does carry dense weight, but through astounding execution and artistic direction it more than justifies its position and thematic stance and will forever stand as one of the most revered films of its type ever made.

5 fruit drops out of 5

15 responses to “Classic Review – Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

  1. Never saw this and one of my film teachers referenced it before a Princess Mononoke screening a couple of weeks ago so I added it to my Netflix list. So awesome you’ve reviewed it and given it 5 “fruit drops.” I’m looking forward to the rental coming in the mail. Can’t remember if I asked this recently but have meant to: Have you ever seen Ivan’s Childhood?

    • I really like Mononoke but have to say this is the superior film. If you think parts of that are emotional then fireflies will touch you like it did me I’m sure. I hope you like it. I’d never heard of Ivans Childhood until you just mentioned it! It sounds very interesting and I want to see it now.

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