Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
89 minutes
Not rated
Directed by Isao Takahata


Grade: A

This post contains spoilers.

I’ve never been one with an interest for anime, but there has always been a handful of movies that many request to me, telling me they are “must see” films. Needless to say, I was not prepared for the kind of film that Grave of the Fireflies was.

Yes, it’s an animated film but that doesn’t make it less emotional and real as a live action movie. Set during the days near the end of World War II, we see Japan with their paper-thin houses and a culture of people who believe that Japan is the greatest empire in the world. We follow Seita, a young teenager, and his little sister Setsuko as they flee from their house during an air raid. They soon find out that their mother has passed away from the attack and with their father in the navy, they travel to a nearby aunt for food and shelter.

After the aunt is cruel to the two children they leave and settle in a hillside cave. Seita does everything he can to provide food and to entertain Setsuko to distract her from the war and their rough living conditions, but they can only live like that for so long. For anyone who has a younger sibling, it’s easy to relate to how Seita cares for Setsuko and how he wanted to keep her innocence and imagination. He also didn’t want to tell her that their mom passed away, but the aunt ended up ruining that act. Everything that Seita did had to do with the survival for him and his sister.

There is a great scene after they move to the hillside on the first night away from their aunt. While Setsuko cries that it’s too dark at night, Seita gathers as many fireflies as he could and releases them in their netting, illuminating the dark cave and providing enough light for Setsuko to feel safe. It was a magical moment and it was visually beautiful, certainly being enhanced with animation. But the feel-good moment quickly fades the next morning when Setsuko digs a hole and buries all the dead fireflies together, like how their mom was buried with the hundreds killed in the attacks. It’s heartbreaking to see such a young girl be put through the trauma of war, but whether you like it or not, it’s their reality.

This is an excellent example of how animation can truly be the right medium for any kind of film. Hollywood continues to make animated films with walking, talking animal characters along with a great deal of comedy to keep the kids entertained. Would Grave of the Fireflies be as effective if it was a live action film? I doubt it. For starters, you would need very talented young actors to pull off the mental sting of lost innocence, which would probably be played by older actors and therefore lose the importance of the children’s ages. Also, a live action flick would most likely concentrate a lot of time and energy on the air raid scenes, which would be very costly. More importantly, the film isn’t about surviving the bombings, it’s about surviving during the war and the affects it has on the communities, families, and children.

It amazes me how this film was released 26 years ago, because decades later Grave of the Fireflies still has an impact after you watch it, and that is proof for a great movie. It is unfortunate how this film hasn’t been seen by more people (as of March 2014, Grave of the Fireflies has 85,000 IMDB user votes while The Dark Knight, which was released in 2008, has over 1.1 million). It did take me until now to watch this classic and I’m sure glad that I did. Better late than never. For those who haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it as it’s far more than you can imagine from an animated film, and as Ebert stated, “it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”


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