Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.
I first saw Grave of the Fireflies in the fall of 2013 in my dark upstairs apartment in college; after finishing the film, I went straight to bed. Despite it being one of the most beautiful movies I had ever seen, it was about two years before I could bring myself to watch it again.
The film follows fourteen-year-old Seita and four-year-old Setsuko in Japan in World War II. After their home is destroyed and their mother killed in a firebombing raid, they are forced to find somewhere new to live. A distant aunt takes them in, but as she grows more resentful of their unwillingness to contribute to meals and housework, Seita decides to move out for good. Now completely on their own, the siblings move into an unused bomb shelter and wait for the fighting to end.
This is a complex story. On the surface, it is easy to view Fireflies as an anti-war film, given its brutally honest portrayal of victims of war. Director Isao Takahata, though, has denied this many times, and has said that it is instead a message to contemporary, young audiences to be thankful for the environment they live in. As a survivor of the Okayama air raids, Takahata saw attitudes around him shifting and felt that the younger generation was taking for granted the luxuries that they had.
In the film, the United States is never referred to outright and instead provides the backdrop for the story. This is a story about people, not nations.
Instead, I see this as primarily a movie about self-destructive pride, which is especially pertinent to a nation that often viewed suicide more highly than surrender, refusing to give up on a war that they had been losing for years. Beyond the attack at the beginning of the film, what the characters experience is a result of personal decisions and of the actions of those around them. There are multiple points at which our main characters’ lives would have been changed for the better had Seita sucked up his pride and made the more responsible decisions.
Beyond this, Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking look at children as the silent victims of tragedy, war or otherwise; this story could have taken place in the wake a natural disaster and had the same power.
Through its story, music and animation, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made. This is an experience that you will never forget and is one of the best movies that you may never want to watch again.