Grave of the Fireflies
Original Title: 火垂るの墓
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Novel by: Akiyuki Nosaka
Screenplay By: Isao Takahata
Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shirashi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara
During the autumn of 1945, the world is entrenched in a war that will sweep across its entirety. The film opens in darkness and heavy silence. After about a minute, the pulsating sound of boots on stone permeates the thick darkness of the film. We then see a dying young boy gripping a tin. The owner of the heavy footsteps picks up the tin and opens it. All he sees is ashes and bones. He throws the tin in a nearby field, the lip popping open, revealing the spirits of the dying child and a smaller child as well as… fireflies.
14-year-old Seita (Tatsumi) is ripped from his life and forced to become a man for the sake of his younger sister, Setsuko (Shirashi). Their lives are violently uprooted when an air raid on their hometown of Kobe signals the beginning of the city’s, and ultimately Japan’s, surrender to the Allied Forces. Their mother (Shinohara), who suffers from a serious heart condition, is caught in one of the fires stemming from a blitzkrieg of their neighborhood. She ultimately dies, leaving Seita and Setsuko to fend for themselves. The children are ill-prepared for the tumult of war — finding shelter with their vindictively cruel aunt, leaving when she becomes insufferable only to fall prey to the desperation of World War II Japan.
Meanwhile, Seita still has to take care of his little sister. They find an abandoned bomb shelter in a field, using fireflies as light. The next morning, Setsuko sees all the fireflies have died and she buries them, beginning a slow spiral into heartbreaking depression and hopelessness. And though her spirit is strong, her young body is ill-equipped for the ravages of wartime and begins an unforgiving and painfully slow deterioration. Seita attempts to find any means he possibly can to save her, going as far as to steal from local farmers in acts of fear and violence. When he finally decides to deplete his mother’s savings to buy as much food as he can, he comes back to the bomb shelter to find Setsuko hallucinating, on the verge of her death. By the time he’s managed to cook the food into edibility, Setsuko has succumbed to the malnutrition eating away at her small body. It would be only a few short weeks later that Seita would share her fate.
Grave of the Fireflies is a film that tests the boundaries of animation and what we as an audience expect from it. There are moments so loud you’re amazed the fires don’t reach out to lick your flesh with their heat. At other moments, the hollow emptiness of the sound renders the soul speechless. Just when you think the silence is about to stretch into a vast eternity, a sound — the snap of a branch, the crunch of a boot on dry grass — pops into your psyche and forces you to react to something that in a certain scene carries an overwhelming weight.
It’s the type of film that pushes you beyond your threshold of pain, bringing you close to tears, then with a single ray of hope squelches the nascent emotions. By the end of the film you find yourself wrung out, completely incapable of registering anything but a numb, cold feeling of utter hopelessness. Though overwrought with despair, there’s so much dark beauty in the piece it’s a wonder that it’s not received much more recognition than it has.
There are moments in …Fireflies where you wonder if you should continue watching. The heaviness of it is just so depressing, so utterly dark, it definitely stretches a viewer’s suspension of disbelief; however, once you realize that Takahata-sama is telling you a common story, another layer of pain cuts through you. There are images from Japan during World War II which this film depicts  that manage to bridge the gap between what we think we know about Japan’s history and what we’ve completely missed. Grave of the Fireflies is based on such reality, the poignancy of the story cuts deep and leaves a splinter in the heart long after the film fades and flickers into eternal blackness.