Grave of the Fireflies Is a Film You Can Only Watch Once

Hello, all! I have a day off of school, so it’s back to blogging again. Sadly, I chose to watch Grave of the Fireflies. It’s a fascinating movie, but not the kind of movie to watch before lunch…when you still have 8 hours left of daylight to ponder its depressing message. In short: this is one movie I wish I hadn’t watched. *Spoilers Ahead*

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I love animated films, especially those of Studio Ghibli, but Grave of the Fireflies wasn’t enjoyable. A sense of bleakness hangs over the entire film so that even the beautiful animation is drenched in sorrow. There are other famously sad animated films, like Up, whose  opening sequence makes me sob every time, Finding Nemo, Bambi, Toy Story 3, etc, but all of these films balance their sadness with hope and joy. Grave of the Fireflies negates any hope in the very first scene, and any joy in the movie is colored by the fact that the viewer knows the tragic ending from the beginning. What you’re left with is a mix of hopelessness and grief, neither of which are good headspaces to be in for an extended amount of time. It’s a film that makes the viewer emotionally exhausted.

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Summary: 14 y/o Seita and his 4 y/o sister Setsuko live in Japan during WW2. Their father is a naval captain away at sea, their mother is a housewife. During an enemy air-raid, Seita’s mother is horribly burned and dies at the hospital. He and Setsuko move into their aunt’s house in a nearby town, where they spend their days playing at the beach or taking walks in the countryside. Motherless and with an absent father, Seika takes on the role of Setsuko’s main guardian.

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As the days pass, Seita’s aunt begins to grow resentful of having extra children to feed. Seita brings her food and gives her his mother’s beautiful kimono to trade for rice, but that isn’t enough to satisfy her. She constantly reminds him that while her daughter and husband are working to help the war effort, he’s doing nothing but lounging around. After a fight, Seita decides to cook his own food for he and Setsuko. This causes a rift between they and their aunt, so they decide to move out and live in a little bomb shelter in the countryside.

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At first, they live comfortably, catching fireflies and enjoying their freedom. One night, they fill their room with fireflies and pretend they are the lights of a city. They are dead by morning, which causes Setsuko to cry and ask “why do fireflies die so young?” She buries them in a grave, which gives Seita flashbacks of his mother’s similarly hasty burial.

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Seita discovers that their mother left them 7,000 yen in the bank, which he thinks will be plenty of money for food. But as the days pass, life for the children becomes more difficult. Setsuko breaks out in a rash and grows thin and they run low on rice. Seita tries to buy rice, but with food supplies growing low in Japan, the farmers only have use for trade-goods. Seita starts stealing crops from nearby fields and during air-raids, he enters stranger’s houses and takes their rice.

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Setsuko becomes malnourished and lethargic. Desperate, Seita withdraws half of his money from the bank, but no farmers will sell him anything. They tell him to go back to his aunt, but out of pride, he refuses. A man catches him stealing crops and takes him to the police. When he is released, he finds Setsuko almost unresponsive, but he still won’t return to his aunt. He takes her to a doctor, who says that she’s suffering from malnutrition and will be saved with a little food. He leaves Setsuko alone and goes to town to buy food, whereupon he discovers that the Japanese army has surrendered and his father has most likely drowned with the rest of the navy. He’s devastated, but he returns to Setsuko laden with food and gives her a watermelon to eat. She’s hallucinating and near death. She dies just before he can give her more food.

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Seita cremates her ashes and places them in a fruit tin. In a voice-over, we hear that he never visited the shelter again. He dies a few weeks later, starved and alone, in a train station. The last scene shows the spirits of Seita and Setsuko reunited with their fireflies.

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My take: The film opens with one of the most disturbing animated scenes I’ve ever watched. It shows an emaciated Seita leaning against the pillar of a train station. Passerbys call him “disgusting” and “disgraceful,” but one woman offers him food. Without even noticing the offering, he slumps over and dies. A fly crawls across his face. As the shot expands, we see there are multiple other dead children in the train station. A maintenance man sweeps at Seita like he’s dust. They find the tin of Setsuko’s ashes and toss them into the grass. It is there, after that devastating opening, that the story begins, and it doesn’t get any happier from that point.

I knew the film was going to be upsetting, but I guess I didn’t imagine how upsetting it could be. Several scenes are sickeningly-sad, and some are brutal, like the image of Seita’s mother’s horribly burned body before it’s tossed into a grave. It’s an animated movie that was clearly never meant for children, though I’m sure the fact that it was made by the same studio that made My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away fooled a lot of parents.

The film was full of symbolism. The fruit-tin with Setusko’s ashes was once full of Japanese candy, and though Seita burns her clothes and her doll, he keeps it as a reminder of her sweetness. The scenes with Seita and Setsuko’s spirits are painted with only reds, golds, and oranges, which could symbolize many different things. At first, it reminded me of a sunset, and I thought that since their lives had ended, they were permanently bathed in the colors of an ending day. As the movie progressed, I realized that it was more a reference to their suffering, as if they were burning. Any way you look at it, it’s depressing. There is also the firefly, a symbol representing the ephemeral nature of life. The comparison between the death of Seita’s mother and the death of the fireflies is one of the most poignant scenes in the film.

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It’s a difficult film to watch, and not only because of the tragedy. Seita is an ambiguous character whose motivations are unclear, and whose actions are infuriating. In the beginning of the film, he’s shown as a dutiful and responsible son, but many of his choices are irresponsible to the point of stupidity. It’s hard to sympathize with a boy who leaves security to live out a Huck Finn inspired adventure in nature and takes his little sister with him. There are many times that he could have turned back and returned to his aunt, but he never does. You can attribute his behavior to youthful pride, recklessness, or naivete, but in the end, he kills himself and his sister with his actions, and that’s a brutal thing to watch.

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My face during the movie

It’s a rare film that can tell such a story, and commendable because it tells the story from such a complex point-of-view. The animation is on par with all the Studio Ghibli greats, but perhaps made even better by its mature content. Only Studio Ghibili can make bombs look like delicate trails of fire and add a touch of tenderness to scenes of death.

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The film is based on a semi-autobiographical short story written by  Akiyuki Nosaka. He called the work a “double-suicide story.” What makes the movie even sadder is that Nosaka wrote the story as an apology for letting his sister die of starvation. While in the film Seita makes feeding his sister a priority, the real-life Seita was more selfish. Nosaka wrote Seita as a boy who likes the idea of being the sole supporter of his little sister, which gives some unexplained motivation to the film character.

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It’s interesting to watch another perspective of WW2. The predominant attitude is that both Germany and Japan were flat-out evil during the war, but that’s a flawed viewpoint. Both countries were fighting for reasons they alone could justify, but that doesn’t mean their people don’t deserve the same sympathy as victims as we give to those of other war-torn countries. We like to remember how WW2 brought out the true spirit of American patriotism in the face of hardship, but we brush over the fact that even though our men were fighting and food was rationed, a war was never fought in our country. There was never total war on our civilians. That’s one theme this movie really focuses on: the injustice of total war. Seita is selfish and naive, but  the real cause of he and his sister’s death was the war. That’s important to remember when watching this movie.

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In summary, it’s a worthy movie, but I plan never to watch it again. Instead, I’ll watch five episodes of The Office and attempt to forget the mind-numbing despair I feel deep inside.

Rating: 8/10 Dead Fireflies

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I’m so sorry
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2 thoughts on “Grave of the Fireflies Is a Film You Can Only Watch Once”

  1. I agree with just how devastatingly tragic the movie is. It’ll probably be another ten years before I watch that movie again. It’s a masterpiece though.

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    1. It’s definitely the first animated movie I’ve watched that made me think “I don’t want to watch this again.” But it’d interesting to see Studio Ghibli do another film like this one.

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