Grave of the Fireflies

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Good Movie Write Off - "Grave of the Fireflies"

Oct 16, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Emotional, powerful story...

Cons:... not the sort of film you can watch again and again...

The Bottom Line: If you want a powerful story that shows things from the other side (as opposed to the traditional Western point of view), this could be it.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Grave of the Fireflies (Japanese title “Hotaru no haka“) was my second foray into the world of anime. I had heard nothing but good things about this Japanese animated movie, and so perhaps I had unrealistically high expectations. Yes I did enjoy it and thought it was a good movie, but I wasn’t amazed by it.

Warning - contains spoilers - sorry but with this story I couldn’t find a way round revealing some pretty major plot elements.

The story centres around a young boy called Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, living in the turbulent times of World War II in Japan. Their father is away in the navy and their mother falls victim to a bomb attack. With few or none left who truly care about them, they must find a way to survive in a country torn to shreds by warfare. They move in with an aunt, but she evidently begrudges them every scrap of help (and rice) that they are given, and keeps harping on about how much special help they must receive since they have a father in the navy. Soon enough they are out on their own, with Seita scavenging, begging, borrowing or stealing what they need when the last bit of money runs out. - selling their mother’s remaining possessions is their only source of income.

It is a story of survival but the beginning of the story gives away the fact that it was a hopeless one. It’s a pretty bleak story really but an important one. It’s also quite a simple story, but conveys a powerful message and focusing on the two main characters makes you interested in their survival. They are not shown as heroic or wonderful children but the devotion shown by Seita to Setsuko is truly touching. The end is tragic but perhaps inevitable. They are often naïve and selfish, though not because they’re trying to be bad. Their aunt, though unfeeling, has definite reasons for her opinions and you can see the logic and truth behind much of what she says. The film doesn’t make you try to judge, or love / hate particular characters - it just presents a realistic rendition of how the situation would be.

Those to whom animated movies do not usually appeal may well be surprised by this film. There is an emotional power here at least equal to any live action films I’ve seen, including real life dramas. The fact that the story is so simply told lends to its all too believable premise. For those of us in the Western world I think it’s also a very important story because, though the atrocities of war have been portraying on the big screen many times, they don’t often do so from the point of view of the German / Japanese population (admittedly they probably frequently in world cinema, but Grave of the Fireflies is one of few that do so in a manner that that’s so accessible to the West). Whichever side you’re on, war is hell - and both sides were led to believe right up to the end that they were winning. This is powerfully depicted in one scene where Seita, who is convinced that Japan will win the war (and that his father will win it for them, having been indoctrinated with the idea that the Japanese navy is invincible), finds out that Japan have surrendered. To me that was one of the most poignant scenes of the film, though perhaps less obviously emotive than some of the others.

I can’t really say much more about the storyline itself as that’s about all there is. The fireflies come into it with a subtlety and depth of meaning typical of the Japanese - it’s mainly about the transience of their existence, but also about the light they emit for that short time. The grave of the fireflies itself also seemed to me quite symbolic, especially given the children’s initial and final situations.

The animation was very good and the backgrounds superb. There were scenes were it seemed as though the background should have been animated but it wasn’t - I’m presuming this was done to add dramatic effect. The facial expressions of the characters were well captured.

Overall The Grave of the Fireflies was a good little movie (lasting approximately 90 minutes), though probably one I’d have to be in the mood for before watching again. The UK release is by Optimum Releasing, and includes storyboards, the Japanese soundtrack and English dubbing. I know a lot of purists and aficionados are going to disagree with me but I really didn’t have a problem with the dubbing. Perhaps I’m just too lazy to read subtitles unless I have to, but the timing was quite good and the voice acting very good.

Other people have said it was the most emotional film they’ve every watched. Personally I didn’t find that, but it was a good film. If you’re the sort that cries when watching sad movies, you’d probably be best to have a box of Kleenex handy.

Other Details

Released by Studio Ghibli.
Directed by Isao Takahata
Rating: 12 (UK) - not really sure why it wasn’t just a PG

Main Voice cast (Japanese, English)

Seita - Tsutomu Tatsumi, J. Robert Spencer
Setsuko - Ayano Shiraishi, Rhoda Chrosite
Mother - Yoshiko Shinohara, Veronica Taylor
Aunt - Akemi Yamaguchi, Amy Jones


Perhaps because it was funnier, and perhaps because it appealed to my sense of the surreal, I liked Spirited Away more than this one.


This was an entry to my Good Movies Write Off - if it’s still October 2007 when you read this, there’s still time to join in the fun!

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD

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