Grave of the Fireflies
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that fans of Japanese animation -- heck, fans of all animation -- pretty much agree, this is the saddest cartoon of all time, a potentially traumatic viewing experience. Two sympathetic children sicken and slowly die (and their mother is hideously wounded before her own demise), with the only balm being that the kids' spirits have a tender afterlife reunion. There is a beating, wartime aerial bombardment and gunfire, and other dead bodies are shown, both soldiers and civilians. The larger issues of WWII (like why Americans might be incinerating Japanese villagers) are never discussed. A few minor plot details are best comprehended with a knowledge of Japanese custom and culture (especially funerals!).
What's the story?
In a Japanese train station in September 1945, a ragged, starved, homeless youth dies, barely noticed by the cleanup crew getting set for the arriving, victorious American WWII forces. The boy's spirit unites with a little girl, and in a flashback we learn that they are a brother, Seita, and his small sister, Setsuko. With Seita's father serving in the Japanese Imperial Navy and their mother ailing, Seita spends most of his time looking lovingly after Setsuko. When American bombardment destroys their home and kills their mother, the two children move in with an unwelcoming aunt, Seito keeping the awful truth from Setsuko as best he can. Unable to tolerate his aunt's insults, Seita leaves with Setsuko to live by themselves in a disused bomb shelter, catching fireflies for illumination and stealing food. But malnutrition and illness ruins Setsuko's health. As Japan surrenders, Setsuko dies, and a heartbroken Seita (resigned that his father is also likely dead) cremates his little sister shortly before his own end.
Is it any good?
Even seen-it-all critics such as Roger Ebert admit to having been moved to tears by this stirring and memorable film -- which is based on actual events. Though the author of the 1967 novel, who lost his kid sister during the war, obviously lived to write ruefully about it afterwards, one gets a tragic sense from this material of witnessing a story that comes from directly the voiceless, the countless unnamed, unknown child casualties of war and government violence, not necessarily in WWII but everywhere.
The visually beautiful but realistic animation offers no fantasy heroics, no talking-animal sidekicks, and only the merest comfort (actually a whole new level of poignancy all by itself) when the deceased brother and sister meet again as spirits. There are far more violent WWII films -- and anime -- but this doesn't need graphic bloodshed for devastating impact, and it should be watched with the same caution that some parents might reserve for Schindler's List.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about the way the characters react to the strife of wartime. What might you have done in Seita's place?
Why does Seita make the calamitous decision to try and live with Setsuko all on his own?
Would this story have been equally as affecting if it had been told using live-action, not animation? What if characters had been grownups, not kids?