Grave of the Fireflies: Aching Allegory, or Sappy Slog-Fest?

Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 anime film from Isao Takahata. The 1st of his 5 films under the Studio Ghibli banner, and the 5th of his films in general, it’s often considered one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made. It holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.5/10 on IMDb. In spite of this, I remain divided on it. Why is that?

When I began my “What Works/What Doesn’t Work” series with Howl’s Moving Castle, I had this film in the back of my mind. I’ve been meaning to write about Grave of the Fireflies for Infinite Rainy Day for a long time, yet never had the right format. Now that it’s been long enough, I figured I’d finally try. Here goes.

As with my previous two pieces, there’ll be heavy spoilers. You’ve been warned.

What Works?

Grave of the Fireflies has a lot going in its favour:

For one, the movie is stunning, even nearly 30 years later. Part of that comes from the late-Yoshifumi Kondō’s and Michiyo Yasuda’s realistic art-designs, as all of the backdrops feel directly out of a bleak, unhopeful war story. The colours are rough, the buildings are in various states of decay and the lighting evokes dread and unease. Even the character models give off a feeling of nostalgic remorse, being sickly, pale and at times even ghostly. It all fits the tone quite well.

The decision to have the movie told through Seita’s flashbacks also works in its favour. We see him die in the opening scene, reunite with his dead sister and then recount how the two of them got where they currently are. It adds to the inevitable pain that is the remainder, and, save a line or two, it’s all done without words. To convey Seita’s thoughts and feelings through images is one of the film’s real strengths. And given how this is based on a true story from one of Japan’s greatest novelists, it’s nice to see the author’s voice shine through without feeling overbearing.

The music is also really fitting. Michio Mamiya’s decision to use quieter, more subdued arrangements makes the film all the more harrowing. Even listening to the tracks separate from the film is enough to move even the stubbornest of individuals to tears, a testament to how powerful they are. Perhaps the biggest arrow to the heart is Amelita Galli-Curci’s “Home Sweet Home”, which plays right before Setsuko’s burial. The juxtaposition of seeing Setsuko’s ghost roaming around to such an optimistic tune is impossible to listen to without crying, and I’ve heard it many times.

Home Sweet Home — Amelia Galli-Curci

Of course, the final scene melts the heart. Seita and Setsuko’s spirits are reunited in the opening scene, and the next hour-and-a-half shows how they died. So to see the ending after the constant sorrow? Well, it’s tragic, but also earned. Besides, the final scene begins with the cremation of a little girl! How that isn’t heartbreaking is beyond me!

I like the leads in this movie, and how they interact with the world around them. Seita and Setsuko have one of the best big-brother/little-sister dynamics in any film I’ve seen, even though the relationship’s doomed to fail. You see Seita’s stubbornness in his refusal to swallow his pride, yet he’s never overtly selfish. His actions are influenced by his upbringing, something you can sympathize with despite it not playing out well. And Setsuko is one of the cutest, most helpless 5 year-olds I’ve ever seen, which adds to the heartbreak of her demise.

Finally, Grave of the Fireflies is short. The common tendency with wartime dramas is to stretch the length out; after all, Schindler’s List is over 3 hours long, and that’s A-prime war drama material! But this movie condenses its tale to 89-minutes. That it has something compelling to say about war at all is neat, but that it does so in such a short period of time is another. I commend Takahata for pulling that off.


What DOESN’T Work?

Not much, but it’s pretty glaring.

For one, the movie gives away its ending in its opening. Right when we see Seita die in the train station and be reunited with his dead sister, it’s pretty obvious what this is gonna be about. I understand why it was done like this, and on some level I respect the decision. But knowing that our hero doesn’t make it robs the film of suspense. I think it’d have been more effective and tragic to save the opening scene for the end of the film.

Speaking of which, the film takes its sweet time to arrive at its point. Remember how I said that Grave of the Fireflies was 89-minutes long? It feels a lot longer because of its pacing. It’s a criticism I have of Isao Takahata’s films generally, as even my favourite work of his, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, feels like it could’ve shaved off some of its run-time. I’m aware that anime films in general tend to be long and slow, but Takahata's body of work feels extra long and slow.

Perhaps that’s because the middle of the movie is about the search for food, which leads to my next issue. About 70% of Grave of the Fireflies is about the struggle to survive in wartime, and a constantly-running theme in that is the desire for Seita and Setsuko to feed themselves. This resurfaces many times throughout the film, to the point that it started getting tedious. I understand that food is scarce, movie! You don’t need to spend 89-minutes on that!

If the movie had cut 20 or so minutes of its runtime, much of which would involve taking out the redundant foraging and scrounging for scraps of food, maybe I’d have appreciated it more. There’s a great premise here, and while I don’t want to detract from it, as this was based on a true story, I still think the monotony of looking for food gets boring. Besides, not everything in real life makes for compelling storytelling. It’s okay to fabricate details for the sake of movie magic, audiences are more forgiving than you’d think. Anything to get away from the tediousness of food! (I can’t believe I’m actually saying that.)

Another aspect that really bugs me is the underlying subtext. According to Takahata himself, the film is a commentary on the 80’s generation and how much they took everything for granted. Japan’s economy was a bubble ready to burst then, and while the message might’ve been admirable, it comes off as really condescending in practice. Plus, it dates the film quite a bit.

Finally, and this is no fault of its own, the original dub from Central Park Media is iffy. It came out when dubbing wasn’t what it is today, so it’s forgivable in that regard, but for every good performance, (Veronica Taylor as the protagonist’s mother) there’s an equally okay performance (Amy Jones as the aunt) and a flat one (Rhoda Chrosite as Setsuko). I guess it’s not as bad as the newer dub, which I’ve heard is worse, but it brings down a lot of the dramatic weight.

The Verdict?

I find myself feeling regret not being able to appreciate this movie more. On one hand, it’s brilliant, and it gets me whenever I watch it. On the other hand, the aforementioned flaws keep me from considering it a masterpiece. Given that I’ve watched it several times, I got it as a birthday gift from a friend in England, that it still hasn’t fully clicked is enough to make me wonder if it ever will. Maybe some day, but not now.

It’s interesting because I get confused looks and reactions from my Twitter Followers whenever I bring up my complaints. The most-bizarre one was when someone posted a .gif of Batman shaking his head in disappointment: why Batman? What does that even mean? And why do you care so much?

I’m really sure what else to say: is the movie “overrated”? Maybe, but that assumes that it didn’t do what I expected. It did, it simply didn’t exceed my expectations. Is it worthy of its praise? Ignoring its director’s true intentions, I guess so. It’s not like it can’t resonate with people, as it has. I simply wish the middle of the film was more interesting, and that it’d kept its opening reveal to the end. Perhaps then I’d have loved it.

But I digress. Grave of the Fireflies is a must-watch for anime and Studio Ghibli fans, containing all of the elements of a classic. It’s unpleasant and depressing, but not without due cause. And it’ll probably click with you more than it did for me. I simply think that Isao Takahata, whom I’m already cold on, has done better with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.


  1. This is just my opinion, but the newer dub of "Grave of the Fireflies" by Sentai isn't bad at all. As a matter of fact, it's actually pretty good. It's a lot more nuanced and better acted overall than the CPM dub, although it does suffer a bit from Setsuko still sounding a bit too mature. It's still a superior effort, though; Stephen Foster, for once, doesn't muck around with the script.

    1. I tend to be be wary of Foster's work even on a good day, largely because he's done enough garbage that it's hard to trust him. But I'll definitely keep an eye out should I hear this one in the future...


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