Have you ever finished a book or a movie and thought, ‘Oh well, that’s gonna leave a scar…’? Isao Takahata’s 1988 Anime Movie titled; Grave of the fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) is quite catastrophic, to say the least. And trust me, that is going to leave quite the scar. This animated war tragedy paints a gruesome image of the Second World War. If you, being a true fan, ever thought ‘The Fault in our stars’ is quite depressing, you’re in for a hell of a ride. Grave of the fireflies takes the whole bakery, not just the cake.
Seven runs through the excruciating plot later, you start to get a good sense of clarity. Having handled this much, I can now safely tell you that there is not one single thing even remotely satisfying about this movie. Whatever wholesome joyful moment it builds up, it mercilessly crumbles down a few minutes later. It is the epitome of utter dejection.
The story follows two siblings, Setsuko and Seita, hailing from Kobe, Japan. The plot does a very justice at exposing the young duo a plethora of war horrors and the repercussions that follow. Just to make it obvious, this is a depressing story. Death and starvation being the key players in the plot. And it is going to leave you as the viewer absolutely helpless. Keep in mind, this is a movie review. Please be advised that there are major spoilers ahead. If you’re not a sucker for spoilers, this is where we part ways.
Grave of the Fireflies: The Plot
Grave of the Fireflies was released on 16th April 1988. Written and Directed by Isao Takahata, the movie is based on a short semi-autobiography by Akiyuki Nosaka. The very fact that someone almost went through the plot in real life, is depressing as it is. Produced by Toru Hara and animated by Studio Ghibli, its visual effects really didn’t age well in direct comparison with many modern titles like ‘Weathering with You’. It is the melancholic plot and the feeling of total dumbstruck desperation that makes it hold a mighty candle to other modern titles.
The movie begins with a teen, dressed in a school uniform with a captain’s hat, delivering a monologue. “September 21st 1945, That was the night I died.” if you’re too emotional, this is your first red flag. The movie then proceeds to reveal an empty train station in Kobe. The viewer is introduced to a scrawny bruised starving version of the teen, dressed in rags, almost falling over headfirst, from exhaustion, leaning against a wall. The scene develops further, with a bustling crowd walking around the boy, with not really anyone paying attention.
2 minutes into the movie, and it’s already nerve-racking. The camera pans around the station, showing several others similar to the teen. Apparently, this was a common view in post-war Japan in 1945. The story starts shortly after Japan admitted defeat in the second world war, with several families split and lives lost. The story goes on to show the boy taking one last desperation puff of air, tumbling and dying. A worker finds him dead, salvages a box of fruit drops he had, and throws it out. As it hits the ground, a bunch of fireflies light up and start flying upwards.
Before the Station
Unlike the popular claim by Muriel Bing, it was quite sad when they stopped drawing the boy. The Yokokawa household was one happy family. Seita and his younger sister Setsuko were just as gleeful as any children of their age. The father worked as a navy captain while the mother took care of the family. Now, as soon as you find it joyous, you are exposed to the cruel fate awaiting them. Fire-bombings by the military causes the family to leave their home and run to take shelter in an aunt’s house in the next town. While taking off, the mother is separated from the kids. They agree to meet at the local school. Seita soon comes to find out that his mother had been gravely injured in the bombings and is hence killed.
The movie goes on to show the siblings taken in by their selfish aunt. It really draws moral values from society. This was depicted by how the aunt goes from a caring substitute mom when they had money to a fickle-minded greedy lady when they were broke. You couldn’t really blame the lady since supplies were limited and those were dire times. This inadvertently forced the siblings to leave home and stay in an abandoned bomb shelter.
To their terrible luck, they would run out of money and food. Seita turned to a petty thief for a square meal. After being caught, beat up and arrested, he finds out Setsuko suffers from malnutrition. A desperate Seita withdraws all their belongings after finding out their dad was presumably dead among other Naval officers. He rushes for food with the money and blitzes back to the shelter only to find his sister dying. No amount of Justin Timberlake jumping for his mom in ‘In Time’ makes as big an impact as desperate Seita trying to feed Setsuko only to watch it all go in vain.
It was during then that the viewers are introduced to the fireflies. They light up like the stars in one night and drop dead the next morning. How human life translates so well to a couple of fireflies in the night is really spot-on. How volatile and uncertain everything really is. You could see more fireflies when Setsuko died. Even more so when Seita did.
Some real world Numbers
Grave of the fireflies cashed 1.7 billion yen in Japan and $516,962 in the US. Distributed by Toho, it is 89 minutes long with over the top torture every other minute. The movie has an IMDB rating of 8.5/10 rated by around 223k people and a 100% rotten tomatoes score.
It sure is sad to lose someone you love. And survivor’s guilt is never a myth. This animated masterpiece is a perfect portrayal of the horrors and spoils of war, the spontaneity and inconsistency of our society as a whole. It is that kind of a movie that just fills your fear of abandonment and pain to the brim, making you recount your blessings and rethink your life choices. Though not for the weak-hearted, this movie is a definite must-watch.