You are forced to watch as everything two small children do to survive WWII-era Japan fails miserably until they both die of starvation.
— quicksummary sums it up.
Grave of the FirefliesJapanese 火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka is a 1988 film directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Studio Ghibli. It was released theatrically as one-half of a double feature; the other half was the upliftingMy Neighbor Totoro.The story is based on the novella of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka, who based much of the plot on his own childhood in Japan during and after World War II. The film begins with Seita dying and reuniting his little sister Setsuko as a ghost and the two have another look at the last few months of their life, starting with the loss of their home and their mother in the 1945 bombing of Kobe until Setsuko’s death.The film is both a powerful statement on the cruelty of war and the dangers of letting pride overrule responsibility, and it specifically addresses the plight of post-war Japanese orphans (who were often neglected by both extended family and state). It is also widely regarded as one of the most heart-twisting films to ever be produced, animated or otherwise.Compare Barefoot Gen.Not to be confused with the 2008 film.Spoilers below.
Bandage Mummy: The mother, after being horrifically burned in the first round of bombings. She doesn’t get better.
Big Brother Instinct: This is Seita’s defining trait. He’s even willing to steal to look out for his little sister.
Bilingual Bonus: Rather than using the typical Japanese kanji for firefly in the title (蛍), the word is spelled out phonetically, with the kanji for fire and something hanging down, like a drop of water from a leaf (火垂). Some people consider this to be a description of fireflies as ‘droplets of fire’, like fireworks (which can symbolize the impermanence of life in Japanese culture), or like the ‘drops of fire’ used to burn Kobe to the ground, or a reference to the tin of fruit drops that serves as a literal and metaphorical grave of the fireflies. Fireflies themselves also symbolize the impermanence of life, and represent souls of the dead (especially due to war).
Blush Sticker: Setsuko has these, and from time to time they're a source of Mood Dissonance. She loses them as her body grows weaker and thinner from starvation.
Break the Cutie: Barely even begins to describe what these two kids go through.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Seita’s accusing look to the audience near the end. This was a massive This Loser Is You message to the Japanese youth at the time. Juvenile deliquency was high and this film was made to show them they should be more thankful for what they have.
Cheerful Child: Setsuko, throughout the film. Even when she cries, Seita usually finds a way to cheer her up.
Despair Event Horizon: Despite managing to bury it a lot of the time (see above), Seita crosses this and has to live with it for so much of the movie that one would think that he's a Cosmic Plaything.
Death from Above: The plot kicks off with bombers flying over the city of Kobe, dropping small incendiary pellets that set everything they touch on fire.
Disappeared Dad: Seita and Setsuko’s father is away in the navy. Seita tries to write to him, but he gets no response. The ship that he is shown to be on, Japanese cruiser Maya, was a real ship that was sunk in October 1944 with the loss of 479 men. Thus it’s obliquely implied that he died even before the events of the movie.
Heartbreakingly justified. There are long, lingering shots on much of the food in this movie, whether it be a bowl of soup, a jar of pickled plums, a handful of fruit drops, or a rice ball. When someone is enjoying the thing they’re eating, it’s made very apparent. And this makes perfect sense; when you're starving, any meal is food porn.
Right at the beginning of the short story, there’s a bit of stream-of-consciousness blurting out of all kinds of food in the narration (likely influenced by some black-market sales going on nearby), as a delirious and dying Seita begins to fade.
The opening scene is of Seita's death and his reunion with Setsuko in the afterlife. It's a Tearjerker to begin with, but once you've actually seen the rest of the movie and realise what they've been through, it hits much, much harder.
The closing scene is of Seita and Setsuko looking over what was, at the time of the film's creation, modern-day Kobe. A few years after the film was released, Kobe got hit by Japan's worst earthquake since the 1920s, killing over 6000 people and causing over 10 trillion yen in damage.
Hope Spot: Seita finally bringing food to a starving and delirious Setsuko, who even manages to eat a little bit of watermelon, can count as this.
How We Got Here: Opening lines of the film: ‘On the night of September 21st, 1945, I died.’ Shortly after he’s shown reuniting as a spirit with Setsuko. Knowing this ahead of time doesn’t make it any less tragic, though.
I Die Free: A metaphorical example of this happens with Seita after he dies, since he can now be at peace with his sister and free from the hardship they had to endure.
Idiot Ball: Seita’s repeatedly advised to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt as things keep getting worse, which he ignores even as Setsuko starts dying.
Live-Action Adaptation: A 2005 NTV production released to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the war’s end tells the story from the aunt’s perspective. It makes her a little more sympathetic, giving her a bigger family of her own to look after. It also explains why she became so cold and uncaring (she shut herself off emotionally after the war-related death of her husband). She also has a My God, What Have I Done? reaction to the deaths of Seita and Setsuko, once she learns of them.
Memento Macguffin: Averted with the ring that belonged to the children’s mother, which makes one appearance in the film and then is never seen again. Played straighter with their father’s photo, though.
Missing Mom: Seita and Setsuko’s mother is killed in the bombing of Kobe early on.
Mood Dissonance: The Really Dead Montage with Setsuko’s spirit/shade/memory shown playing around the pond is bad enough. But when that’s coupled with another family returning home to find literally everything intact (including the specifically mentioned old record player), and then playing a mournfully sweet rendition of ‘Home Sweet Home’, the scene becomes even more poignant.
This was paired up with My Neighbor Totoro on both films' original release. They had people walking out after Totoro if that was shown first, while they stayed (and enjoyed) both if Grave of the Fireflies was the first shown.
There are moments of mood whiplash in the movie itself. Sure, the entire thing is bleak, but some parts are happier than others. They could almost make you believe that things are going to end well, if you didn't know how the movie ended at the start.
There’s also going from this story straight into the incredibly vulgar (although thematically similar) American Hijiki, if you read the book.
Promotion to Parent: Seita tries to act as both mother and father to Setsuko with little success.
Really Dead Montage: An emotionally crippling example, for Setsuko. From the start of the montage (if not a bit earlier) to the end of the movie itself... well, let’s just say you’ll need a box of tissues handy. It doesn’t help that the montage lasts about 3 minutes, with a sadly sweet rendition of ‘Home Sweet Home’ played in the background... by a family that had come through the war completely unscathed. One of the girls even comments that ‘Even the old record player’s still here!’ And then, just when you think the worst is over, we cut to the cremation.
Reasonable Authority Figure: The army officer who rescues Seita from an angry farmer. He realizes that Seita was only stealing to feed himself, and the farmer was overreacting by trying to have him arrested for it.
Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The whole film, but particularly the ending: Seita withdraws all of his savings to buy food for Setsuko, but she’s already in too poor of a state to recover, and he can no longer use the money to save his own life.
Stepford Smiler: Seita, for Setsuko’s sake, but sometimes even he can’t contain his tears and cries for the first time when Setsuko tells him that their aunt told her their mother died.
This Loser Is You: A lesson which only becomes apparent when you view this movie through the lens of the time period it was released and where it was released. It’s not an anti-war movie, according to the creator; it’s aimed squarely at juvenile delinquents in 1980s Japan. The real message of the film is, ‘When they were your age, your parents went through hell on earth, and this is how you choose to reward them?’
Together in Death: In the final scene, the contented spirits/ghosts of Seita and Setsuko happily share a view of Kobe in 1988.