Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka?) is a 1988 animated film written and directed by Isao Takahata. This is the first film produced by Shinchosha, who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation production work. It is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, intended as a personal apology to the author's own sister.
Roger Ebert considers it to be one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. Animation historian Ernest Rister compares the film to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and says, "it is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen."
Taking place toward the end of World War II in Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is the tale of the relationship between two orphaned children, pre-teen Seita (清太) and his young sister Setsuko (節子). The children lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe, and their father serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy, and as a result are forced to try to survive amidst widespread famine and the callous indifference of their countrymen, some of whom are their own extended family members.
The movie begins in Sannomiya Station and portrays Seita, in rags and dying of starvation. A janitor comes and digs through his possessions, and finds a candy tin containing ashes and bones. He throws it out, and from it springs the spirit of Setsuko, Seita, and a cloud of fireflies. The spirit of Seita continues to narrate their story, which is, in effect, an extended flashback to Japan at the end of World War II, during the Kobe firebombings.
The flashback begins with American B-29s, a symbol of the power of the American war machine let loose by Japan, flying overhead theatening the utterly defenseless Japanese. Setsuko and Seita, the two siblings, are left to secure the house and their belongings, allowing their mother, who suffers from a heart complaint, to move to a bomb shelter. They are caught off-guard by firebombs dropped in their neighborhood, and although they survive unscathed, their mother is caught in the air raid and dies from her burns. Having nowhere else to go, Setsuko and Seita move in with a distant aunt, who allows them to stay but convinces Seita to sell his mother's kimonos for rice. While living with their relatives, Seita goes out to retrieve leftover supplies he had buried in the ground before the bombing. He gives all of it to his aunt, but hides a small tin of fruit drops, which becomes a recurrent icon throughout the film. Their aunt continues to feed and shelter them but as they gradually begin to run out of rice and food, she abruptly becomes increasingly cold and resentful. During breakfast one day, she openly remarks on how they do nothing to earn the food she cooks for them or help around the house and have outstayed their welcome.
Seita and Setsuko finally decide to leave and move into an abandoned bomb shelter. What begins as an optimistic new lease on life gradually grows grim as they run out of rice, and Seita is forced to steal crops from local farmers and loot homes during air raids. When he is caught stealing sugar, he realizes his desperation and takes an increasingly ill Setsuko to a doctor, who informs him that Setsuko is suffering from malnutrition but offers no help or advice. In a panic, Seita withdraws all the money remaining in their mother's bank account, but while at the bank he learns of Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies and the probable death of his father. He returns to the shelter with large quantities of food, only to find a dying Setsuko hallucinating, sucking ohajiki as if they were fruit drops. Setsuko offers Seita 'rice balls' which are really only dirt clods. Seita gives her a bite of watermelon and hurries to cook some food, but she "doesn't wake up." Seita uses supplies donated to him by a farmer to cremate her, and puts some of her ashes in the fruit tin which he carries with his father's photograph until his death in the train station on September 21, 1945.
At the end of the film, the spirits of Seita and Setsuko are seen, no longer raggedy and emaciated but healthy and well-dressed, sitting side-by-side as they look down on the modern-day city of Kobe.
Story origin and interpretations
The story is based on the semi-autobiographic novel by the same name, whose author, Nosaka, lost his sister due to malnutrition in 1945 wartime Japan. He blamed himself for her death and wrote the story so as to make amends to her and help him accept the tragedy.
Due to the graphic and truly emotional depiction of the negative consequences of war on society and the individuals therein, some critics have viewed Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film. The film focuses its attention almost entirely on the personal tragedies that war gives rise to, rather than seeking to glamorize it as a heroic struggle between competing ideologies. It emphasizes that war is society's failure to perform its most important duty: protect its innocent. 
About the title
Japanese nouns do not change to form plurals, so hotaru can refer to one firefly or many. Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies and use them to illuminate the bomb shelter in which they live. The next day, Setsuko digs a grave for all of the dead insects, and asks "Why do fireflies die so soon?", so the title might serve to heighten the symbolic and thematic significance of the incident.
Alternatively, it may be that Setsuko is the "firefly" of the title, herself dying young, and the only member of her family to receive a proper memorial. If so, the title can be interpreted as A Grave for a Firefly. Or to maintain the lack of distinction over plurals, The Firefly Grave could also be used.
In the Japanese title of the movie the word hotaru (firefly) is written not with its usual kanji 蛍 but with the two kanji 火 (hi, fire) and 垂 (tareru, to dangle down, as a droplet of water about to fall from a leaf). This can evoke images of fireflies as droplets of fire. Some consider that this evokes senkō hanabi, a fire droplet firework (a sparkler firework which is held upside down). This is particularly poignant in this respect because it must be held very still or the fire will drop and die, which represents the fragility of life. Senkō hanabi also evoke images of family, because it is a summer tradition in Japan for families to enjoy fireworks together. Fireworks, in general, are considered to be another symbol of the ephemerality of life. Watching fireflies is another summer family tradition. Together, the references evoke the bond between Seita and Setsuko, but at the same time emphasize their isolation due to the absence of their parents.
Alternatively, pairing the two kanji for "fire" and "dangle down" may also be a metaphor for the experience of aerial bombing using incendiary weapons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Japanese during the war sometimes referred to falling and exploding incendiary bomblets as "fireflies." The two kanji certainly evoke how the incendiaries are depicted in the film, as falling droplets of fire.
Particular firefly symbolism in the movie:
- Actual fireflies (which die and are buried by Setsuko)
- The children themselves, especially Setsuko, who dies young
- Kamikaze planes and pilots: Setsuko observes that a passing kamikaze plane looks like a firefly
- Incendiary bomblets (as in the title kanji)
Mature fireflies which emit light have extremely short life spans of two to three weeks and are traditionally regarded as a symbol of impermanence, which resonates with much of classical Japanese tradition (as with cherry blossoms). Fireflies are also symbolic of the human soul ("Hitodama"), which is depicted as a floating, flickering fireball. Heikebotaru (平家蛍, Luciola lateralis), a species of firefly that exist in the Western region of Japan, is so-called because people considered their lights, hovering near rivers and lakes, to be the souls of the Heike family, all of whose members perished in a famous historic naval engagement - the Battle of Dan-no-ura.
Appropriately aged children were cast in the roles of Seita and Setsuko, however at first, producers felt the five-year-old girl portraying Setsuko was too young. Because of her age, instead of completing the animation first and recording her voice to run parallel with the animation as with other characters in the film, they recorded her dialogue first and completed the animation afterward. The animators were not used to this way of working, which is why her lips are hardly seen.
The original soundtrack was written by Japanese composer Michio Mamiya who also worked on other Ghibli films such as Horusu no daiboken. Mamiya is also a music specialist in baroque and classical music. The song "Home Sweet Home" was performed by coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci.
NTV in Japan produced a live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The movie aired on November 1, 2005. Like the anime, the live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies focuses on two siblings struggling to survive the final days of the war in Kobe, Japan. Unlike the animated version, it tells the story from the point of view of their cousin (the aunt's daughter) and deals with the issue of how the war-time environment could change a kind lady into a cold-blooded demon. It stars Nanako Matsushima as the aunt, as well as Inoue Mao as their cousin. The movie is approximately 2 hours and 28 minutes long.
A different live action version of the film was released in Japan on July 5, 2008.
Its initial theatrical release in Japan was accompanied by Hayao Miyazaki's much more lighthearted My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature. In commercial terms, the theatrical release was a failure. While the two movies were marketed toward children and their parents, the extremely depressing nature of Grave of the Fireflies turned away most audiences. However, character goods of Totoro, particularly the stuffed animal of Totoro and Cat bus, sold extremely well after the film and made overall profits for the company to the extent that it stabilized subsequent productions of Studio Ghibli.
Grave of the Fireflies is the only Studio Ghibli film that the Walt Disney Company does not have distribution rights for in the United States, since the film was not produced by parent company Tokuma Shoten, but by Shinchosha, the publisher of the original novel. Grave of the Fireflies was released in the U.S. by Central Park Media in a two-disc set. The first disc contains the uncut film in both an English dub and the original Japanese with English subtitles as well as the film's storyboards. The second disc contains several extras, including a retrospective on the author of the original book, an interview with Director Isao Takahata, and an interview with well-known critic Roger Ebert, who has expressed his admiration for the film on several occasions.
Following the 2009 bankruptcy and liquidation of Central Park Media, A.D.V. Films acquired the license to Grave of the Fireflies and began releasing it on DVD on July 7, 2009. As of Sept. 1, 2009, the movie is now licensed by ADV's sucessor, AEsir Holdings; with distribution from Section23 Films.
English dub cast
- Rhoda Chrosite - Setsuko (likely a pseudonym, see Rhodochrosite)
- Amy Jones - Aunt
- J. Robert Spencer - Seita
- Veronica Taylor - Mother
- Additional Voices by Shannon Conley, Crispin Freeman, Dan Green, George Leaver, Nick Sullivan
|Source||Reviewer||Grade / Score||Notes|
|Movie Freaks 365||Stan Stepanic||10 out of 10||Movie Review|
|Anime News Network||Mike Crandol||Overall (dub): A-
Overall (sub): A+
|DVD/Movie Review of Collector's Series DVD|
|AnimeOnDVD||Chris Beveridge||Content: A
|DVD/Movie Review of Collectors Series DVD|
|THEM Anime Reviews||Raphael See||5 out of 5||Movie Review|
As of June 26, 2010, this movie is ranked #180 on IMDb's top 250 movies.
- Sakuma drops, the hard candy eaten by the children in the movie, are still sold in Japan. Setsuko is occasionally featured on the front of the tin.
- Grave of the Fireflies (anime) at Anime News Network's Encyclopedia. Accessed 2007-06-20.
- Roger Ebert (March 19, 2000). "Grave of the Fireflies (1988)". rogerebert.com. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
- Daniel Etherington. "Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka)". Channel 4 (UK). Retrieved 2007-08-24.
- ADV Adds Grave of the Fireflies, Now and Then, Here and There Satsuko was played by Miss Jamaidah domato Anime News Network 2009/05/05
- "ADV Films Shuts Down, Transfers Assets to Other Companies". Anime News Network. 2009-09-01. Retrieved 2010-01-25.
- Grave of the Fireflies (anime) at Anime News Network's Encyclopedia
- Grave of the Fireflies at Allmovie
- Grave of the Fireflies at the Internet Movie Database
- Information page at Nausicaa.net
- Grave of the Fireflies in Roger Ebert's Great Movies Collection
- Live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies
- official website (Japanese)
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