Hong Kong Cinema

Grave of Fireflies

Grave of Fireflies
  • Made: 1988
  • Format: DVD
  • Region: PAL Reg 2
  • Release Date: Aug 23 2004
  • Company: Optimum Asia
  • Length: 90 mins
  • Picture: Anamorphic 16:9 widescreen
  • Sound: DD 2.0
  • Language: Japanese language with English subtitles
  • Extras: Storyboards, Interview with Isao Takahata, 'Historical Perspective' doc, An interview with Roger Ebert, 'Video Restoration' featurette, Art gallery, Biographies
  • Classification: 12


Isao Takahata


Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Grave of Fireflies is a late-eighties production from the remarkable Studio Ghibli. One of the darkest releases from the Studio, this is widely regarded as one of their finest as well. Unlike most Ghibli animations, there was little involvement from studio founder Hayao Miyazaki. It is instead a rare directorial outing for Isao Takahata (Pon Poko, My Neighbours The Yamadas) who adapted Nosaka Akiyuki's semi-autobiographical 1967 novel. Studio Ghibli decided to release Grave of Fireflies as a double-bill with My Neighbor Totoro to make sure the audiences did not get too depressed.

Much historical focus is giving to the A-bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WW2. Many fail to give appropriate regard to the fire-bombing that preceded these atomic strikes in summer 1945. In some ways it is parallel to the awkward acknowledgement of napalm usage by the US in Korea and Vietnam. Because Japan's major cities were still dominated by wooden structures, fire-bombing was an extremely effective tool for mass destruction (including staggering civilian casualties). During one of the largest early raids March 9-10 1945 over 1500 tonnes of fire-bombs were released with an estimated death count of 100,000. The debate still rages whether such military tactics were war crimes, but the combined civilian death toll from such attacks far surpassed the atomic strikes on Japan.


Grave of Fireflies follows brother and sister (Seita and Setsuko) who struggle to survive following the death of their mother in a fire-bomb strike during World War 2. They are forced to stay with relatives and ultimately scavenge during their fight for survival. They reside in a shelter which is illuminated by fireflies during the evening. This is one of the few comforts that the two siblings share during their ordeal. As events continue to deteriorate for Seita and Setsuko, Seita's stubborn pride to provide for his younger sister increases further.


Many considers Seita's stubborness to admit defeat in his quest to fend for Setsuko is an metaphor for Japan's stubborn resistance during World War 2, even once the outcome was beyond doubt. Grave of Fireflies is also remarkable as it refuses to indulge itself in the violence and terror of actual wartime conflict. Apart from a few shots of faceless American bombers, the enemy is notably absent from the movie. Grave of Fireflies is not about the horror of conflict or a condemnation of US behaviour, but rather a tragic account of the civilain ordeal that war inflicts on a nation.

The film moves at a slow but steady pace. This makes the demise of the young children particularly draining. The suffering is not sudden or violent, it is rather patient and creeping. This depiction goes right to the core of everyone's worst fears, a long and lingering death. Within all this suffering there are touching scenes as the siblings try to overcome their desparate plight together. They highlight unbreakable spirit and imagination of youth in a world ruined by their adults.


The double disc edition from Optimum Asia marks its debut release in the UK. The anamorphic 16:9 widescreen print is clean and crisp. It is supported by English and Japanese language options. The second disc has several interviews (Isao Takahata, Nosaka Akiyuki, Robert Ebert), biographies, storyboards, video restoration featurette and a historical perspective documentary. This is identical to the superb US disc, which is just what a film like Grave of Fireflies deserves.


Grave of Fireflies, is a peerless animation that goes where few have dared to tread. It looks at human suffering without blurring the lens with melodrama or heroism. It is a treatise against human stubborness and pride. The disastrous ending is as emotional as a movie can get, this is a remarkable achievement for any film, especially an anime production.