Grave of the Fireflies is based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. The film is set in Japan during the final months of World War II, and tells the story of two siblings—an adolescent boy named Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko—their efforts to survive during wartime, and their eventual deaths. The film opens with a dying Seita sitting on the floor of a train station. The rest of the film is told to the viewer through a flashback narrated by Seita’s spirit.
In her article Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies, Wendy Goldberg argues that while Fireflies offers a realistic picture of suffering during World War II, the film is also critical of “blind patriotism that masks selfish impulses during the war and, afterward, Japan’s inability to confront this past.”
Seita is a prime example of this blind patriotism. He looks up to his father (who is a naval officer in the war) and mentions throughout the film that his father will punish Japan’s enemies and bring them to justice. Even as his world literally goes up in flames, Seita holds onto his delusion that everything will turn out okay in the end.
His naiveté and pride end up shutting him away from the rest of society. After the death of their mother, Seita and Setsuko come into the care of their distant aunt, who possesses selfish impulses as well as the same blind patriotism as Seita. She singles Seita out and resents the fact that he and his sister get special treatment because their father is in the navy. She accuses Seita of being complacent and not supporting the war effort, and praises those who do. Eventually, Seita grows tired of her criticisms and sets off on his own with his sister in tow, believing in his own capabilities to care for the two of them.
Seita and Setsuko make their home in a cave shelter where, despite Seita’s best efforts, Setsuko dies tragically of malnutrition. With his sister gone, Seita’s only source of hope is his father’s return from the war. However, he finds out that his father is likely dead, and that Japan has surrendered unconditionally, which effectively snuffs out the last of his dreams.
The reality of war and the destruction it brings dawns on Seita too late. Not long after Setsuko’s death, Seita dies in a train station, one of many children who were lost during the war.
The symbolism of the fireflies in the film is hard to miss. Fireflies only live for a day, showing the fleetingness of life and the ultimate hopelessness of a war that cannot be won.
Grave of the Fireflies is not so much an anti-warm film as it is a reminder of Japan’s dark past. While the film tells of the tragic deaths of two children, Seita and Setsuko aren’t the only ones to die during the war. Grave of the Fireflies seeks to paint a realistic picture of the horrors of war and how the events of World War II end up shaping Japan’s future, even to this day.
Goldberg, W. (2009). Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies. Mechademia 4(1), 39-52. University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mechademia/v004/4.goldberg.html
Takahata, I. (Director). (1988). Grave of the Fireflies [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli