Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Seita: Can you give her medicine or a shot? Please, doctor, help her.
Doctor: Give her medicine? All this child needs is some food.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’, written and directed by Isao Takahata in 1988, is an animated historical drama produced by Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of a teenage boy and his young sister as they struggle with the death of their mother and the absence of their father in the dying days of the Second World War in Japan. Unlike other Studio Ghibli movies, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ contains very few fantasy elements other than a framing narrative in which the ghosts of the brother and sister reunited and the brother recounts how he died. It’s a dark tragedy, but one that has moments of lightness and at times even humour. The children, particularly the brother, is shown to be on the edge of adulthood, forced into his responsibility before he is ready. In tone it reminded me a little of Raymond Briggs’ anti-war novel and film ‘When the Wind Blows’. In both movies the focus is on the slow deaths of the main characters shown in ironic tension against the small domestic details of their lives. In Takahata’s film these details include a trip to the beach, moments of pleasure when the children find food and, importantly, the recurring presence of fireflies as a source of light, joy, but also as a mirror of the destruction of the incendiary bombs and, with their short lives, a metaphor for the fragile existence of the children themselves. The animation is a perfect way of telling this story. Takahata uses, and at times subverts, the traditional look of the Studio Ghibli movies to add both a sense of darkness to the film, but also to enhance the sense of, almost nostalgic, history.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s grim and a depressing film but has moments of poignancy that offer some respite. Maybe watch with ‘When the Wind Blows’, or perhaps as a sideways move ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’.

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