Japanese Title: Hotaru no Haka
Similar: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0
Watched in: Japanese & English
Genre: Historical Drama
Length: 1 hr. 28 min. movie
- Real, flawed characters.
- Realities of war.
- Laser focused emotion.
- Setsuko’s performance in Japanese.
- Attention to detail in characters and the environment.
(Note: You may want to start watching from 4 minutes 52 seconds in (American bombers flying in the sky is the scene), as Scene 1 shows the conclusion before it rewinds to the story’s beginning. You can watch the opening minutes afterwards. Depends on what structure you prefer.)
It took me six attempts to begin writing this review. Grave of the Fireflies had such a profound effect on me that not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought of this film since its viewing weeks ago. This is a film of rare depth and emotion.
Where other war films focus on dude-bros and douchebags, Grave of the Fireflies shines a light on the true impact of war on hearts of innocence. The anime is based on the semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. We follow orphaned siblings Seita and Setsuko as they try to survive after a firebomb raid from the U.S. in WW2 Japan. These two are the soul of Fireflies. I was drawn into their plight by the sincerity of their character – there was never a doubt, in my mind, as to them genuinely caring for each other. The small things portray Setsuko as a real four-year-old: the way she holds her chopsticks, her curiosity to play with the unknown, and her innocent view on the world, making it all even more heart breaking. I was floored to discover she was played by a five-year-old actress, her only ever voice role, in Japanese. The performance lends such credibility to the character, such emotion that if I didn’t know better, I would say came from real recordings of a war orphan.
The cruelty hits early in the narrative and never eases until the final moment of relief. Seita does his best to take care of his sister, but his naïveté can’t comprehend how much worse their situation can get. After the fire wipes his town away, they stay with his aunt, who finds him a burden and lazy. Watching his actions, one may quite likely see Seita as foolish in his choices; however, these mistakes are born from reality. How many teenagers suddenly thrown into the worst life has to offer would make the right choices? He went from a boy of little responsibility to one responsible for the life of another overnight.
Now, Fireflies isn’t all heavy. It is, in fact, rather jarring to see moments of happiness among such tragedy, and yet, these moments are crucial to the film’s overall effect, for they increase the drama’s weight. One moment, I recall, has Seita trapping an air bubble under a washcloth to pop in his sister’s face during bath time – she laughs. Does this scene develop character or plot? No, but without such joy, this wouldn’t be a real world, a world that could be broken by the fires of war.
If I were to plot out the story’s events, the skeleton would be thin with few events, but this is for good reason. Fireflies is a patient film, allowing each event to flourish, void of gratuitous gore and explosions found in your typical war film. Scenes of destruction last but a moment for the consequences of said destruction to sink in. The patience isn’t caused by melodrama to drag events out, but from reality – the events speak for themselves.
Once you have watched Fireflies, read the last line of this passage on the accuracy of the finale and prepare to experience the film once more. Grave of the Fireflies is such a powerful film I doubt I will ever want to watch it again. One viewing is enough to last a lifetime. I need to stop writing before it hits me again.
Art – Very High
Grave of the Fireflies looks good, high in detail and well animated, but isn’t quite what later Ghibli productions achieve. The atmosphere and storyboarding elevates the art. The scene with the fireflies is magnificent.
Sound – High
Very little music – matches the bleakness of their situation. Silence is a peace from the air raids and bombs. The dub is a tad stilted so stick with the Japanese, especially for Setsuko’s voice performed by Ayano Shiraishi. Powerful performance. The major flaw in sound is the recording quality, which shows its age.
Story – Very High
An orphaned brother and sister struggle to survive in World War 2 Japan. Emotional, heavy, heartfelt, and brilliant.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: A must watch. Even those who are averse to emotional stories should watch Grave of the Fireflies for the very reason that makes them avoid such emotion. I cannot recommend this enough.
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)