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Grave of the Fireflies

Updated on August 31, 2016

A Powerful, Beautiful Movie That Packs an Emotional Punch

This is a movie that will make you sad and possibly break your heart more than a little. "Grave of the Fireflies" is an animated film released in 1988 that is based on a haunting, semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. The talents of Studio Ghibli and the direction of Isao Takahata manage to transmit the story to the screen without any loss of impact that I could see.

"Grave of the Fireflies" pulls absolutely no punches and some scenes are truly horrifying, but it's done for authenticity, not shock value. It follows the struggles of two Japanese children trying to survive through the end of World War II after the fire bombing of Kobe in 1945. As throughout most of human history, individuals without power are tossed around by the whims and distant decisions of the mighty few like dandelion seeds scattered in the updraft of a wildfire. "Grave of the Fireflies" is full of simple, everyday things and touched with moments of bittersweet peace and normality set against a backdrop of a world of chaos and inhumanity.

This movie is animated but it is not intended for children. It contains deeply disturbing themes including war and starvation and exposes realities many would find extremely upsetting.

While this animated feature is about war, it contains no politics, no justifications, and no national pride. It shows only ordinary children caught in an incredible disaster of human making. The semi-autobiographical nature of the novel it's based on is clear and this film brings that out with a painful authenticity.

People think of bombs and sirens and screaming people when they think of war but that makes up only a very small portion of the film. Instead, it shows how such things destroy innocents and ordinary people much more slowly and cruelly in their aftermath.

Inside ten minutes I stopped seeing the characters as characters and started seeing them as children. When Seita tries to distract little Setsuko from a life crumbling around them it was all too easy to see Seita as any big brother desperately trying to care for his baby sister.

The humanity of Akiyuki Nosaka and his love for his little sister shine through this work and are as beautiful as they are painful. In the end, he's just a little boy doing the best he can when thrust into a situation even an adult would be powerless against.

The medium of animation allows this story to be told visually in ways that would be almost impossible in a live-action film without an enormous budget and massive use of CGI. The imagery and symbolism is positively poetic and the film itself is visually stunning despite animation that some might see as somewhat simplistic.

I love this film because, while it deals with an absolutely horrible aspect of human existence, it does so with a gentle, respectful tenderness. It shows the value of the love found in striving to care for another even when it ends in failure. It shows a type of fallible heroism and many aspects of the human experience as seen through the eyes of children that are seldom portrayed in film.

Grave of the Fireflies/
Grave of the Fireflies/

If you don't have a Blu-Ray player, you'll want a standard DVD version like this one. I don't think the animation needs the higher definition format, but Blu-Ray versions of the movie also exist if you prefer.

Netflix has Grave of the Fireflies as a DVD if you'd prefer to rent rather than purchase it. I've included this Amazon ad so as to provide an image for the page because I can't find any stills or images from the film that I can get permission to use.


I recommend having lots of Kleenex on hand and an extremely funny comedy to watch after watching "Grave of the Fireflies" as a sort of "antidote" to the devastating sadness of the film.

Have you watched Grave of the Fireflies?

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Which do you prefer? Subbed or dubbed?

In my opinion, this movie is best watched in the original Japanese with English (or in whatever language is your mother tongue) subtitles because the Japanese voice actors add so much emotion, tone, and inflection to the story. What do you think?


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    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I think there are few films that remove the politics from war and deal with the effects of it in such a moving and human manner. I didn't know it was based on a true story until after I watched it the first time, but I wasn't surprised because there were so many parts of it that just hit you in the gut with disturbing realities despite being portrayed with animated characters and settings.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 2 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Thank you for reminding me about this incredible story! I watched it with my daughter and we were both moved to tears. Your review is excellent, makes me want to watch it again, with the box of Kleenex of course!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this review, sensitively handled but with a realist's touch. And not too much detail to spoil possible future viewers. With things going astray in Syria and Iraq and refugees in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, this film would be a pertinent watch.

    • Lynda Makara profile image

      Lynda Makara 3 years ago from California

      This is one I haven't heard of before. Now I'm intrigued.

    • bpratt lm profile image

      bpratt lm 3 years ago

      I agree in watching movies in their original language :) It gives it a different vibe, I feel like a lot of the movie is lost in translation.

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 4 years ago from Northern California

      I've never watched anything in Japanese. This looks like a beautiful tribute to a difficult time.

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 4 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I love Japanese anime, but I am not sure I'm in the mood for such a dark and sad story. Maybe later.