Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka) is a 1988 anime movie written and directed by Isao Takahata for Shinchosha. This is the first film produced by Shinchosha, who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation production work. It is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, intended as a personal apology to the author's own sister.
Some critics—most notably Roger Ebert—consider it to be one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. Animation historian Ernest Rister compares the film to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and says, "it is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen."
Taking place toward the end of World War II in Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is the poignant tale of the relationship between two orphaned children, Seita (清太) and his younger sister Setsuko (節子). The children lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe, and their father in service to the Imperial Japanese Navy. As a result, they are forced to try to survive amidst widespread famine and the callous indifference of their countrymen (some of whom are their own extended family members).
The movie begins in Sannomiya Station. The second main character, Seita, is there in rags and dying from starvation. Later that night, a janitor comes and digs through his things; finding a candy tin that contains Setsuko's ashes. He throws it out, and from there springs the spirit of Setsuko, Seita and a group of fireflies. The two spirits provide narrative throughout the story. The film is, in effect, an extended flashback about Japan near the end of World War II, during the Kobe firebombings. Setsuko and Seita, the two siblings and protagonists, are left to secure their house and their belongings in order to allow their mother, who suffers from a heart condition, to precede them to the bomb shelter. They are caught off-guard by a batch of bombs dropped in their vicinity, but survive unscathed. Their mother, however, is fatally injured in the air raid and is taken to a makeshift hospital which is actually a school, where she dies from burn wounds.
Having nowhere else to live, Setsuko and Seita go to live with their aunt, and write letters to their father. On the second day that they stay there, Seita goes out to get the left over supplies which he had buried in the ground to preserve them before the bombing which killed their mother. He gives all of it to his aunt, but hides a small tin of fruit drops. This tin of fruit drops later proves a recurrent icon in the film. Following cruelty from their aunt, who gives them barely enough food, insults them and sells their mother's kimonos for rice (which she keeps for herself), Seita and Setsuko finally decide to go and live in an old, abandoned bomb shelter. They release fireflies into the shelter for light. The next day, Setsuko is horrified to find that the insects have all died. She buries them all in a grave, asking why they had to die, and why her mother had to die.
Gradually, they begin to run out of rice, and Setsuko begins to starve. Seita turns to stealing from local farmers and looting homes during air raids for supplies. When finally caught, he realizes his desperation and takes an increasingly-ill Setsuko to a doctor, who informs him that Setsuko is suffering from malnutrition, but offers no help. When he learns of his father's death, Seita removes all the money from their mother's bank account and purchases a large quantity of food for Setsuko. Rushing back to the shelter, he finds a dying Setsuko hallucinating. She is sucking marbles which she believes are fruit drops. She offers him 'rice balls' which are really only made out of mud. Seita hurries to cook, but it's too late: Setsuko dies of starvation. Seita cremates her, using supplies donated to him by a farmer and leaves her ashes in the fruit tin, which he carries with his father's photograph, until his death from malnutrition in Sannomiya Station a few weeks later.
At the end of the film, the spirits of Seita and Setsuko are seen—no longer raggedy and etiolated but healthy and well-dressed—happy as they sit together, surrounded by fireflies. Together, they look down on the modern-day city of Kobe.
Story origin and interpretations
The story is based on the semi-autobiographic novel by the same name, whose author, Nosaka, lost his sister due to malnutrition in 1945 wartime Japan. He blamed himself for her death and wrote the story so as to make amends to her and help him accept the tragedy.
Due to the graphic and truly emotional depiction of the negative consequences of war on society and the individuals therein, some critics have viewed Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film. The film does provide an insight into Japanese culture by focusing its attention almost entirely on the personal tragedies that wars give rise to, rather than seeking to glamorize it as a heroic struggle between competing ideologies.
About the title
Japanese nouns do not change to form plurals, so hotaru can refer to one firefly or many. Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies and use them to illuminate the bomb shelter in which they live. The next day, Setsuko digs a grave for all of the dead insects, and asks "Why do fireflies die so soon?", so the title might serve to heighten the symbolic and thematic significance of the incident.
Alternatively, it may be that Setsuko is the "firefly" of the title, herself dying young. If so, the title can be interpreted as A Grave for a Firefly. Or to maintain the lack of distinction over plurals, The Firefly Grave could also be used.
In the Japanese title of the movie the word hotaru (firefly) is written not with its usual kanji 蛍 but with the two kanji 火 (hi, fire) and 垂 (tareru, to dangle down, as a droplet of water about to fall from a leaf). This can evoke images of fireflies as droplets of fire. Some consider that this evokes senkō hanabi, a fire droplet firework (a sparkler firework which is held upside down). This is particularly poignant in this respect because it must be held very still or the fire will drop and die, which represents the fragility of life. Senkō hanabi also evoke images of family, because it is a summer tradition in Japan for families to enjoy fireworks together. Fireworks, in general, are considered to be another symbol of the ephemerality of life. Watching fireflies is another summer family tradition. Together, the references evoke the bond between Seita and Setsuko, but at the same time emphasize their isolation due to the absence of their parents.
Alternatively, pairing the two kanji for "fire" and "dangle down" may also be a metaphor for the experience of aerial bombing using incendiary weapons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Japanese during the war sometimes referred to falling and exploding incendiary bomblets as "fireflies."
Particular firefly symbolism in the movie:
- Actual fireflies (who die and are buried by Setsuko)
- The children themselves, espcially Setsuko, who die young
- Kamikaze planes and pilots: Setsuko observes that a passing kamikaze plane looks like a firefly
- Incendiary bomblets (as in the title kanji)
Mature fireflies which emit light have extremely short life spans of two to three weeks and are traditionally regarded as a symbol of impermanence, which resonates with much of classical Japanese tradition (as with cherry blossoms). Fireflies are also symbolic of the human soul ("Hitodama"), which is depicted as a floating, flickering fireball. Heikebotaru (平家蛍, Luciola lateralis), a species of firefly that exist in the Western region of Japan, is so-called because people considered their lights, hovering near rivers and lakes, to be the souls of the Heike family, all of whose members perished in a famous historic naval engagement - the Battle of Dan-no-ura.)
Appropriately aged children were cast in the roles of Seita and Setsuko, however at first, producers felt the five-year-old girl portraying Setsuko was too young. Because of her age, instead of completing the animation first and recording her voice to run parallel with the animation as with other characters in the film, they recorded her dialogue first and completed the animation afterward. The animators were not used to working this, which is why her lips are hardly seen.
Live-action version of Grave of Fireflies
NTV in Japan produced a live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The movie aired on November 1, 2005. Like the anime, the live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies focuses on two siblings struggling to survive the final days of the war in Kobe, Japan. Unlike the animated version, it tells the story from the point of view of their cousin and deals with the issue of how the war-time environment could change a kind lady to a cold-blooded demon. It stars Japanese celebrity and actress Nanako Matsushima as the aunt. The movie is approximately 2 hours and 28 minutes long.
Its initial theatrical release in Japan was accompanied by Hayao Miyazaki's much more lighthearted My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature. In commercial terms, the theatrical release was a failure. While the two movies were marketed toward children and their parents, the extremely depressing nature of Grave of the Fireflies turned away most audiences. However, character goods of Totoro, particularly the stuffed animal of Totoro and Cat bus, sold extremely well after the film and made overall profit of the company to the extent that it stabilised subsequent productions of Ghibli studio.
The release of the film in South Korea was delayed indefinitely because authorities feared it would be thought of as justification for Japan's role in World War II.
Grave of the Fireflies was released in the U.S. by Central Park Media in a two-disc set. The first disc contains the film uncut in both an English dub and the original Japanese with English subtitles as well as the film's storyboards. The second disc contains several extras, including a retrospective on the author of the original book, an interview with Director Isao Takahata, and an interview with well-known critic Roger Ebert, who has expressed his admiration for the film on several occasions.
English dub cast
- Rhonda Chrosite - Setsuko (likely a pseudonym, see Rhodochrosite)
- Amy Jones - Aunt
- J.Robert Spencer - Seita
- Veronica Taylor - Mother
Additional Voices by:
- Shannon Conley
- Crispin Freeman
- Dan Green
- George Leaver
- Nick Sullivan