One of the most poignant and distressing animated features ever made, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film about the human condition, youth, death, and war. Directed and written by Isao Takahata, colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, this movie is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The novel was written in part as a form of confession and apology to the author’s sister, as she perished due to malnutrition in Japan in 1945.
Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies does not manipulate or take easy roads to sentimentality. It stands, instead, as one of the most astonishingly human animated films ever made. The tragedy and the sadness arrive naturally, guided by the subtle hand of Takahata and the spectacular animation that is synonymous with Studio Ghibli. Interestingly, the original Japanese theatrical release of the picture was accompanied by Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Grave of the Fireflies is also the only Studio Ghibli film that the Walt Disney Company does not have distribution rights for.
The movie takes place during the end of World War II in Japan and we know how it ends before it begins. We are introduced to two children living in the port city of Kobe: a young teenage boy named Seita and his sister, likely about five years old, named Setsuko. Their father serves in the Japanese Navy and their mother has fallen victim to the horrors of war. As we are introduced to these characters, their entire world is vanishing. American bombers drop canisters of napalm on the feeble wood and paper houses of Japanese cities and the residents have no resort but to flee. There is no way to fight the fires, no way to resist the ruin.
Seita and Setsuko are taken in by an aunt, but the relationship is strained as she begins to begrudge the two children. She resents having to feed them and look after them, so eventually the pair departs to a cave where they believe they can live. Seita attempts to take care of his sister, all the while trying to come to terms with the war and with the fate of their parents. As unalterable tragedy draws ever near, we see the war, the bombings and the horror from the eyes of these two children.