Animated Movie Analysis: Grave of the Fireflies

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Updated: May 01, 2022
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Grave of the Fireflies is an Animated movie made in 1988 by an Animation studio known for much happier titles. Set in 1945, Grave of the Fireflies is a Japanese war film, depicting the human toll that the second world war took on the Japanese side; in particular the effect that the fire bombings of Kobe had on the lives of civilians. Since the plot is from a semi autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, and Studio Ghibli and its famed director Haiyao Miazaki have been known to make films with a clear anti-war message, the film was largely regarded as an anti-war film. Though this was denied by the director, the cruelty that you are made to witness in this film is certainly enough to make you question yourself as a human being. How could we do this to other people?

The Movie follows the lives of Seita and Setsuko, brother and sister, who lose their home in the Fire bombings of Kobe. In the beginning we see the family before tragedy strikes enjoying a day on the beach. They are a rather wealthy family living in a part of Japan where war had not completely ravaged the town yet. The world Seeming idyllic and peaceful until there is a man shown lying on the beach, having died from starvation. This sets the overall tone for the film, showing that war touches everyone. Even though this movie was made long after the war had been over, it really feels as though this could happen to you at anytime, one moment snug in your bed, the next plunged into a world of uncertainty. Grave of the fireflies really reminds me of some of the trench poetry we read in class because of the clear images left in your mind and harsh reminders of the casualties of war otherwise unseen.

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As the older sibling, Seita is responsible for the care of his sister. In the beginning of the film He finds lodging for himself and Setsuko in the home of an ‘Auntie’, who provides them with food in exchange for their mother’s clothes. This woman embodies the attitude that, in wartime, everyone must make sacrifices for the good of the nation. The woman’s cruel attitude towards the children and her pushing Seita to get a job in order to ‘help the war effort’ and ‘do his duty’, is eventually what leads him to take Setsuko and run away to find new shelter.

The Message clearly conveyed in this is how if you do not conform to society, you will eventually meet your downfall and suffer for it. This is a direct statement on Japanese society that is something that people even today struggle with. Japan having been such a strong Nationalist country for the longest time, it was always said that if you weren’t doing what you could for society that you weren’t doing what is right for the country. Often those who spoke out against war during this time were seen as going against the will of the Empire of Japan.

The movie is a cautionary tale about young people who recklessly buck social mores, but Seita is not portrayed as solely responsible for his and Setsuko’s deaths. In fact, he hardly seems to realize what he is doing or what is happening to them. He is a child, well-intentioned but confused and psychologically shattered. The movie reserves its moral censure for the adult characters. Director Takahata, who also wrote the screenplay, shows adults to be willfully apathetic about the children’s desperate plight. The slow pace in Grave of the fireflies where we see the day to day struggles of young Seita and Setsuko are drawn out almost as if to really drive their suffering home. As and audience watching this film you know where things are going and it becomes increasingly more difficult to continue watching despite the beautiful animation. What hurts even more is the lack of empathy passing adults have for these children in several parts of the movie. The first being the aunt who takes them in only for her own profit, the second the doctor who diagnosis Setsuko with malnutrition but sends them away without any medicine, food or advice and the third was a man pickpocketing dead bodies, not seeming to care or notice that the dead body he is poking is that of a child. The consequences of war are shown in such a stark way that you do begin to question what your own morals are, and if the fire bombings the US, used to defeat Japan were truly necessary.

Kobe was chosen as a target for several reasons. In 1945, it was the sixth largest city in Japan, with a population of roughly 1 million people. The houses in Kobe were made primarily of wood, and the city had a low water supply and poor firefighting equipment. Kobe was also home to Japan’s largest port and concentration of shipbuilding. Four areas were targeted by the American B-29 bombers that initiated the firebombing. Those areas included the northwest corner of Kobe, the area south of the city’s main railroad line, and areas to the northwest and northeast of the main railroad station. According to a WWII database, an area of seven square kilometers was destroyed and 8,841 residents of Kobe were killed from the resulting firestorms. 650,000 people were displaced.

The rest of the movie involves a constant struggle to find food and proper shelter, and looking for hope in a world where there seems to be none. Takahata has said that Fireflies is not an anti-war film, as many of Miyazaki’s movies quite clearly are, but it is certainly a bleak portrayal of the material and social condition Japan was in at the end of its last great war.

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Animated Movie Analysis: Grave of the Fireflies. (2022, May 01). Retrieved from