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Anime / Grave of the Fireflies

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"September 21, 1945. That was the night I died."

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 uplifting My Neighbor Totoro.

The film is based on the short story of the same name written by the late 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 with 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.


This movie provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Justified, considering the wartime. Even the kind farmer who lends Seita his wagon wishes he could afford to share his rice with the latter, but he can't. Seita and Setsuko's aunt also resents the two extra mouths she had to feed, because she was barely getting by without them.
  • Alternate Character Reading: 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).
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  • Angst? What Angst?: Invoked by Seita for Setsuko's sake. In spite of everything, he wears a fake smile to try and uplift his sister's spirits. The best example is when he starts doing gymnastics on a bar to try to distract Setsuko from the fact their mother just died. It doesn't work.
  • Animal Motifs: Fireflies. They are mentioned to be short-lived creatures, who glow brightly but die quickly. The same could be said of both of the main characters.
  • Apathetic Citizens:
    • At the beginning, a bunch of people walk past Seita as he dies of malnutrition. This was a very common sight in those days, so no one offers to help him.
    • When an air raid siren goes off, the aunt says, in a very disinterested tone, "Oh, not again".
    • When Seita informs his aunt that his mother is dead, her reaction is essentially to mumble, "How awful," and tell Seita to write to his father about it, without saying much else aside of how odd it is that he hasn't responded by now.
  • Author Avatar: Seita was this for Akiyuki Nosaka. In real life, his sister died on September 21, 1945, and he wished he could have died with her. The story was borne out of Survivor Guilt.
  • 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.
  • Bioluminescence Is Cool: The glowing fireflies provide light for Seita and Setsuko in a cavern, making it look like a starry night sky. The look on the kids' faces shows they're quite awed at it all.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Foregone Conclusion. The final shot shows Seita and Setsuko looking at modern-day Kobe after it has been rebuilt.
  • 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: Seita and Setsuko repeatedly have to run from bombings, survive on their own, and deal with useless adults throughout the film. It occasionally causes Seita to break down crying.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Seita's spirit glances at the audience near the end.
  • Chasing a Butterfly:
    • Seita and Setsuko enjoy chasing fireflies.
    • Setsuko chases a dragonfly at one point during the Really Dead Montage.
    • Setsuko also chases a crab at the beach.
  • Cheerful Child: Setsuko throughout the film. Even when she cries, Seita usually (but not always) finds a way to cheer her up.
  • Cherry Blossoms: Used to symbolize happier times, such as Seita and Setsuko's family getting together for a family photo.
  • Cool Big Sis: Cool big bro in this case; Setsuko completely adores Seita and he in turn is very protective of her.
  • Dad's Off Fighting in the War: 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 had already died before the events of the story. When Seita finds out Japan surrendered, his first question is asking the adults around him if his father's ship sank. He gets no helpful response, and eventually walks off and accepts that his father likely has died. Tragically, this happens moments before the scene where his sister passes away.
  • 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.
  • Death of a Child: 4-year-old Setsuko dies of starvation, and so does 14-year-old Seita a bit later.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Seita and Setsuko's aunt all but exists to make their mother and father look better by comparison.
  • Despair Event Horizon:
    • Despite managing to bury it a lot of the time, Seita crosses this and has to live with it for so much of the film that one would think that he's a Cosmic Plaything.
    • Akiyuki Nosaka wrote the original short story during his own despair event horizon. Seita was his Author Avatar, and when his sister starved to death, he "died" as well.
  • Died Happily Ever After: At the start of the film, we see Seita and Setsuko's souls taking a train ride and it ends with the now very long dead siblings going to sleep just outside modern-day Kobe. No explanation is offered as to what this final scene actually means, although it is implied that they're at peace Together in Death.
  • Diegetic Switch: After Setsuko's death, Seita walks by a family who has just returned home to find all their belongings still intact, including their phonograph. They then switch it on to play Amelita Galli-Curci's "Home Sweet Home", which becomes the Background Music for Setsuko's Really Dead Montage before her eventual cremation.
  • Doomed Hometown: Kobe. This is justified since the film takes place during World War II when the city is bombed.
  • Doomed Protagonist: The very first words we hear from Seita at the beginning of the film are his narration of the day he died.
  • Downer Beginning: Seita and Setsuko's hometown is bombed and their mother killed. Things only get worse from there.
  • 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.
  • Dull Surprise: Invoked and justified. When an air raid goes off, the aunt just casually says, "Not again" as if it were a minor inconvenience.
  • 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 her body.
  • 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. Roger Ebert said Asian filmmakers seldom ever identify the enemy as anything but the enemy, since most of the Asian countries have had many wars on their soil with so many nations that they don't need to name them.
  • Fatal Flaw: Sympathetic as he may be, Seita's pride was the cause of both his and his sister's deaths. Multiple people tell Seita that he needs to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt. As much as he may not like it, it's the only way that Setsuko and he are going to survive. Seita refuses, and both of the orphans die as a result.
  • Flies Equals Evil:
    • Averted with the titular fireflies that manage to cheer up the two siblings and help to illuminate the bomb shelter, only for a moment.
    • Flies equals death in the case of the mother's maggot-infested corpse and the flies surrounding the body Setsuko finds at the beach.
  • Food Porn:
    • 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.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The film opens with Seita dying and meeting Setsuko's spirit in the afterlife. As the film goes back to show their lives and their struggle against famine, it's already a given that their efforts aren't going to end well.
  • From Bad to Worse: As worse as it can possibly get.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Setsuko. In her case, it's because she was suffering from severe malnutrition, to the point where she was delirious. Reduced to eating balls of dirt and marbles that she had mistaken for food, she died with a weak smile on her face and one last "Thank you" to her brother.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: The adults tell Seita to suck up his pride and go back to his aunt for safety, but he's fourteen and may not be old enough to understand that sometimes you have to screw over your honor/pride just to survive.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Seita and Setsuko become this when their mother dies.
  • Heroic BSoD: What happened to Seita after Setsuko's death.
  • The Hero Dies: The Foregone Conclusion thanks to the opening of the film.
  • Honor Before Reason: Pride in Seita's case, but they're explicitly tied together by the story.
  • 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. This is quickly dashed as she falls asleep and Seito narrates "she never woke up".
  • How We Got Here: The opening line of the film is Seita saying, "September 21, 1945. That was the night 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. Even more glaringly, the fact that the entire time his sister was slowly starving to death, he had 3,000 yen in the bank he could have cashed in at any time. This is Played for Drama since he was fourteen and probably didn't understand that sometimes you need to get rid of "honor" and go back to a bad situation.
  • Ill Girl:
    • Setsuko, mainly from starvation and malnutrition. She's also covered in rashes towards the end of her life, from bathing in seawater.
    • Their mother was implied to have some sort of heart condition. Her final line to Seita is to assure him that she has her medicine.
  • Intimate Hair Brushing: Seita does this to Setsuko while at the shelter. While doing this, he notices that there is plenty of dandruff along the comb, which is the first indication that she is suffering from malnutrition.
  • Irony:
    • Seita dies alone, in the middle of a bustling crowd of people, all of whom avoid him.
    • The death of both children occurs after the war has already ended. Unfortunately, the immediate postwar is little better than wartime: the food shortages are just as bad if not worse, and the internal chaos that follows the Japanese surrender ensures that their plight goes either unnoticed or ignored.
    • Setsuko dies of starvation as Seita is busy preparing a decent meal for her. To add to the irony, she's holding a piece of barely-eaten watermelon in her hand.
    • The reason that Seita and Setsuko are (relatively) unscathed in the initial firebombing that costs their mother her life is that she went to the shelter to seek safety first. Because they can't get to the shelter in time, the two kids are further from harm's way.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Seita and Setsuko's aunt, depending on your interpretation as to how much of a three dimensional character she is, isn't certainly a pleasant person, especially how she can treat her nephew and her niece at times but has a good point to make at times.
  • Justified Criminal: Seita only steals food and clothing because he has no other way to survive aside from going back to their aunt, as everyone tells him to do.
  • Kansai Regional Accent: As dictated by the setting (Kobe). It's not meant to be funny.
  • Kill the Cutie: Poor Setsuko. She slowly starves to death, has to deal with a horrible rash from seawater, and ends up hallucinating in her last moments.
  • 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.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: Setsuko loses a sandal during the air raid that destroys their home and kills their mother. For the rest of the film (and her life), she wears blue-strapped getas the Aunt's daughter bought her.
  • Lying to Protect Your Feelings: Seita purposely keeps the news of their mother's death from Setsuko so as not to upset her, telling Setsuko that Mother is sick and they'll visit her when she's feeling better. Later, he is horrified when he finds out that Setsuko knew after all as their aunt told her.
  • 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. What little is seen of her after the bombings is covered in bandages, burned beyond recognition.
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • This movie was paired up with My Neighbor Totoro on both films' original release. People walked out after Totoro if that one was shown first, while they stayed (and enjoyed) both if Grave was the first one 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.
  • My Greatest Failure: Seita's inability to prevent Setsuko's death.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: This happens to Seita and Setsuko's aunt later in expanded movie, after they run away, considering her abusive. It's later revealed that she regrets over everything that happened after she found out.
  • No Antagonist: Only the sibling orphans struggling to survive on their own during World War II.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The theatrical poster is a Type 3 case, with a very dark Easter Egg that managed to stay hidden for thirty years. Obscured by the blackness in the background is a warplane, the same kind which razed the children's hometown and forced them to go on their struggle for survival. This also changes the nature of the "fireflies", which might actually be incendiary pellets raining down from above.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: The plot centers around two kids having to survive after Japan gets bombed during World War II. They first have to deal with their home being destroyed, and their mother dying in the bombing raid. Then, they have to live with an abusive aunt. Finally, they run away to live on their own.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: invoked Setsuko dies of starvation and sickness while she sleeps:
    Seita: [in a voiceover] She never woke up.
  • Perspective Flip: The 2005 live-action adaptation retells the story from the aunt's perspective.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: Setsuko says this to Seita when she gets sick from malnutrition.
  • Posthumous Character: Both siblings are already deceased as the story is about the last few months of their life.
  • Posthumous Narration: The opening line from Seita reveals that he is deceased.
  • Promotion to Parent: Seita tries to act as both mother and father to Setsuko, but with little success.
  • Real-Place Background: The film features locations that were accurately based on real locations.note 
  • 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 three 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 the angry farmer who brings him to him. He realizes that Seita was only stealing to feed himself, and the farmer was overreacting by beating him and trying to have him arrested for it. The police officer even says that he could arrest the farmer for assault for what happened to Seita; the farmer may have been defending his crops, but he took his abuse of Seita way too far for the officer's liking. The farmer runs upon hearing this, and the officer gives Seita some water before letting him go, with no charges.
  • Resentful Guardian: The aunt. She was forced to take care of two extra children, one of whom was too young to do much, while Seita seemed to refuse to find work, or at least continue trying to go to school, along with their reluctance to sell any of their mother's belongings contributed to the hardships she was already struggling with.
  • Roman à Clef: The story was based on the author's childhood during and after World War II, except in this case his Author Avatar, Seita, dies with his sister, Setsuko. The author had blamed himself for the death of his sister from malnutrition and had written the short story as a way to make amends to her.
  • Rules of Orphan Economics: The worst-case scenario.
  • The Runaway: Seita runs away from his aunt's home for several reasons, Setsuko in tow. She's not particularly sad to see them go.
  • Sailor Fuku: Setsuko is seen wearing a dress like this during a flashback to happier times at the beach.
  • Sanity Slippage: Setsuko, due to malnourishment and possibly malaria. She starts sucking marbles, thinking they're fruit drops.
  • Scare Chord: During the bombings.
  • Scenery Gorn: The destruction of Kobe. The sky is filled with smoke, there's nothing but charred wood and corpses left in the city, and there's black rain right afterwards.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: It is World War II Japan.
  • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Deep on the cynicism side, as this moves attempts to be a pretty depressing and tearjerking film.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: Such as it was, at any rate. The film opens with Seita's death, and his reunion with his sister in the afterlife.
  • Stepford Smiler: Seita, for Setsuko's sake. He deliberately hides the fact that their mother is burned beyond recognition and later dies. 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.
  • Survivor Guilt: What prompted Akiyuki Nosaka to write the story in the first place. He is not kind to his Author Avatar, and he mentioned that his own sister died in much the same way as Setsuko did.
  • There Are No Therapists: Though this is justified as a majority of the story takes place during World War II.
  • This Is My Story: The opening line of the movie:
    Seita: "September 21, 1945. That was the night that I died."
  • Together in Death: The spirits of the children reunite in the beginning of the film. In the final scene, they share a view of Kobe in 1988.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Setsuko, and also Seita to a certain degree.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Fruit drops for Setsuko. She carries a tin of them around everywhere, even after it goes empty.
  • Undying Loyalty: Seita and Setsuko to each other. This is a literal case, as they are still Together in Death.
  • War Is Hell: Oddly enough, the point of the story wasn't to carry An Aesop about this. Despite this, however, the movie hammers the point home anyway by showing two orphaned children struggling to survive.
  • Wham Line:
    • "September 21, 1945. That was the night I died." Japanese  And that's the opening line.
    • "She never woke up." Japanese 
  • The World Mocks Your Loss: Seita oversees a mother interacting with her young daughter after Setsuko died. On top of that, he sees another Japanese family coming home to find all of their belongings untouched by the bombs. All the while, Seita is carrying a box full of charcoal to cremate Setsuko's body.
  • The X of Y: Grave of the Fireflies.
  • Your Favorite: Seita brings Setsuko fruit drops whenever he can get them.