Classic Japanese Animation: Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) and Brutality of War

Classic Japanese Animation: Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) and Brutality of War

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Grave of the Fireflies is a very moving animation film that focuses on the innocence of children and the brutality of war.  It is a film that blends aspects of reality therefore it is easy to forget that Grave of the Fireflies is an animation film. This is based on the two main characters that are full of humanity and love, despite all the burdens they face. Also, you feel their huge highs and tragic lows at all times throughout the film.

In many ways Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) is in a class of its own because from start to finish you can feel the reality of war.  More important, it is not overtly sentimental from any nationalistic point of view and it does not portray victor or vanquished in any harsh light.

Instead it based on the strong bond between a loving brother and devoted sister and how they both try to endure the reality of war. Similarly, despite the harsh reality of what is happening, the innocence of childhood creates rare moments of joy and fresh hope.

The film was written and directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Shinchosha (production work was done by Studio Ghibli), while Akiyuki Nosaka who fuses the novel with the reality of his own memories bases the film on his own personal experiences. However, he changes the theme to different degrees in order to create an amazing novel that brings to light the real reality of war from the point of view of children.

The Grave of the Fireflies was intended as a heartfelt and sincere apology to the author’s sister who tragically died from sickness. This fact is clear because the passion of the characters and how events unfolded could only have been written and expressed by someone who experienced such wrenching times. Therefore, full credit must be given to Isao Takahata because even grown adults will do well not to cry and feel the tragic loss near the end when the plot unfolds. Also, Isao Takahata shows the simple beauty of nature.

More intriguing, is that the animation film does not have to turn to any ideology or to provide evidence of who is right or wrong.  Instead, it is about two young children who are fighting against terrible adversity and how moments of rare joy lights up their world.

The film also highlights the innocence of civilians therefore when people focus on anti-German sentiments or anti-Japanese sentiments during this period of history, it is worth remembering the millions of innocent Japanese and German people, and all other nationalities in a multitude of conflicts, who have been brushed aside by historians – or the media – in order to suit their various agendas.

Yes, we know that innocents are always killed in war but this film focuses on the inhumanity of war and of human nature.  For the adversity that these two children face is not just the threat of allied bombings and the destruction that unfolds; but the film also shows the inhumanity of other family members who care little about these two children. It also highlights the neglect of the Japanese people by their own government who could not understand the reality of what had befallen the people of the land of the rising sun.

Seita and Setsuko


The film is based on the pre-teen Seita and Setsuko (his younger sister) and how he strives to protect her once they become orphaned.  From the start you see Seita in Sannomiya Station where he is dying of starvation and in a terrible condition.  Then a janitor just prods Seita and throws out a candy tin containing what he holds dear because inside the tin are ashes and bones.

After this, the spirit of Setsuko and Seita are released and a cloud of fireflies can be seen.  From this starts the story and Seita’s spirit then narrates the tragic events that unfold during this brutal period of history. Also, you have a flashback to the Kobe fire-bombings and the ending of World War Two.

Straight away the symbol of America’s power can be seen and this applies to B-29s and while the children escape, their mother, who is already sick, is injured severely. The entailing injuries during the bombing raid means that shortly afterwards she dies from terrible burns.

Now their world is turned upside down therefore Seita focuses his energy on protecting Setsuko. Their options are now severely limited because they have been abandoned and they are in the midst of a brutal war.  Therefore, Seita hopes to find solace with their aunt but in time she turns out to be cold and full of bitterness. This reality means that Seita is forced to sell many things and in time the only thing left is a small tin of fruit drops.

The tin of fruit drops often pops up in the film alongside the coldness of their aunt during a period of major upheaval for both children.  In truth, their aunt resents Seita and Setsuko because they are deemed to be a burden and open to exploitation.  Therefore, they leave and move into an abandoned bomb shelter whereby fireflies fill their dark world with the beautiful light of nature.

However, the beautiful light of nature dies quickly therefore Setsuko becomes mortified when she finds out that all the fireflies have died.  Their brief moment of joy ends all too quickly. Then Setsuko painfully asks Seita why the fireflies had to die and why her mother had to die.

Now their life is full of despair and anguish but Seita remains strong despite the light of Setsuko fading all too quickly.  Seita is now forced to steal crops and loot abandoned homes during fresh bombing attacks. Obviously, the harshness of their situation means that Seita feels terrible desperation therefore he throws the last dice by taking Setsuko to see a doctor.

However, just like the American bombers that did not care about life and death – or just like the Japanese military who did not care about the innocents they killed – then the same inhumanity and hopelessness is found in the doctor because he offers no solution or provides compassion.  The doctor just ushers in a blunt statement that Setsuko is suffering from malnutrition and he provides no comfort or remedy.

Seita then hears about Japan’s unconditional surrender but for Setsuko the darkness of death is getting closer.  When Seita returns to the shelter he finds Setsuko hallucinating because she thinks that she is sucking on fruit drops. Sadly, despite Seita’s deep care and love it is all too late because Setsuko dies of starvation.

After this Seita cremates Setsuko, the sister he cherishes and cares deeply about, and he puts her ashes into the fruit tin that he carries. This fruit tin, alongside a photo of his father and the memories of his mother, is all that remains of a life that is soon to fade away because his candle is now very weak. Then turning back to the train station where the story began you can see the emaciated body of Seita.

At the end you see the two-orphaned children but the spirits of Seita and Setsuko are no longer skin and bones and filled with pain. Instead, they are reunited and dressed in nice clothes and they are now looking down on the city of Kobe.

Many people view this animation film to be anti-war film but like any film you will have different interpretations.  Given this reality, it may well be that the film is based on the tormented soul of the writer who witnessed so much pain and anguish. In other words, the Grave of the Fireflies is about the struggle that the author faced but with different realities being added to the storyline.

When turning to the bigger picture it is clear that you had countless Seita’s and Setsuko’s who witnessed the brutality of this period.  Therefore, the war theme is obvious but the animation film focuses heavily on the dark side and coldness of human nature and not just the brutal reality of war.

It is not for me to say what the real meaning is or is not. However, if you have never seen this animation film then it is recommend that you put this on your shortlist.

Yes, this animation film is not new but despite this reality it is a classic. Also, it reaches the heart unlike the vast majority of films that fail in this regard. After all, the brief highs are fantastically high but the lows are full of heartache and wrenching scenes based on sorrow. At the same time, the film reminds us of the brutality of World War Two and the continuing struggle that rages in many nations throughout the world that are blighted by war.

More than this, it highlights two innocents who are caught up in a tragic adult world and how inhumanity is not only at the drop of a bomb, but also within families and communities.  Grave of the Fireflies


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