Grave of the Fireflies (Japanese: 火垂るの墓, Hepburn: Hotaru no Haka) is a 1988 Japanese animated war tragedy film based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka.
It was written and directed by Isao Takahata, and animated by Studio Ghibli for the story’s publisher Shinchosha Publishing (making it the only Studio Ghibli film under Tokuma Shoten ownership that had no involvement from them). The film stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi. Set in the city of Kobe, Japan, the film tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War. Grave of the Fireflies received critical acclaim and has been ranked as one of the greatest war films of all time and has been recognised as a major work of Japanese animation.
Refer to Grave of the Fireflies (2005).
In 1945, the Yokokawa house is destroyed in a firebombing along with most of Kobe. The children, teenage Seita and little Setsuko escape unharmed, but their mother dies from severe burns. Seita conceals their mother’s death from Setsuko in an attempt to keep her happy, which she later learns of despite Seita’s efforts. Seita and Setsuko move in with a distant aunt, and Seita retrieves supplies he buried before the bombing and gives everything to his aunt, save for a tin of Sakuma drops. The aunt convinces Seita to sell his mother’s silk kimono for rice as rations shrink and the number of refugees in the house grows. Seita uses some of his mother’s money in the bank to buy supplies, but eventually, the aunt becomes resentful of the children, deeming them unworthy of earning her food.
Seita and Setsuko decide to leave their aunt’s home after excessive insults, and they move into an abandoned bomb shelter. They release fireflies into the shelter for light. The next day, Setsuko is horrified to find that the insects have died. She buries them in a grave, asking why they and her mother had to die. As they run out of rice, Seita steals from farmers and loots homes during air raids, for which he is beaten and sent to the police. The officer realises Seita is stealing due to hunger and releases him. When Setsuko falls ill, a doctor explains that she is suffering from malnutrition. Desperate, Seita withdraws the last of the money in their mother’s bank account. After doing so, he becomes distraught when he learns that Japan has surrendered, and that his father, an Imperial Japanese Navy captain, is most likely dead, as most of Japan’s navy has been sunk. Seita returns to Setsuko with food, but finds her dying. She later dies as Seita finishes preparing the food. Seita cremates Setsuko’s body and her stuffed doll in a straw casket. He carries her ashes in the candy tin along with his father’s photograph.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Seita dies of starvation at a Sannomiya train station surrounded by other malnourished people (as seen at the very beginning of the film). A janitor is tasked with removing the bodies before the arrival of the Americans. The janitor sorts through Seita’s possessions and finds the candy tin, which he throws into a field. Setsuko’s ashes spread out, and her spirit springs from the tin and is joined by Seita’s spirit and a cloud of fireflies. They board a ghostly train and, throughout the journey, look back at the events leading to Seita’s death. Their spirits later arrive at their destination, healthy and happy. Surrounded by fireflies, they rest on a hilltop bench overlooking present-day Kobe.
- Tsutomu Tatsumi … Seita (voice).
- Ayano Shiraishi … Setsuko (voice).
- Yoshiko Shinohara … Mother (voice).
- Akemi Yamaguchi … Aunt (voice).
- Kôzô Hashida … Obayashi Chairman (voice).
- Masayo Sakai … Woman who takes care of Setsuko (voice).
- Kazumi Nozaki … Cousin (voice).
- Yoshio Matsuoka … Gosaku (voice).
- Masahiro Kanetake … Aunt’s house guest (voice).
- Kiyoshi Yanagawa … Patrolman (voice).
- Hajime Maki … Man who arrests Seita (voice).
- Atsuo Omote … Person in bank (voice).
- Teruhisa Harita … Station worker (voice).
- Hiroshi Tanaka … Person in bank (voice).
- Michio Denpô … Station worker / Doctor (voice).
- Shirô Tamaki … Person in bank (voice).
Grave of the Fireflies author Akiyuki Nosaka said that many offers had been made to make a live-action film adaptation of his short story. Nosaka argued that “it was impossible to create the barren, scorched earth that’s to be the backdrop of the story”. He also argued that contemporary children would not be able to convincingly play the characters. Nosaka expressed surprise when an animated version was offered. After seeing the storyboards, Nosaka concluded that it was not possible for such a story to have been made in any method other than animation and expressed surprise in how accurately the rice paddies and townscape were depicted.
Isao Takahata said that he was compelled to film the short story after seeing how the main character, Seita, “was a unique wartime ninth grader”. Takahata explained that any wartime story, whether animated or not animated, “tends to be moving and tear-jerking”, and that young people develop an “inferiority complex” where they perceive people in wartime eras as being more noble and more able than they are, and therefore the audience believes that the story has nothing to do with them. Takahata argued that he wanted to dispel this mindset. When Nosaka asked if the film characters were “having fun”, Takahata answered that he clearly depicted Seita and Setsuko had “substantial” days and that they were “enjoying their days”. Takahata said that Setsuko was even more difficult to animate than Seita, and that he had never before depicted a girl younger than five. Takahata said that “In that respect, when you make the book into a movie, Setsuko becomes a tangible person”, and that four-year-olds often become more assertive and self-centered, and try to get their own ways during that age. He explained that while one could “have a scene where Seita can’t stand that anymore”, it is “difficult to incorporate into a story”. Takahata explained that the film is from Seita’s point of view, “and even objective passages are filtered through his feelings”.
Takahata said that he had considered using non-traditional animation methods, but because “the schedule was planned and the movie’s release date set, and the staff assembled, it was apparent there was no room for such a trial-and-error approach”. He further remarked that he had difficulty animating the scenery since, in Japanese animation, one is “not allowed” to depict Japan in a realistic manner. Animators often travelled to foreign countries to do research on how to depict them, but such research had not been done before for a Japanese setting. While animating the movie, Takahata also created several different cuts of the scene in which Seita cremates Setsuko’s body. Takahata spent a lot of time on this scene, trying to create the perfect iteration of it. Each of these cuts remained unfinished and unused in the end.
Most of the illustration outlines in the film are in brown, instead of the customary black. Black outlines were only used when it was absolutely necessary. Color coordinator Michiyo Yasuda said this was done to give the film a softer feel. Yasuda said that this technique had never been used in an anime before Grave of the Fireflies, “and it was done on a challenge”. Yasuda explained that brown is more difficult to use than black because it does not contrast as well as black.
The film score was composed by Michio Mamiya. Along with the original soundtrack, the song “Home Sweet Home”, performed by coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, was included. Dialogue of the film is part of the soundtrack, the music and dialogue are not separated in any way. Mamiya is also a music specialist in baroque and classical music.
During an interview about his music, Mamiya stated that he creates his music to encourage peace. The songs in Grave of the Fireflies as well as other pieces by Michio Mamiya such as Serenade No.3 “Germ”, express this theme.
The film was released on 16 April 1988, over 20 years from the publication of the short story.
The initial Japanese theatrical release was accompanied by Hayao Miyazaki’s light-hearted My Neighbour Totoro as a double feature. While the two films were marketed toward children and their parents, the starkly tragic nature of Grave of the Fireflies turned away many audiences. However, Totoro merchandise, particularly the stuffed animals of Totoro and Catbus, sold extremely well after the film and made overall profits for the company to the extent that it stabilised subsequent productions of Studio Ghibli.
Grave of the Fireflies is the only theatrical Studio Ghibli feature film prior to From Up on Poppy Hill to which Disney never had North American distribution rights, since it was not produced by Ghibli for parent company Tokuma Shoten but for Shinchosha, the publisher of the original short story (although Disney has the Japanese home video distribution rights themselves, thus replacing the film’s original Japanese home video distributor, Bandai Visual). It was one of the last Studio Ghibli films to get an English-language premiere by GKIDS
Grave of the Fireflies was released in Japan on VHS by Buena Vista Home Entertainment under the Ghibli ga Ippai Collection on 07 August 1998. On 29 July 2005, a DVD release was distributed through Warner Home Video. Walt Disney Studios Japan released the complete collector’s edition DVD on 06 August 2008. WDSJ released the film on Blu-ray twice on 18 July 2012: one as a single release, and one in a two-film set with My Neighbour Totoro (even though Disney has never owned the North American rights, only the Japanese rights).
It was released on VHS in North America by Central Park Media in a subtitled form on 02 June 1993. They later released the film with an English dub on VHS on 01 September 1998 (the day Disney released Kiki’s Delivery Service) and an all-Regions DVD (which also included the original Japanese with English subtitles) on 07 October 1998. On 08 October 2002, it was later released on a two-disc DVD set, which once again included both the English dub and the original Japanese with English subtitles as well as the film’s storyboards with the second disc containing a retrospective on the author of the original book, an interview with the director, and an interview with critic Roger Ebert, who felt the film was one of the greatest of all time. It was released by Central Park Media one last time on 07 December 2004. Following the May 2009 bankruptcy and liquidation of Central Park Media, ADV Films acquired the rights and re-released it on DVD on 07 July 2009. Following the 01 September 2009 shutdown and re-branding of ADV, their successor, Sentai Filmworks, rescued the film and released a remastered DVD on 06 March 2012, and planned to release the film on digital outlets. A Blu-ray edition was released on 20 November 2012, featuring an all-new English dub produced by Seraphim Digital.
StudioCanal released a Blu-ray in the United Kingdom on 01 July 2013, followed by Kiki’s Delivery Service on the same format. It was the UK’s tenth annual best-selling foreign language film on home video in 2019 (below seven other Japanese films, including six Hayao Miyazaki anime films). Madman Entertainment released the film in Australia and New Zealand.
The film was modestly successful at the Japanese box office, where it grossed ¥1.7 billion. As part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018, the film had a limited theatrical release in the United States, grossing $516,962.
The Ghibli ga Ippai Collection home video release of Grave of the Fireflies sold 400,000 copies in Japan. At a price of at least ¥4,935, this is equivalent to at least ¥1.974 billion in sales revenue.
The film received universal critical acclaim.
After the international release, it has been noted that different audiences have interpreted the film differently due to differences in culture. For instance, when the film was watched by a Japanese audience, Seita’s decision to not come back to his aunt was seen as an understandable decision, as they were able to understand how Seita had been raised to value pride in himself and his country. But American and Australian audiences were more likely to perceive the decision as unwise, due to the cultural differences in order to try to save his sister and himself.
Themes and Analysis
Some critics in the West have viewed Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film due to the graphic and emotional depiction of the pernicious repercussions of war on a society, and the individuals therein. 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 nations. It emphasizes that war is society’s failure to perform its most important duty: to protect its own people.
However, director Takahata repeatedly denied that the film was an anti-war film. In his own words, it “is not at all an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no such message”. Instead, Takahata had intended to convey an image of the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society and invoke sympathy particularly in people in their teens and twenties.
Since the film gives little context to the war, Takahata feared a politician could just as easily claim fighting is needed to avoid such tragedies. In general, he was sceptical that depictions of suffering in similar works, such as Barefoot Gen, actually prevent aggression. The director was nevertheless an anti-war advocate, a staunch supporter of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, and has openly criticised Japan’s penchant for conformity, allowing them to be rallied against other nations. He expressed despair and anxiety whenever the youth are told to fall in line, a reminder that the country at its core has not changed.
Following the success of Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata drew up an outline for a follow-up film, based on similar themes but set in 1939 at the start of the second World War. This film was called Border 1939, based on the novel The Border by Shin Shikata, and would have told the story of a Japanese teenager from colonial Seoul joining an anti-Japanese resistance group in Mongolia. The film was intended as an indictment of Japanese imperialist sentiment, which is briefly touched upon in Grave of the Fireflies. Although Takahata finished a full outline (which is republished in his book Thoughts While Making Movies), the film was cancelled before production could start due to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Public opinion in Japan had turned against China, and Ghibli’s distributor felt a film partly set there was too risky.
2005 Live-Action Version
Refer to Grave of the Fireflies (2005).
NTV in Japan produced a live-action TV drama of Grave of the Fireflies, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The drama aired on 01 November 2005. Like the anime, the live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies focuses on two siblings struggling to survive the final months 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 hard-hearted woman. It stars Nanako Matsushima as the aunt, as well as Mao Inoue as their cousin.
2008 Live-Action Version
A different live-action version was released in Japan on 05 July 2008, Reo Yoshitake as Seita, Rina Hatakeyama as Setsuko, Keiko Matsuzaka as the aunt, and Seiko Matsuda as the children’s mother. Like the anime, this live-action version of Grave of the Fireflies focuses on two siblings struggling to survive the final months of the war in Kobe, Japan.
- In South Korea, the release of the movie was postponed indefinitely because of the concern that the movie somewhat justified Japan’s role in World War II.
- Isao Takahata was the only living animator involved on the project who had survived bomb blasts.
- The fruit drops that Setsuko eats were made by the Sakuma Confectionary Company, which in real life was established in 1949 (four years after the events in this movie took place).
- A few years ago, Sakuma released limited edition tin cans that resembled the one seen in the movie.
- Some variations of these tins also had a picture of Setsuko looking through her tin for the last drop.
- According to the movie, the children’s father was a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) who served aboard the Maya, a Takao-class heavy cruiser which participated in a number of naval engagements during the Second World War.
- On 23 October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Maya was torpedoed by an American submarine and sank with the loss of 479 men, including the ship’s captain.
- The ship’s name is derived from Mount Maya, a mountain located near the city of Kobe, which is where the movie takes place.
Production & Filming Details
- Isao Takahata.
- Joey Goubeaud … executive producer: ADV Films (English version).
- Tôru Hara … producer (as Toru Hara).
- John Ledford … executive producer: Sentai Filmworks (English version) / producer: ADV Films (English version).
- John O’Donnell … executive producer: Central Park Media (English version).
- Ryôichi Satô … planning producer.
- Stephanie Shalofsky … producer: Central Park Media (English version).
- Eiichi Takahashi … executive producer: Sentai Filmworks (English version).
- Shin’ichirô Ueda … line producer (as Shinichirou Ueda).
- Akiyuki Nosaka … (novel).
- Isao Takahata … (written by).
- Michio Mamiya.
- Nobuo Koyama … director of photography.
- Takeshi Seyama.
- Shinchosha Company.
- Studio Ghibli.
- Toho (1988) (Japan) (theatrical) (as Tôhô).
- International Channel (USA) (TV).
- Edko Films (1989) (Hong Kong) (theatrical).
- Film fra Sør Distribusjon (2014) (Norway) (theatrical).
- GKIDS (2013) (USA) (theatrical).
- Hoyts Distribution (1990) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Les Films du Paradoxe (1996) (France) (theatrical).
- ADV Films (2009) (USA) (DVD).
- Central Park Media (1993) (USA) (video).
- HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (Internet).
- JONU Media (2003) (Spain) (DVD).
- NRK2 (2010) (Norway) (TV).
- Nippon Television Network (NTV) (1989) (Japan) (TV).
- Selecta Visión (2008) (Spain) (all media).
- Selecta Visión (2012) (Portugal) (all media).
- Sentai Filmworks (2012) (USA) (all media).
- Star Media Entertainment (2006) (Norway) (DVD).
- StudioCanal Films (2004) (UK) (all media).
- Universe Laser & Video Co. Ltd. (2002) (Hong Kong) (DVD).
- Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment (2008) (Japan) (video) (Perfect Keepsake Edition).
- Warner Home Video (2000) (Japan) (DVD).
- Release Date: 16 April 1988 (Canada & Japan).
- Rating: 12A.
- Running Time: 89 minutes.
- Country: Japan.
- Language: English.