Grave of the Fireflies Review

Grave of the Fireflies Review

Grave of the Fireflies anime movie cover art
Grave of the Fireflies

A Look at War’s Effect on Civilians

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka / 火垂るの墓) is a Studio Ghibli movie about World War II from 1988. It actually released as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, which is wild. These two movies couldn’t be more different from each other.

Considering Grave of the Fireflies is a World War II movie, it should be pretty obvious that it’s not exactly “fun.” But, it’s made by Studio Ghibli, so it can’t be that depressing, right? Wrong. Unlike the majority of Ghibli movies, Grave of the Fireflies isn’t a kids’ movie.

Sure, kids can watch it and may enjoy it. But, if they do, I don’t think they’ll understand what it’s about. And, I have a hard time believing most kids would like this movie over the majority of other Ghibli movies. Even other, more serious Ghibli movies like Princess Mononoke are more kid-friendly.

Seita and Setsuko from the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies
Seita and Setsuko

Alright, so what’s the movie actually about beyond World War II in general? It’s about two kids who become war orphans. Their mother dies in a firebomb attack on the city of Kobe. And, their father is a member of the Japanese Navy.

At first, their aunt takes them in. But, over time, it becomes harder for her to care for the children. This is in part due to ever-shrinking food rations. And, it’s also in part due to Seita’s personality. Seita is the older child (14) and doesn’t seem to fully grasp the situation.

By the end of the movie, both Seita and his sister, Setsuko, have died of starvation and disease. That’s not a spoiler, though. The movie opens with Seita dying and us seeing Setsuko’s spirit pop out from her cremated remains. So, right from the start, the movie makes it clear what you’re getting yourself into.

Seita and Setsuko

The two main characters of the movie are Seita and Setsuko. Seita is a 14-year-old boy and Setsuko is a 4-year-old girl. Let’s start by going over Setsuko since her character is a lot simpler. It’s sort of difficult to have a complex 4-year-old.

Setsuko obviously doesn’t have a firm grasp on the situation. Her biggest concern is that their house burned down. She doesn’t understand things like the fact that they don’t know where their next meal will come from. And, for the majority of the movie, Seita also hides the fact that their mother died from her.

But, as long as Setsuko can be with her brother, she’s happy. The one thing she doesn’t want is for the two of them to be separated. And, that affects how Seita acts, to an extent. Everything Seita does is for Setsuko.

Seita giving Setsuko a fruit drop from the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies
Seita giving Setsuko a fruit drop

Alright, so Seita may do everything for Setsuko. But, he’s a 14-year-old kid who often makes the wrong decisions. Sure, he’s responsible in that he’s somewhat able to care for his sister. However, he’s incapable of thinking things through long-term. And, that has fatal consequences for both of them.

For example, after their aunt takes them in, Seita refuses to find work to help support the family. At 14, and especially during the war, he could easily find a job. But, Seita doesn’t get a job for a few reasons — which leads to him and Setsuko leaving their aunt’s house.

One reason for Seita’s refusal to work is that it would mean he’s away from Setsuko during the day. He doesn’t want to leave her alone. And, another reason is that he has the naive belief that his father will come back from the war and take care of them.

Comparison to In This Corner of the World

The obvious comparison to make when talking about Grave of the Fireflies is to In This Corner of the World. It’s another movie about how World War II affected civilians. But, it’s still a very different movie.

Grave of the Fireflies focuses on the impact the war had on children. Specifically, on how many adults turned their gaze away from children in need. And, this resulted in the deaths of many children. In This Corner of the World is more about civilians in general rather than children.

While I think both movies are very good. In This Corner of the World is better. It goes into many more aspects of life before and during the war. This lets us get a better understanding of the impact the war had on the average person.

Setsuko on a swing from the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies
Setsuko on a swing

Something else to think about is that Seita isn’t a very likable protagonist. Suzu is your average woman who’s trying to do her best throughout the war. She’s likable and someone you want to root for. Meanwhile, Seita is an entitled kid who never recognizes how his poor decisions led to his sister’s death.

I don’t want you to think that you should watch one of these two movies over the other, though. They both have their merits. In This Corner of the World is better if you want an overall look at the war. But, Grave of the Fireflies shines a light on the forgotten victims.

Yes, many of those who die in war are killed by bombs and other weapons. However, even more people tend to die from “mundane” things like disease and famine. That’s what Grave of the Fireflies is really about. And, it does a great job of illustrating how prevalent that is — especially with the opening scene.

Final Thoughts

Grave of the Fireflies is an 8/10. I highly recommend everyone watch it — especially anyone who’s a fan of In This Corner of the World. And, fans of Grave of the Fireflies should likewise watch that movie, too. These kinds of movies are important.

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