Grave of the Fireflies (impressions)

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20 January 2003 (with later revisions)

Grave of the Fireflies (2003 Review)

By Daniel Thomas

When the American movie-going public is constantly being fed junk food, it ruins their sensibilities. They don't trust their better instincts. Whenever I tell anyone who will listen that Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is just about the greatest animated picture ever made, I'm greeted with strange looks. Nobody really believes that. American animation mostly relies upon formulaic pastry ala Disney, Dreamworks, and television. But Fireflies is far different; a transcendent masterpiece in its own right.

It's hard to get someone fired up about a picture that's so hard for Westerners to define. At the core, Grave of the Fireflies is a movie about two children who are bombed out of their home during World War II. Not exactly the way to reach someone who just dumped Shrek in front of their kids.

Fireflies is certainly one of the more serious Studio Ghibli titles, and one can't imagine any other studio that would produce this movie and My Neighbor Totoro at the same time. The two are nearly polar opposites (and shared a double bill for its Japanese premiere), but its that creative diversity that has made Ghibli the best movie studio in the world.

The story is based on a bestselling novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. A survivor of the firebombing of Kobe in World War II, Nosaka battled starvation and actually lost his younger sister to malnutrition. Haunted for years by the experience, driven by the guilt of his sister's death, he wrote the book in hopes of silencing the ghosts surrounding him.

Like the book, the movie focuses almost exclusively on two children who become casualties in the Kobe bombing. All throughout, there is an encroaching sense of isolation. Seita and Setsuko lose their home, then lose their mother. They travel to the home of a distant aunt, who turns out to be distant in more ways than one. Increasingly frustrated, the aunt coldly discards the children; they lose their surrogate home and turn to a hillside bomb shelter. The surrounding adults, the farmers and the doctors and the officers, are either unable or unwilling to notice the orphaned two. The world itself seems to be collapsing around them.

Grave of the Fireflies is such an emotional experience that it's difficult, nearly impossible for many, to make it through in one sitting. Take one pivotal scene, for instance. The children's aunt is persuading Seita to give up his mother's garments so they can be sold. Setsuko awakens to see her aunt taking the clothes, and starts screaming; she comes completely undone. Seita is struggling to hold her back and he's coming undone. The kicker is that the girl doesn't yet know her mother died. All the while, Seita's ghost is watching (as he silently narrates), and he's coming undone; he can't bear to hear his sister's cries.

The first time I watched Fireflies, I was so overcome at this point in the story that I had to turn the videotape off. I couldn't return until the next evening, because it's so hard to watch. Even now, several years and several viewings later, its suffering and peacefulness remain a deeply touching experience.

When speaking about this film, Takahata and Nosaka confess that this story is better suited for animation, and they may be right. Perhaps this simply couldn't work with live actors. We would be too self-conscious of the sight of a real 4-year-old suffering; it would either look overly maudlin or hokey. But when animated, we more readily accept what Takahata shows us. It's realistic, but in the sense that Van Gogh and Coltrane is real. With its warm humanity, you feel emotions pulled out of you that you never knew you had.

Fireflies is equally full of moments of serene beauty, scenes of peaceful vitality. Visually, this is a beautiful movie. Everything is drawn in lush, vivid watercolors; the greens and blues of the lake, the saturated reds of a devastated Kobe, even the smoke from the bombers looks poetic. A bucket, a mop, a well - the film is littered with these snapshots of daily details. These transitory pillow shots are straight out of Yasujiro Ozu's movies (with a couple nods to Ray's Apu Trilogy), and it's these naturalist moments that stay with me the most.

This style of film-making is almost unheard of in animation. In the film's signature moment, the two children fill their cave with fireflies from the lake. The look on their faces is almost rapturous joy. The fireflies are gathered, they fly around the cave. It's an almost spiritual moment; the fireflies dance and glow, then slowly dim and fade by dawn. In the morning, the little girl buries them, and imagines her own mother's death.

You can't imagine any director pulling that off in America without mangling it a dozen different ways. But after watching, how can you imagine anyone not making films like this? How can one settle for the same routine again? By the time the final credits roll, you become convinced that Takahata is a genius and revolutionary; his other masterpieces such as Omohide Poro Poro and Anne of Green Gables cement that belief.

It may take another decade or two for the masses in America to realize this, and that may not happen until some brave filmmakers finally try to create neo-realist animation here. The prohibitive costs of creating animated films and the corporate mindset of Hollywood guarantee that this won't happen anytime soon. That needs to change, because we deserve scores of movies influenced by Takahata and Grave of the Fireflies.

The New York Times

August 27, 1993, Friday, Late Edition - Final

HEADLINE: For Children

By Dulcie Leimbach

'Grave of the Fireflies' Recommended ages: 8 and up

Toward the beginning of this elegiac and riveting video, Seita, who is 14, and his 4-year-old sister, Setsuko, sift through the rubble of Kobe, Japan, left heavily damaged by American firebombs. " Grave of the Fireflies, " a 1988 Japanese video with English subtitles, was recently released in the United States. The animated story, about two children orphaned at the end of World War II, is not for every child. Based on an autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the video, with its muted, delicate colors, almost like a Japanese brush painting, softens the ugly reality the children face. After their mother dies (as she dies, she is shown wrapped in bloody bandages), they eventually settle in an abandoned bomb shelter.

From there, they scavenge food, which is scarce for nearly everyone. At one point, Seita steals tomatoes from a farm and is beaten. Setsuko becomes delirious from starvation, and in the last scenes her brother tries to sustain her.

The 88-minute video is indeed sad, but it also shows the siblings' determination and love. One young viewer was fascinated by the war and by the scenes showing the children eating with chopsticks, sitting on folded legs at a low table. This young viewer also had a lot of questions afterward, as his mind worked to grasp what he had seen.

The video is distributed by Central Park Media at a suggested retail price of $39.95. It is available at most major video stores.

Roger Ebert's Great Movies

March 19, 2000

"Grave of the Fireflies" is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Since the earliest days, most animated films have been "cartoons" for children and families. Recent animated features such as "The Lion King," "Princess Mononoke" and "The Iron Giant" have touched on more serious themes, and the "Toy Story" movies and classics like "Bambi" have had moments that moved some audience members to tears. But these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief. "Grave of the Fireflies" is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to "Schindler's List" and says, "It is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen."

The Sun (Baltimore)

April 14, 1996, Sunday, FINAL EDITION

Toon in Tomorrow; Japanimation:

Anime can be as cinematic as any Hollywood blockbuster and sells bigger in its native land. The cartoon form is deep, sexy and drawing a bead on the American market.


Because anime isn't watered down for children, it can take on a wide range of themes and topics. For instance, there's an anime version of the literary classic "Tale of Genji" that's as smart as any "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation. " Grave of the Fireflies" is a story of two young orphans at the end of World War II that's heartbreaking enough to leave any viewer in tears. The romantic sitcom "Maison Ikkoku," by contrast, is as well-written and addictive as a prime-time hit.

Video Week

November 7, 1994


Central Park Media won 2 top awards at Chicago International Children's Film Festival last month for Grave of the Fireflies. Japanese animated film won first prize in Rights of the Child category, awarded to title that best represents U.N. Declaration to the Rights of the Child. Also, Festival's adult animation jury awarded film first place in Best Animated Feature Film category.

The Washington Post

July 26, 1995, Wednesday, Final Edition

The Next Big Japanese Import: Animation

By Michael O'Connell

Faced with fewer cultural and social restrictions than their American counterparts, Japanese animators frequently tackle more sophisticated and controversial topics. But a few high-profile works, like the series Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend and the film Wicked City, have created the impression that anime is mostly a forum for sex and violence. Nadelman contends that these works constitute only a small portion of anime produced. "This is a widely varying style of art and it encompasses many different ages and personal tastes," he says. But "Japanese animation doesn't sugarcoat things. When they want to, they can be pretty damned dramatic."

The epitome of drama may be Isao Takahata's 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies. Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film follows the struggles of two orphans during the American firebombing at the end of World War II. The story is gritty, horrific, at times magical. "For the people who say that Japanese animation is all sex and violence, have them watch Grave of the Fireflies, " Nadelman says. "It's a wonderful little story."


Animerica Anime & Manga Monthly

Vol. 2, No. 11, November 1994

[Interview originally from the June 1987 issue of Animage magazine. Excerpt taken from the English translation by Takayuki Karahashi.]

My sister's death is an exact match with the novel. It was one week after the end of the war. At the countryside of Fukui prefecture where I was, it was the day the restrictions on lighting were removed. It must have been the 22nd. It was evening, and I was picking up my sister's bones. I was coming home in a daze when I saw the village lit up. There was nothing like my surprise then. My sister died in my side of the world, and the light was coming back in the other.

Honestly speaking, there was also relief that she died and my burden was gone. No one would wake me up in the night like she did with her crying, and I wouldn't have to wander around with a child on my back any more. I'm very sorry to say this about my sister, but I did have those feelings too. That's why I haven't gone back to my novel (Grave of the Fireflies, published in 1967) to re-read it, since I hate that. It's so hypocritical. It must be absolutely true that Seita must have thought of his sister as a burden too. He must have thought that he could have escaped better if it weren't for her.

There are many things that I just couldn't get myself to write into the story. During composition, the older brother got increasingly transformed into a better human being. I was trying to compensate for everything I couldn't do myself. I always thought I wanted to perform these generous acts in my head, but I couldn't do so. I always thought I wouldn't eat and would give the food to my little sister, but when I actually had the piece of food in my hand, I was hungry after all, so I'd eat it. And there was nothing like the deliciousness of eating in a situation like that. And the pain that followed was just as big. I'd think there is no one more hopeless in the world than me. I didn't put anything about this in the novel.

Fan Impressions

The Rose

Grave of the Fireflies review
April 1992

By Steven Feldman
Suggestions added from the advice of: Atsushi Fukumoto

I saw Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in its entirety for the first time the other night and was surprised at both its similarities and dissimilarities with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike the anime of the latter, this film is realistic in a downbeat sense, with no overt comedic leavening, only bitter-sweet perks. The narrative, which lends itself well to character study, revolves almost exclusively around two characters, but strangely, there is no character development per se. My Neighbor Totoro has few characters and little character development, as well, so its pairing with "Fireflies" at Japanese theatrical screenings is not as surprising as many have thought. Both these films evoke key if not memorable times in the recent Japanese past. Distilled to the basics, it could be said that "Totoro" embodies the Japan many Japanese wish still was, whereas "Fireflies" embodies Japan at its nadir. And yet, "Fireflies" uses its pivotal series of events as a backdrop rather than a soapbox for platitudinous didacticism, and paradoxically, gathers greater power through this inherently evasive technique. It has often been remarked how the tragedy of a handful is more heartfelt than that of a multitude, and it is no less true, here.

The copy of Grave of the Fireflies I saw was in the original language and I don't know Japanese, so since there is little action and a great deal of dialogue, my judgment of this film on a narrative level is largely irrelevant. As far as I have been able to gather, the film's events take place during the end of Japan's involvement in World War II. [After writing this, I learned that the setting was Kobe in April, 1945, and that the A bombs which hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August were hundreds of kilometers away.] During the course of the film, the principle characters run for shelter from air raids some seven or eight times. At later points, it is revealed that both characters (a 16-year-old reserve soldier and his 6-year-old sister?) contracted radiation poisoning, which is represented by red blotches on the torso, but I didn't see where they got it from. There was no nuclear blast, no immediate reaction from eating or drinking contaminated food, nor the onslaught of sudden hair loss. [Again, after writing this, I learned that they died of malnutrition - not radiation - and that the red blotches were prickly heat.] Instead, we see how two people cope with major changes in their lives, both adverse and bitter-sweetly propitious. This brings us back to the "Totoro" comparison.

"Totoro's" tacit subtext is that of two children dealing with the possible terminal illness of a parent, yet this is obfuscated by the fantastic and nostalgic elements. In retrospect, one is tempted to ask why the various forest spirits revealed themselves to the two little girls. Did the series of fanciful events spark from the children's openess and naivete, or from a deep-seated need? The answer is both. What separates "Totoro" from "Fireflies" is its deus ex machina ending. If the Cat-bus hadn't helped Satsuki find Mei, Mei might very well have wound up like the characters in "Fireflies": hungry and lost.

If one were not very familiar with Japanese animation, it would be easy to mistake Grave of the Fireflies for a Miyazaki film. The characters have similarly-constructed faces and nearly all the imagery has the same smooth-edged look that is so rare in anime. That Miyazaki and Takahata have worked together on and off for over 25 years is no doubt a contributing factor, but both their styles are so dissimilar to the generic anime style (if there is such a thing), that one tends to think more so of 1940's animation in their context (Kiki's Delivery Service being the most obvious example). Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata's key animation is, upon closer examination, not as smooth as it looks and certainly not as dynamically arranged as that of the former. Nearly every scene in "Fireflies" is symmetrical, which gives the film a flat, even tone. I have seen only one other Takahata film, "Prince of the Sun" - which was designed and key animated by Miyazaki - so I really have no idea whether this stiffness of scene organization is on purpose, or else an inherent limitation of the director's style, but I think it is a little of both. Watching Grave of the Fireflies, I got the feeling that Takahata might be trying to evoke the same sort of domestic mundanity for which the live-action director Yasujiro Ozu was reknowned: the scenery arrangements were static, the dialogue plain, and the characters' reactions thoroughly unremarkable - almost as if the director was secretly filming a real-life situation from a hidden vantage point. Indeed, the frequent temporal shifts in this anime add to this sense of impromptu, almost ethnographic filmmaking. That said, I must add that it is a remarkable achievement to have imbued an animated film with a verisimilitude so close to reality. By this, I do not mean to give hyperbolic lip service as some have done with The Simpsons - for "Fireflies" is no mere allegory and there is nothing humorous about it - but to say that, with "Fireflies", one often becomes unaware that one is not watching a live-action movie, but a "cartoon." The same cannot be said for a Miyazaki film, and this is an important point.

Miyazaki is a great storyteller, but the enjoy-ability of a story is in no way affected by its inherent believability or realism. Contextual believability is often more important in tale-spinning, so a modest anime like Locke the Superman is in many ways more successful and enjoyable than an opulent bonanza like Akira. More than a few fledgling anime fans have wondered why anyone could possibly like something like Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) or Kimagure Orange Road more than St. Seiya, Megazone 23 Part Two, or Bubblegum Crisis, but this has more to do with youthful hormones than careful examination. On the other hand, The Wings of Honneamise is internally consistent and largely true-to-life yet lacks not only the verve of a Miyazaki film, but the weight of Grave of the Fireflies. Why is is this so? I'm not certain, and yet, perhaps "Arion" and Time Stranger offer clues. "Arion" takes many of the gods of the Greek pantheon and puts them through changes Homer never intended, and yet, in of itself, this tale is breathtaking and exceptionally well balanced. Time Stranger is a time travel story that takes extreme liberties with historical motivations and yet, given the belief suspension required of the paradox of time travel, it acquits itself unusually well. Both these anime have verve, but neither are as weighty as Grave of the Fireflies. This brings us back to the idea of empathy with a few being more palpable than identification with a large statistic. "Arion" deals with an entire religion, virtually half its gods, and all its followers; Time Stranger concerns the eradication of an entire future civilization; "Honneamise" deals with two warring nations and a race to the moon; and "Fireflies", with ground-level subsistence during wartime. In ascending order, then, these anime deal with struggle on first a universal, then a personal order. Allegorical subtexts notwithstanding, personal travails make for better drama.

Another curious comparison to Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro would be to Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. In this series-within-a-series, the viewer comes to identify with a small child named Alfred who unwittingly becomes a spy in service of the enemy. To him, soldiers are glamorous icons like rock stars or movie stars, and so acceptance - however superficial - by one of these provides a rapture and sense of belonging which is frightening in its ignorance. Eventually, this star-struck boy learns the truth and turns on his erstwhile hero, even as the latter redeems himself poignantly with a selfless act. On the one hand, this series is similar to The Wings of Honneamise in that one is always aware that the key character is only a cog in a larger design, yet on the other hand, Alfred is as emotionally starved as Mei is for her mother or the little girl in "Fireflies" is for her father and fading fatherland, because his father and school friends pay no attention to him.

Is Grave of the Fireflies, then, ultimately about the tribulations of isolated children? I think not. No, despite its pervading sense of reality, this film functions as a proverb, a concrete illustration of hope and faith in the face of adversity. That its key characters die does not diminish the object lesson, nor make martyrs of them. They were - or symbolize - two of many who died in a war that destroyed their bodies but not their spirits. And these spirits are not fighting spirits, but the spirits that make men, women and children human.

usenet rec.movies

24 June 1992

By Rafael Brown
Edited and Re-formatted by Steven Feldman

Grave of the Fireflies review

This list has been relatively quiet lately so I thought I'd spice things up with a rather offbeat review. I recently saw a movie at a friend's house that I was blown away by. The movie was [Grave of the Fireflies] by Isao Takahata. The movie is a subtitled, letterboxed, Japanese animation film.

Before anyone throws up their hands in disgust thinking "oh no, another one of those Japanese sci-fi robot movies, what a waste", let me say that this is one of the most serious, realistic, inspired movies I have seen in a while. Then there is the reasoning, if it is so realistic why not use live actors? The reason is because animation is a collection of drawings and drawings are art. They can convey a wide range of concepts in a breathtakingly beautiful style. Animation can convey mood and imagery in a way that actors can't come close to. I'm not saying that movies with actors are bad; they are just a very different style. Both types of movies stand very well on their own. Grave of the Fireflies portrays as much depth and sincerity as, say, Thelma and Louise or Boyz 'n The Hood.

But enough justification, movies as good as Grave of the Fireflies don't need to be defended, they're beyond that. The following review gives a general synopsis of Grave of the Fireflies as well as some of my thoughts on it.

Grave of the Fireflies (directed by Isao Takahata):

I approached this movie with some trepidation. I had been warned that the movie was extremely depressing. The friend who it belonged to told me how the subtitling job had slowed down because the subtitlers had a hard time watching it over and over again. Be warned this movie is no Akira. There is NO action whatsoever. Despite this I would rate it as one of my all time favorite movies.

The action revolves around a brother and his little sister (I'd estimate their ages at around 11 and 4). The date is late 1945 just before Japan surrendered. These two children are brutally cut loose from the family and home environment that they are familiar with and thrust out into a chaotic world to survive on their own. I guess you could call it a war movie in that it looks at how civilians and particularly children live during times of war.

While it is hard to classify "Fireflies" it is more a tragedy than anything else. We follow the lives of the two children as they try to live and find a home in the war torn Japanese countryside. They are slowly dying of starvation and the brother's efforts to provide for his sister are pathetic in their futility and realistic portrayal.

The plot is complex and realistic in a way a Disney movie could never aspire to given their usual saccharine-like quality. Make no mistake, though this movie is animated, it is NOT for kids. I don't think it's really appropriate for anyone under twelve. Beyond this, the animation is first rate with scenes that old Walt himself would shake his head in wonderment at. Not only is the film visually smooth, it also takes the animation to new levels of artistic creativity (a trait Takahata is rapidly becoming known for).

The character designs are some of the most realistic I have yet seen in any animation on either side of the Pacific. The scenery while not as strikingly beautiful as that of a contemporary of Takahata's, Hayao Miyazaki, is still detailed and very realistic. A good example is a scene early on in the movie. The city that the two main characters live in is being firebombed and fire is slowly spreading throughout various building. As the children wend their way through the street they see a fire burning in front of them. Instead of portraying fire with the opaque red and yellow usually seen in a cartoon or Disney movie, the fire is a shockingly TRANSLUCENT yellow. The smoke that rises from it is also slightly translucent allowing us to see part of the background behind the flames and smoke. This is how Takahata brings his movies closer to reality.

This is not to say that the whole movie mimics reality and does nothing else. There is another scene that exemplifies Takahata's originality in mixing the styles of animation used to set different moods. After learning that they will have to leave the city and seek help from far away relatives, the brother tells his sister that they must leave. The little girl is practically in shock from all of the changes that have happened to her and starts crying. In an attempt to cheer her up, the brother pulls himself up onto a acrobatic bar of some sort in the playground and calls to her to watch him. As he turn repeatedly turns head over heels on the bar she cries with her back to him oblivious to anything but her confusion and pain. The background meanwhile is all in pastel tans and off-whites. Slowly, the scene shifts as it changes angle and moves upward and back until we are looking at the two as if from a 3-story building. Watching them from a distance, the emptiness and loneliness of the scene strikes the viewer and it is hard not to feel for the two children.

I would write more but I don't want to give away too much of the movie. The College Hill Anime Club will be showing this movie next semester and if any movie is seen this is the one. (An interesting note is that because of the singularity of this movie the officers haven't yet figured out how to place it; it'll probably be at the end of the semester just to give it some distance from everything else.)