Grave of the Fireflies

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Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies.jpg
Directed by Isao Takahata
Produced by Toru Hara
Written by Isao Takahata
Music by Masahiko Satoh; Michio Mamiya
Cinematography Nobuo Koyama
Editing by Takeshi Seyama
Distributed by Studio Ghibli; Central Park Media
Release date(s) 1988; 1996
Country Japan
Language Japanese

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) is an animated film written and directed by Isao Takahata, a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli and produced by Toru Hara. It originally premiered on 16 April 1988, on a double-bill with My Neighbor Totoro. It was based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Akiyuki Nosaka, who described his work as "a personal apology to my sister."

It was later licensed by Central Park Media, with an English dub being released to widespread critical acclaim. To date, it remains the only anime title to feature on the Top 100 DVD Releases.[1] Roger Ebert has referred to it as "the most realistic animated film I've ever seen".[2]


Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

As World War 2 draws to a close, American forces begin fire bombing Japanese civilian targets in an attempt to reduce morale on the home front and thus hasten Japan's surrender. As a result of such an attack on the city of Kobe, 12-year-old Seita and his little sister, Setsuko, lose both their home and their mother and have to rely firstly on the charity of relatives, and later on their own wits, during a time where society is becoming increasingly focused on survival and supporting those who work towards that goal. This is something that the two children cannot comprehend, leading to clashes with their relatives and resulting in Seita and Setsuko leaving, in order to go it alone.

At first Seita is confident they can survive on their own, but nobody could ever be prepared for the challenges of living in such uncertain times, especially those who are living outside the system. However, it is the two children's love for each other that provides shelter from the harsh reality that is closing in around them and is what makes this feature stand out.

With very few anime being set during World War II (Barefoot Gen and The Cockpit being other examples), Grave of the Fireflies is unique as it is made abundantly clear within the first five minutes of the film that neither of its two protagonists will survive until the end. Yet despite, this incredibly bleak premise, the film works for two main reasons.

Firstly, as with many Ghibli films, it does not chose sides, but concentrates simply on the story at hand. The Americans are not portrayed as bad, nor are the Japanese portrayed as being good - everybody is simply doing what they must within the confines of the war.

Secondly, the film works because of the relationship between Seita and Setsuko. It is more about how they react and adapt to their hardships, rather than the hardships themselves. It is about how they remain together, until the tragic climax. We watch Seita performing acrobatic tricks to entertain and distract Setsuko, even though their mother lies dying in the makeshift hospital nearby; they play in the sea, despite their desperate circumstances and when they are reduced to living in an abandoned air raid shelter, they try to make it as comfortable as they can.

At the end of the day, Grave of the Fireflies is more about the bond between brother and sister, than war, and that bond is expressed so beautifully, that it makes the eventual tragedy all the more moving and meaningful.


It is interesting that the author chose the kanji 火垂る, instead of 蛍, which denotes a firefly (hotaru). The former, which translates as "dangling fire" can symbolise not only fireflies, but also family (dangling fire being a type of sparkler firework that families play with together) and possibly even the falling incendiary bombs used by the attacking forces.


  • Seita - Tsutomu Tatsumi (Japanese); J. Robert Spencer (English)
  • Setsuko - Ayano Shiraishi (Japanese); Rhoda Chrosite (English)

In a departure from usual methods, where adult seiyuu (声優), or voice actors, are used to portray children, the original Japanese dub used Ayano Shiraishi, who was only five years old, and Tsutomu Tatsumi, himself still in his early teens, at the time of recording. This adds a haunting realism to their performances, when you realise you are actually listening to children, instead of adults pretending to be children.

However, in order to make allowances for the foibles of a five-year-old, her lines were recorded prior to filming and the animators had to make allowance for the fact that they would be dubbed in at a later stage. As they were not quite sure how to deal with this, Setsuko's mouth is rarely shown when she speaks.

To date, Grave of the Fireflies remains the only film credit for both Tatsumi and Shiraishi.[3][4]


  • Musical Score: Michio Mamiya
  • Opening theme: "Setsuko and Seita" by Michio Mamiya
  • Ending theme: "Futari" by Michio Mamiya

External links

  • IMDB entry for Grave of the Fireflies