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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.
—quicksummary sums it up.
Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 — Hotaru no Haka) is a 1988 film directed by the late 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 1967 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 the 14-year-old boy Seita Yokokawa (Nosaka's proxy) and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko; after losing both parents — their father aboard an Imperial Navy cruiser, their mother in the 1945 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 and is not thrilled when Seita focuses much more on taking care of Setsuko than helping the family out. 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.
Compare Barefoot Gen, Garasu no Usagi and Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni (In this corner of the world). All of these are set in a similar time frame and feature young people thrown in the chaos that fell over Japan towards the second part and end of World War Two.
There are two live-action movies based on this. One, from 2005, is from the perspective of Seita and Setsuko's aunt and cousin, explaining why the aunt was so harsh on the kids. The other, from 2008, "returns" to Seita and Setsuko's point oof view.
- Accidental Aesop: Most people who see the film take an anti-war message away from it, while others see it as a way to lash out at youngsters of the 80's for not appreciating what their parents went through. Isao Takahata, who both disliked the idea of government propaganda AND was not a big fan of Japanese society's desire for conformity, spoke against both interpretations.
- 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 takes a look to the audience near the end. It's been interpreted as an accusing look towards "ungrateful" and "spoiled" Japanese post-war generations, but the late Takahata (who as said above has critized Japanese society's love of conformity) openly said that it's not.
- 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.
- Disappeared Dad: Seita and Setsuko's father is an officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, so he's been deployed elsewhere. There's the very strong implication that his ship was sunk before the story started.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Completely, epically averted. This is one of the 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, was dumped into a mass grave.
- Dying Alone: Seita in the opening scene.
- Enforced Method Acting: In the Japanese dub, Setsuko was voiced by Ayano Shiraishi, 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.
- Fatal Flaw: Seita is a good person, of course, but his gigantic pride causes him lots of trouble. And is one of the causes of his and Setsuko's deaths: he didn't get along with his caretaker/aunt so he left with Setsuko on tow, he turned out to be unable to take care of the two and is too young to fully understand how screwed he and his sister are. . .
- 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 for the accouracy and not the 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: Mrs. Yokokawa died in the Kobe bombings.
- 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. Doubles as Justified Criminal.
- 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!" 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.
- Resentful Guardian: The aunt, and how. She heavily resents how Seita neither attempts to go to school nor looks for a part-time job, instead choosing to be all the time with Setsuko.
- 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.