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You are forced to watch as everything two small children do to survive WWII-era Japan fails miserably until they both die of starvation.
Holy fuck.—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 My Neighbor Totoro.
The story is based on the novella of the same name written by Nosaka Akiyuki, 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
- Accidental Aesop: Most people who see the film take an anti-war message away from it. According to the director, that wasn't what he was going for at all.
- Adult Fear: Losing your home and both your parents.
- If you are a parent, your children dying of starvation.
- Author Avatar: Seita.
- 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 throughout the entire film, which takes on some Mood Dissonance as time goes on.
- Break the Cutie: Barely even begins to describe what these two kids go through.
- Kill the Cutie: Poor, poor, little Setsuko.
- 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.
- Cheerful Child: Setsuko, throughout the film. Even when she cries, Seita usually finds a way to cheer her up.
- Cherry Blossoms
- Dead Little Sister: The reason this work even exists.
- Despair Event Horizon: Despite managing to bury it a lot of the time (see above), Seita crosses this so many times that one would think that several horizons were set up just for him.
- 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.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Setsuko.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Completely, epically averted. This is one of the few war films that doesn't make war or conflict look appealing in any way whatsoever.
- Doomed Hometown: Kobe.
- Downer Ending: Also a Downer Beginning. And a Downer Middle. Can pretty much be considered a Downer Film.
- Due to the Dead: After his sister dies, Seita prepares a funeral pyre for her. His mother, on the other hand, is dumped into a mass grave.
- Dying Alone: Seita in the opening scene.
- Enforced Method Acting: In the Japanese dub, Setsuko was voiced by an actual 4-year-old girl. Due to this method, they had to record her lines first before animating the scenes, something not usually done in a high-end movie production actually trying to lip sync.
- 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.
- 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.
- Foregone Conclusion
- Heroic BSOD: What happened to Seita after Setsuko's death.
- Honor Before Reason: Pride in Seita's case, but they're explicitly tied together by the story.
- How We Got Here: Opening lines of the film: "September 21st, 1945. That was the night I died." Knowing this ahead of time doesn't make it any less tragic, though.
- Infant Immortality: Averted so hard it can etch diamonds.
- It Got Worse: As worse as it can possibly get.
- Kansai Regional Accent: As dictated by the setting. It's not meant to be funny.
- Kill'Em All
- 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.
- Memento MacGuffin: Averted. It seems like the ring that belonged to the children's mother will become important later on, but it's never mentioned again after the scene it appears in. The photo of his father that Seita takes from the mantle does show up later, though.
- Missing Mom: And as we later find out, Disappeared Dad as well.
- It's implied that their dad is in the service fighting the war. And considering how dark and bleak this movie is, dollars to doughnuts say he's either M.I.A., captured, or K.I.A..
- 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 was paired up with My Neighbor Totoro on both films' original release. They had people walking out after My Neighbor 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.
- Noble Shoplifter: Seita, who only steals food and clothing, and only because he has no other way to survive.
- Orphan's Ordeal
- Please Don't Leave Me: Setsuko says this to Seita when she gets sick.
- Posthumous Character: Both siblings.
- Promotion to Parent: Seita tries to act as both mother and father to Setsuko...with little success.
- Really Dead Montage: An emotionally crippling example. 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!"
- 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 childrens' 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.
- Scare Chord: During the bombings.
- Scenery Gorn: The destruction of Kobe.
- Social Services Does Not Exist: It is WWII Japan, so we'd be very surprised if they did.
- Stepford Smiler: Seita, for Setsuko's sake -- but sometimes even he can't contain his tears.
- Survivor Guilt: What prompted the author to write the story in the first place.
- There Are No Therapists: Though this is justified by the time and place.
- Together in Death: In the final scene, the contented spirits/ ghosts of Seita and Setsuko happily share a view of Kobe in 1988.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Setsuko's fruit drops. See Your Favorite, below.
- War Is Hell: And how!
- Wham! Line: "She never woke up."
- "September 21, 1945. That's was the night I died." and that's the opening line.
- World War 2: The film is set in 1945 Japan, just after the U.S. firebombing of Kobe.
- Your Favorite: Seita brings Setsuko fruit drops whenever he can get them.
- You Suck: 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 of the 1980's Japan. "Your parents went through hell, and this is how you reward them?"