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 Fireflies (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 story follows the trials of young Seita (Nosaka's proxy) and his little sister Setsuko. After losing both parents – their father aboard an Imperial Navy cruiser, their mother in the Allied firebombing of Kobe – the pair are thrust upon an aunt who resents the addition of two extra mouths who don't provide any income. After one too many tail-behind-the-leg clashes, Seita finally decides he and Setsuko can fare better on their own. Turns out, not so much.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.
This movie provides examples of:
Adult Fear: Losing your home and both your parents.
If you are a parent, your children dying of starvation.
Utterly failing those in your care.
Sue from Mutant Reviews From Hell sums it up nicely in the Quotes page.
Bandage Mummy: Their 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).
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Seita's accusing look to the audience near the end. This was a You Suck 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.
Chapter Selections Always Spoil: If you have the DVD, it's very important to watch it before checking the chapter selections as one of the chapters shows the animation of Setsuko's cremation.
Cheerful Child: Setsuko, throughout the film. Even when she cries, Seita usually finds a way to cheer her up.
Due to the Dead: After Setsuko dies, Seita prepares a funeral pyre for her. Also, the wooden box that Seita is seen carrying on the train contains his mother's ashes.
Dying Alone: Seita in the opening scene. Ironically, he's in the middle of a crowded train station.
Empathy Doll Shot: Setsuko's doll acts as this at certain points and is eventually burned along with its owner's corpse.
Enforced Method Acting: In the Japanese version, Setsuko was voiced by an then actual four year old girl. They had to record her lines before animating the scenes. As the animators were unused to this, they tried to avoid angles from where her mouth could be seen.
The Faceless: The Americans are rarely seen, and even more rarely discussed. The war itself is treated as a sort of unending natural disaster the Japanese are trying to survive.
Fatal Flaw: Sympathetic as he may be, Seita's pride was the cause of both his and his sister's deaths.
Food Porn: 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 being rationed, 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.
Context aside, this really is par for the course with any Studio Ghibli movie.
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.
It's shown that their dad is in the Japanese Navy fighting the war. The ship that he is shown to be on, IJN 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.
Mood Dissonance: The Really Dead Montagewith 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.
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.
Real Place Background: On the Australian DVD, real life location shots are shown as part of the extras and what became of them.
Rich Bitch: The children's aunt whom they live with in the first part of the film. Despite her family being fairly well-off, and the children having just lost their mother and their home, she still calls them ungrateful brats and nags Seita over his staying home with Setsuko, rather than looking for work.
Sanity Slippage: Setsuko, due to malnourishment and possibly malaria. She starts sucking marbles, thinking they're fruit drops.
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?"
Also, although the worst is clearly over for Seita and Setsuko at death, Seita is stuck with the painful memories until it's his turn.
Together in Death: In the final scene, the contented spirits/ghosts of Seita and Setsuko happily share a view of Kobe in 1988.