Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no haka) is a Japanese anime drama movie published in 1988 through Studio Ghibli. The movie is based on a novel written in 1967 by Nosaka Akiyuki and discusses the story of fourteen-year-old Seita and four-year-old Setsuko, who are trying to survive in Kobe, Japan in 1945 during the second world war (Scherer, 2016).
The movie starts with showing Seita, the older sibling, dying in a train station while the words ‘September 21, 1945…That was the night I died’ (Takahata, 1988, 0:00:04) can be heard. After dying, officers find his body and a candy box that he was holding, which they throw outside without giving it too much thought. While falling, the tin can opens and fireflies escape which transform into the spirit of a young girl, which is later found out to be Seita‘s younger sister Setsuko, who has also died a bit before him. Setsuko‘s spirit finds the one of Seita and together they leave on a train into a throwback of their life (Takahata, 1988).
Seita and Setsuko‘s story starts with the bombing of their neighbourhood in Kobe and them fleeing together. During the bombing, they get separated from their mother, who then gets injured and dies, which makes them move in with their aunt in order to survive. Keeping the death of their mother a secret from his younger sister, Seita and Setsuko keep living with their aunt for some time, in which Seita focuses on his sister to keep her happy and safe. His aunt tells Seita to sell his mother’s kimono to buy rice as potions for food are limited. He does but the aunt does not even give them any of the rice but instead keeps causing conflicts with Seita because he is not working and being disrespectful in the eyes of their aunt. After having more conflicts, Seita takes his little sister and moves into a bunker nearby. A scene is shown in which Seita teaches his little sister how to catch fireflies in order to use as a light in the dark bunker at night, followed by a scene in which she buries them all due to having died overnight. At this point, Seita tells his sister that their mum died for which she just replies that she knows. They build up their own little home in the bunker but soon run into the problem of food shortage, which makes Seita start to steal food until he gets caught. The viewer can watch Setsuko getting sick and the doctor telling Seita that all she needs is food to get better as she is suffering from malnutrition. Seita takes out money from his mother’s bank account in order to buy food and at the same time finds out that Japan capitulated and that all marine soldiers sunk, meaning his father who was one of them did so as well. Coming home he tries to feed his very weak sister, but she dies the same night due to starvation. After Setsuko‘s death, Seita burns her body and puts the ashes into the candy box he is later found with, in which they kept sweets that they ate throughout the movie. The movie ends with the spirits of Setsuko and Seita sitting on a bench on a hill together and Setsuko sleeping in her older brother‘s lab (Takahata, 1988).
Fireflies; carriers of a meaningful message
Nosaka Akiyuki voiced that the story he has written was a way to process his past in which he, like Seita, got separated from his family during the World War two bombings and needed to protect his little sister. Like Setsuko, his little sister passed away due to malnutrition and Akiyuki said that until today he blames himself for it. He also mentioned that he was not as nice to his little sister as Seita was and confessed that he even ate the food he should have shared with her (Racel, 2021). By writing the story and ‚killing off his proxy, Seita, he attempts to assuage his guilt over his sister’s death‘ (Goldberg, 2009).
Grave of the Fireflies shows the viewer Japan during the second world war through the eyes of orphans who are trying to survive. While this viewpoint gives the viewer a lot of empathy for the characters especially because they are children, it also feeds into the typical way in which Japan portrayed itself, which is the one of the victims. While Seita and Setsuko were indeed innocent children who suffered immensely on different levels due to the war, Japan and the government connected to it were involved in many other wars and military actions beforehand, making them not the innocent victims they are often trying to portray themselves as (Racel, 2021).
Until today the movie is one of the most-watched movies that thematizes the second world war and is shown on national television in Japan every year on August 15th which is the day the war stopped for the Japanese (Racel, 2021). This shows that the movie is culturally and historically very important for the country and its society. Also, Racel (2021) pointed out that Grave of the Fireflies tries to teach young people to dislike war and the system behind it that led to the event happening, more than it demonstrates hate for the Allies. Still, even after more than 60 years, the Japanese actively choose to portray themselves in a certain way of victimhood and keep teaching about it while the rest of Asia perceives and remembers the second world war from a very different point of view (Racel, 2021).
This form of portrayal was also spoken about by Ienaga (1993) who also experienced the war himself. He criticises how schoolbooks portrayed Japan as ‘a superior nation whose mission was to lead the world’ (Ienaga, 1993) and the way citizens hence just accepted the teaching as the truth and any act performed by the military as justifiable. He also pointed out that Japan censored all media sold to the public at that time and that only a few people knew about happenings that were being kept secret from normal citizens in order to keep up their superior nation and victimhood image. Through this, even after the disclosure of information, many people still did not believe the new information they received, which shows that the mindset people have as a nation is deeply rooted and takes time to change (Ienaga, 1993).
Goldberg (2009) writes about the way the movie for one portrays a realistic image of people suffering but also an image of ‘blind patriotism that masks selfish impulses during the war and, afterward, of Japan’s inability to confront this past’. While Setsuko portrays an innocent victim of not only the war but also her brother’s selfish actions which are committed in the name of nationalism, Seita not only embodies ‘the author’s doppelganger of guilt, […][but] also a figure who expresses selfishness masked by nationalistic fervor’ (Goldberg, 2009). While the movie generally calls for remembrance of the wartime in Japan, it gets overshadowed by the dark narrative of Setsuko’s suffering and death, making it hard to point out the message the movie is trying to transmit. While Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies a throwback scene is shown in which the glowing of the fireflies turns into fireworks and their father is seen saluting while a nationalistic song can be heard to which Seita in an imaginary play shoots the planes of enemies in the sky. He turns the moment of joy connected to the fireflies into nationalistic propaganda. The dying of the fireflies the next day and him digging a grave can be seen as a forecall of the Japanese capitulating in the end (Goldberg, 2009).
Overall, the fireflies play an important metaphorical role in the film which can be interpreted in different ways. According to Goldberg (2009), ‘the fireflies are a multivalent symbol signifying the children’s death and their spirits; the fires that burned the towns; Japanese soldiers and the machinery of war; and the hopeful regeneration of life through nature’. While the English title is an accurate translation of the Japanese one, Racel (2021) explained that it does not convey its meaning well. In Japanese, the word firefly is normally expressed through the kanji character 蛍 but for the movie, it is written in a phonic equivalent that creates a sort of metaphor. Using the two ‘kanji 火 (hi, fire) and 垂 (tareru, to dangle down, as a droplet of water about to fall from a leaf)’ (Grave of the fireflies, n.d.) it can be interpreted as fires that can be seen in the sky during bombings. Another interpretation could be though that in general there is no plural form in the Japanese language so the word Hotaru (蛍) could be a metaphor for Setsuko being the one firefly of the title but could also represent many fireflies as in all the innocent people that have died during the war (Grave of the fireflies, n.d.).
Near the end of the movie, when Seita withdraws money at the bank and hears that the Japanese capitulated he does so through people talking about a looming typhoon and how they are getting ‘divine wind’ after their surrender. It shows the critic the movie is after all giving to the performed nationalism and portraits it as a joke in a subtle way. Furthermore, it shows how Seita has been living in a nationalistic dream of his dad not only saving Japan but also him and his sister but now needs to realize it will not happen. Coming home he tries to rescue what is left for him, his sister, but it is too late and the last minutes of the movie then shows his memories of Setsuko which are like firefly’s flickers ‘causing joy at their illumination but also pain at their loss’ (Goldberg, 2009).
In conclusion, it can be said that Grave of the Fireflies is a complex movie that can teach a viewer many things when being investigated a bit deeper. While on the surface the movie might seem to feed into the Japanese victimhood portrayal by making the viewer empathize with the two orphans who throughout the movie lose everything, it is also a critic connected to nationalism and the way it sometimes turns people blind for anything beyond it. Furthermore, the movie has many details that can be interpreted in different ways and linked to the Japanese culture as well as history and the country's development. Overall, the movie is well made and despite its sad and dark background, enjoyable to watch while also being rich in culture and historical aspects.
Goldberg, W. (2009). Transcending the victim’s history: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies. Mechademia, 4(1), 39-52. doi:10.1353/mec.0.0030
Grave of the fireflies. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2021.
Ienaga, S. (1993). Reflections. In H. T. Cook & T. F. Cook (Authors), Japan at war: An oral history (pp. 441-453). New York: New Press.
Racel, M. N. (2021). Grave of the Fireflies and Japan's memories of World War II. Retrieved October 15, 2021.
Scherer, E. (2016). 火垂るの墓 Die letzten Glühwürmchen (1988) – Eine Geschichte über das Sterben. Retrieved October 18, 2021.
Takahata, I. (Director). (1988). Grave of the fireflies [Video file]. Japan: Studio Ghibli.