Grave of the Fireflies (1988), though animated in its appearance on screen, is far from first assumptions of it being made for children. If anything, children should avoid this film at all costs. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, is a masterful piece in the way that it is completely unabashed in detailing the horrors of World War II in Japan.
Grave of the Fireflies follows the tale of Seita and Setsuko, siblings who are struggling for survival after their parents and home were lost in the destructive path of World War II. The use of animation lends a childlike charm in parts of the film in stark contrast to the chaos that ensues surrounding these characters. The purpose of this contrast is to get the audience to feel for Seita and Setsuko, maybe even root for their survival. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of the siblings’ situation is first noticed by the audience rather than by the siblings themselves.
The fact that the film is animated heightens the shock value when it displays gory and too-close-for-comfort scenes. In one scene, Seita flees his family’s home during an air raid with his frightened sister strapped to his back. We watch as fire bombs fall overhead, Seita running at full capacity trying to escape them. Once the siblings find a safe place to hide from the attacks, the camera pans over a town set ablaze, terrified survivors, and numerous dead bodies. There’s an odd feeling you get when witnessing these horrific events play out in animation, a medium commonly meant for children’s movies. It makes you look around the room to make sure there aren’t any adolescent minds to be scarred.
As the film continues to unfold, Seita and Setsuko try to remain in good spirits. In one scene, they decide to stop by the ocean for a swim. As they remove their garments, the audience is reminded of the struggle the siblings are enduring by the appearance of their bodies. What is supposed to be a fun excursion at the beach turns out to be another way that the audience’s sympathy is played upon. Seita is noticeably gaunt and Setsuko has a pinkish rash all over her body. As the film goes on, the condition of their bodies worsens, signifying the changing state of their situation.
We watch as Seita and Setsuko press on through obstacle after obstacle in their path — trying to come up with food to eat, finding a place to sleep — all the while maintaining a lighthearted and positive attitude. When the siblings discover an abandoned bomb shelter and proceed to make it their new home, the audience is thrown into a tizzy of sympathy. Their situation begs the question of just how long can they live this way. Takahata does an excellent job pulling on the heart strings of his audience.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, as it would disrupt the experience for someone viewing it for the first time. Eventually, though, desperation befalls Seita in his attempt to look after his sister. By the time the credits roll, you’re just sitting there in blank despair, wondering why Takahata couldn’t have ended this film on a happier note. And then you vow to yourself that you’ll never watch this heart wrenching movie again. But I think that’s what makes this film great — the fact that it can move you in such an enormous way.
Grave of the Fireflies certainly delivers an unforgettable, traumatizing experience that lives with you for a lifetime.
— Bree Scott, Asst. Blog Editor