Grave of the Fireflies

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This article is about the 1988 film. For the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, see Grave of the Fireflies (novel). For the 2005 film, see Grave of the Fireflies (2005 film).
Grave of the Fireflies
A young boy is carrying a girl on her back in a field with a plane flying overhead at night. Above them is the film's title and text below reveals the film's credits.
Japanese cinema poster for Grave of the Fireflies
Japanese 火垂るの墓
Hepburn Hotaru no haka
Directed by Isao Takahata
Produced by Toru Hara
Written by Isao Takahata
Based on Grave of the Fireflies 
by Akiyuki Nosaka
Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi
Ayano Shiraishi
Yoshiko Shinohara
Akemi Yamaguchi
Music by Michio Mamiya
Cinematography Nobuo Koyama
Edited by Takeshi Seyama
Distributed by Toho
Release dates
  • 17 April 1988 (1988-04-17)
Running time
89 minutes[1]
Country Japan
Language Japanese

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no haka?) is a 1988 Japanese animated drama film written and directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli. It is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical novel Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka.[2] It is commonly considered an anti-war film, but this interpretation has been challenged by some critics and by the director. 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 acclaim from film critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times considered it to be one of the best and most powerful war films and, in 2000, included it on his "Great Movies" list.[3] Two live-action remakes of Grave of the Fireflies were made, one in 2005 and one in 2008.


The film begins at Sannomiya Station on 21 September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. A boy, Seita (清太?), is shown dying of starvation. Later that night, having removed Seita's body, a janitor digs through his possessions and finds a candy tin which he throws away into a nearby field. The spirit of Seita's younger sister, Setsuko (節子?), springs from the tin and is joined by Seita's spirit as well as a cloud of fireflies. Seita's spirit then begins to narrate their story accompanied by an extended flashback of the final months of World War II.

Destroyed buildings in Kobe after a firebombing attack on the city during World War II.

The flashback begins 16–17 March 1945, during a bombing raid on Kobe. Setsuko and Seita are left to secure the house and their belongings, allowing their mother, who suffers from a heart condition, to reach a bomb shelter. The children are caught off-guard as the incendiary bombs start huge fires that quickly destroy their neighborhood and most of the city. Although they survive unscathed, the fires destroy the shelter and their mother is horribly burned and dies soon after. Having nowhere else to go, Setsuko and Seita move in with a distant aunt, who allows them to stay but convinces Seita to sell his mother's kimonos for rice. While living with their relatives, Seita goes out to retrieve supplies he had buried before the bombing. He gives them all to his aunt, but hides a small tin of Sakuma fruit drops, which becomes a recurrent icon throughout the film. Their aunt continues to shelter them, but as food rations continue to shrink, she becomes increasingly resentful and openly remarks on how they do nothing to earn the food she cooks.

Seita and Setsuko finally decide to leave and 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 all died. She buries them all in a grave, asking why they had to die, and why her mother had to die. What began as a new lease on life grows grim as they run out of rice, forcing Seita to steal from local farmers and loot homes during air raids. When he is caught, he realizes his desperation and takes an increasingly-ill Setsuko to a doctor, who informs him that Setsuko is suffering from malnutrition but offers no help. In a panic, Seita withdraws all the money remaining in their mother's bank account, but as he leaves the bank, he becomes distraught when he learns from a nearby crowd that Japan has surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers. He also learns that his father, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy, is probably dead, since nearly all of Japan's navy is now at the bottom of the ocean. He returns to the shelter with a large quantity of food, only to find a dying Setsuko hallucinating. Seita hurries to cook, but she dies soon after. Seita cremates Setsuko, and puts her ashes in the fruit tin, which he carries along with his father's photograph, until his own death from malnutrition in Sannomiya Station a few weeks later.

In the film's final sequence, the spirits of Seita and Setsuko are seen healthy, well-dressed and happy as they sit together, surrounded by fireflies. The camera then moves overhead, showing the two of them looking down on the modern city of Kobe.


Character Original Japanese English (Central Park Media) English (Sentai/Seraphim)
Seita Tsutomu Tatsumi (辰巳 努 Tatsumi Tsutomu?) J. Robert Spencer Adam Gibbs
Setsuko Ayano Shiraishi (白石 綾乃 Shirashi Ayano?) Rhoda Chrosite Emily Neves
Seita and Setsuko's mother Yoshiko Shinohara (志乃原 良子 Shinohara Yoshiko?) Veronica Taylor Shelley Calene-Black
Seita and Setsuko's aunt Akemi Yamaguchi (山口 朱美 Yamaguchi Akemi?) Amy Jones Marcy Bannor



Grave of the Fireflies author Akiyuki Nosaka said that many offers had been made to create a film version of Grave of the Fireflies.[4] Nosaka argued that "[i]t was impossible to create the barren, scorched earth that's to be the backdrop of the story."[4] He also argued that contemporary children would not be able to convincingly play the characters. Nosaka expressed surprise when an animated version was offered.[4] 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.[4]

Isao Takahata said that he was compelled to film the novel after seeing how the main character, Seita, "was a unique wartime ninth grader."[5] 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.[4] 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."[6] Takahata said that Setsuko was even more difficult to animate than Seita, and that he had never before depicted a girl younger than five.[4] Takahata said that "[i]n that respect, when you make the book into a movie, Setsuko becomes a tangible person," and said that four-year olds often become more assertive, self-centered, and try to get their own ways during their ages, and he explained that while one could "have a scene where Seita can't stand that anymore," "that's difficult to incorporate into a story."[7] Takahata explained that the film is from Seita's point of view, "and even objective passages are filtered through his feelings."[6]

The film was released on 16 April 1988, over 20 years from the publication of the novel.[7]

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."[6] Takahata said that he had difficulty animating the scenery since, in Japanese animation, one is "not allowed" to depict Japan in a realistic manner.[4] Animators often traveled to foreign countries to do research on how to depict them, but such research had not been done before for a Japanese setting.[4]

Most of the illustration outlines in the film are in brown, instead of the customary black. Whenever black was used, it was 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 until that point it had never been used in an anime before, "and it was done on a challenge."[4] Yasuda explained that brown is more difficult to use than black because it does not contrast as well as black.[4]


The film score of Grave of the Fireflies was composed by Michio Mamiya. Mamiya is also a music specialist in baroque and classical music. The song Home Sweet Home was performed by coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci.[8]

Themes and analysis[edit]

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 ideologies. It emphasizes that war is society's failure to perform its most important duty to protect its own people.[9]

However, director Takahata repeatedly denied that the film was an anti-war film. In his own words, "[The film] 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.[10][11]


The film's initial theatrical release in Japan was accompanied by Hayao Miyazaki's much more lighthearted My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature. In commercial terms, the theatrical release was a failure.[12] While the two films were marketed toward children and their parents, the rather stark nature of Grave of the Fireflies turned away most 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 stabilized subsequent productions of Studio Ghibli.

Grave of the Fireflies is the first Ghibli film that The Walt Disney Company never had distribution rights to in the United States, since the film was not produced by parent company Tokuma Shoten, but by Shinchosha, the publisher of the original novel (although Disney has the rights of distribution of Grave of the Fireflies in Japan itself).[13] Grave of the Fireflies was released in the United States by Central Park Media as a subtitled VHS on June 2, 1993.[14] They later released a two-disc DVD set. The first disc contains the uncut film in both an English dub and the original Japanese with English subtitles as well as the film's storyboards. The second disc contains several extras, including a retrospective on the author of the original book, an interview with director Isao Takahata, and an interview with well-known critic Roger Ebert, who has expressed his admiration for the film on several occasions. Following the 2009 bankruptcy and liquidation of Central Park Media, ADV Films acquired the license to Grave of the Fireflies and re-released it to DVD on 7 July 2009.[15] Following the shutdown and re-branding of ADV in 2009, their successor, Sentai Filmworks, rescued the film and released a remastered DVD on 6 March 2012, and plans on releasing the film on digital outlets.[16][17][18] A Blu-ray edition was released on 20 November 2012, featuring an all-new English dub produced by Seraphim Digital.[19] Studio Canal released a Blu-ray in the United Kingdom on July 1, 2013.[20]


Grave of the Fireflies received near universal acclaim from film critics. The film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 97% approval rating based on 32 reviews. It offers the consensus: "An achingly sad anti-war film, Grave of the Fireflies is one of Studio Ghibli's most profoundly beautiful, haunting works".[21]

Grave of the Fireflies made Time Out magazine's, with help from director Terry Gilliam, top 50 animated film list, where it was ranked at #12 on the list.[22] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times put the film on his "Great Movies List" calling it, "an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation."[3]

Grave of the Fireflies ranked #12 on Total Film '​s 50 greatest animated films.[23] It was also ranked at #10 in Time Out magazine's "The 50 greatest World War II movies" list.[24] Empire magazine ranked the film at #6 in its list of "The Top 10 Depressing Movies".[25] The film ranked #19 on Wizard's Anime Magazine on their "Top 50 Anime released in North America".[26] Theron Martin of Anime News Network said that, in terms of the original U.S. Manga Corps dub, while the other voices were "perfectly acceptable," "Setsuko just doesn't sound quite convincing as a four-year-old in English. That, unfortunately, is a big negative, since a good chunk of the pathos the movie delivers is at least partly dependent on that performance."[16]


Year Award Category Result Recipient
1989 Blue Ribbon Awards Special Award Won Isao Takahata
1994 Chicago International Children's Film Festival Animation Jury Award Won Isao Takahata
Rights of the Child Award Won Isao Takahata


2005 live-action version[edit]

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 1 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[edit]

A different live-action version was released in Japan on 5 July 2008. The film stars Keiko Matsuzaka as the aunt and Seiko Matsuda as the children's mother.[27]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (12A)". British Board of Film Classification. 2013-05-17. Retrieved 2013-05-17. 
  2. ^ "Hotaru no haka". The Big Cartoon DataBase. The Big Cartoon DataBase. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (19 March 2000). "Grave of the Fireflies (1988)". Sun-Times Media. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Animerica Interview: Takahata and Nosaka: Two Grave Voices in Animation." Animerica. Volume 2, No. 11. Page 8. Translated by Animerica from: Takahata, Isao. Eiga o Tsukurinagara, Kangaeta Koto ("Things I Thought While Making Movies") Tokuma Shoten, 1991. Originally published in Animage, June 1987. This is a translation of a 1987 conversation between Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka.
  5. ^ "The Animerica Interview: Takahata and Nosaka: Two Grave Voices in Animation." Animerica. Volume 2, No. 11. Page 7. Translated by Animerica from: Takahata, Isao. Eiga o Tsukurinagara, Kangaeta Koto ("Things I Thought While Making Movies") Tokuma Shoten, 1991. Originally published in Animage, June 1987. This is a translation of a 1987 conversation between Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka.
  6. ^ a b c "The Animerica Interview: Takahata and Nosaka: Two Grave Voices in Animation." Animerica. Volume 2, No. 11. Page 10. Translated by Animerica from: Takahata, Isao. Eiga o Tsukurinagara, Kangaeta Koto ("Things I Thought While Making Movies") Tokuma Shoten, 1991. Originally published in Animage, June 1987. This is a translation of a 1987 conversation between Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka.
  7. ^ a b "The Animerica Interview: Takahata and Nosaka: Two Grave Voices in Animation." Animerica. Volume 2, No. 11. Page 9. Translated by Animerica from: Takahata, Isao. Eiga o Tsukurinagara, Kangaeta Koto ("Things I Thought While Making Movies") Tokuma Shoten, 1991. Originally published in Animage, June 1987. This is a translation of a 1987 conversation between Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka.
  8. ^ "Anime Classical: The Best Operatic Moment in Anime Was Also Its Saddest". Altorito. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  9. ^ Etherington, Daniel. "Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)". Film4. Channel Four Television Corporation. Retrieved 23 November 2012. 
  10. ^ Interview published on May 1988 edition of Animage
  11. ^ Takahata, Isao (1991). 映画を作りながら考えたこと [Things I Thought While Making Movies] (in Japanese). Tokuma Shoten. p. 471. ISBN 978-4-19-554639-0. 
  12. ^ Runyon, Christopher. "The Studio Ghibli Retrospective: ‘Grave of the Fireflies’". Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  13. ^ "The Disney-Tokuma Deal". Nausicaä.net. Retrieved 5 January 2011. 
  14. ^ "Animerica" 1 (4). Viz Media. June 1993. p. 18. ISSN 1067-0831. 
  15. ^ "ADV Adds Grave of the Fireflies, Now and Then, Here and There". Anime News Network. 5 May 2009. Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  16. ^ a b Martin, Theron (5 March 2012). "Review: Grave of the Fireflies: DVD – Remastered Edition". Anime News Network. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  17. ^ "ADV Films Shuts Down, Transfers Assets to Other Companies". Anime News Network. 1 September 2009. Retrieved 25 January 2010. 
  18. ^ "Sentai Filmworks Adds Grave of the Fireflies". Anime News Network. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  19. ^ "Grave of the Fireflies [Blu-ray] (2012)". Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  20. ^ "Kiki's Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies Double Play Released Monday (Updated)". Anime News Network. June 29, 2013. Retrieved December 27, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) (1988)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixter. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  22. ^ Adams, Derek; Calhoun, Dave; Davies, Adam Lee; Fairclough, Paul; Huddleston, Tom; Jenkins, David; Ward, Ossian; Gilliam, Terry. "Time Out's 50 greatest animated films: part 4". Time Out. Time Out Group. Retrieved 23 November 2012. 
  23. ^ Kinnear, Simon (10 October 2011). "50 Greatest Animated Movies: Classics worth 'tooning in for". Total Film. Future Publishing. Retrieved 23 November 2012. 
  24. ^ Davies, Adam Lee; Calhoun, Dave; Fairclough, Paul; Jenkins, David; Huddleston, Tom; Tarantino, Quentin. "The 50 greatest World War II movies: part five". Time Out. Time Out Group. Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  25. ^ Braund, Simon. "The Top 10 Depressing Movies". Empire. Bauer Consumer Media. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  26. ^ "Wizard lists Top 50 Anime". Anime News Network. 2001-07-06. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  27. ^ Tombstone of the Fireflies (2008) at
  28. ^ Rea, Jasmine. "In Defense of Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon". Bitmob. Bitmob. 

External links[edit]