As World War II reaches its conclusion in 1945, Japan faces widespread destruction in the form of American bombings, devastating city after city. Hotaru no Haka, also known as Grave of the Fireflies, is the story of Seita and his sister Setsuko, two Japanese children whose lives are ravaged by the brutal war. They have lost their mother, their father, their home, and the prospect of a bright future—all tragic consequences of the war. Now orphaned and homeless, Seita and Setsuko have no choice but to drift across the countryside, beset by starvation and disease. Met with the apathy of adults along the way, they find that desperate circumstances can turn even the kindest of people cruel yet their youthful hope shines brightly in the face of unrelenting hardship, preventing the siblings from swiftly succumbing to an inevitable fate. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
I’m surprised there aren’t many reviews of Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) that question all the praise its received. I’m also equally unsurprised due to the ability of people to gobble up a seemingly sad story, claim it gave them ‘feels’, and slap a high score on it. If you look at Grave of the Fireflies on a critical level, it’s undeniable that you’ll find deep themes and issues about morality; however, the way that the themes and messages are presented lack genuine feelings of pity or sorrow. The emotions I felt most were, surprisingly enough, irritation and frustration.
The story is basically about two siblings attempting to live and survive in a war-stricken Japan during the second World War. The imagery and the way the story is set up is beautiful, but there was so much wasted potential in the way that the plot progressed that it became underwhelming. The biggest issue that Grave of the Fireflies has, regarding story and plot, is that it doesn’t progress at a reasonable rate to retain interest. In the historical aspect, Grave of the Fireflies gives superb reiteration of the struggles that Japan’s citizens faced in World War II (fire bombing, lack of food, and destruction of homes), and does deserve praise there. In many cases the movie transitions and alternates between deeply depressing to blissful from the perspective an ignorant brother and sister attempting to enjoy leisure activities during war time. I expect that the direction this was supposed to be headed in was showing that despite the cruelties of war, a young man and his sister could still find ways to enjoy life and each others’ company. However, it fails to deliver this message this and only left me feeling contempt towards Seita.
Character-wise, Grave of the Fireflies suffers immensely. Throughout their ‘struggle’ to survive, if you can even call it that, Seita is given a lot of responsibility to shoulder in taking care of his sister, Setsuko. While it is without a doubt an arduous task to raise a child while being a teenager, Seita is depicted as a complete incompetent in his attempts to do so. He literally has one job: take care of his sister. Why couldn’t he do this when he had many prospects at his disposal?
Early on in the series I thought Seita was actually quite a responsible young man; he seemed dependable and level-headed in making decisions that benefit both him and his younger sister. He finds a place to live after their hometown is destroyed, keeps himself and his sister fed, and is conscious in being delicate with his younger sister’s more fragile psychological well-being. The way he took care of his sister and contemplated thoughts before speaking showed his capability of becoming a refined, mature figure. However, we later see what a useless older brother and guardian he turns out to be. While he’s staying with his Aunt, who is nice enough to let them stay despite shortages of food/supplies, he literally does nothing. He doesn’t work, attend school, contribute to the war effort/relief, wash his own dishes, or even teach his sister manners. He lazes about and utilizes only what supplies and money that was left as an inheritance from his family. He even has the audacity to infer that his aunt is a mean and annoying person when he was simply an ungrateful child. While there are several instances where he degrades himself in attempts to get food in the second half of the movie, resorting to theft, or begging, he is unable to throw away his pride, ultimately leading to both siblings’ demise. It would have been a better movie if Seita was framed as the monster he was, but instead he’s portrayed as a sympathetic martyr figure, which is just stupid.
I’ve heard and read opinions about Setsuko being perceived as an extremely annoying character, which is both warranted and unwarranted. While I can see why they people would think so, her character was ultimately shaped by being spoiled by her family and older brother. I can’t quite say that she was annoying since she was actually characterized very realistically. Children, if not raised correctly, often act spoiled, entitled, and greedy. Hell, some children who were raised correctly still act that way. It touches on the topic of nature versus nurture. I felt a fair amount of pity for her since nobody taught her manners, and as a direct result it’s obvious that she wouldn’t know any better; this is jointly the fault of both the parents and Seita.
The art/animation were, as usual, fantastic as expected of Studio Ghibli. There’s really nothing negative that I can say about it. For a movie from 1988, the film is easily watchable. I think the sound portion of the movie, as a whole, was good. There wasn’t anything that particularly caught my attention, but there was nothing that didn’t match the atmosphere of the movie.
I would be a liar if I said I enjoyed Grave of the Fireflies. It’s such a pointless, depressing, and frustrating watch that I would personally recommend not watching it. In a historical context, it’s informative and somewhat mind-opening, but extremely lackluster in terms of being enjoyable as a movie. There are far better historical films that you can watch in order to be enlightened on World War II. It is likely that they will be less politically charged as Grave of the Fireflies as well.