This month marks the 30th anniversary of Grave of the Fireflies. Unfortunately, this month also brought with it the death of the film’s director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. Takahata’s impact on the anime world cannot be overstated, and this film is a testament to his influence. One of the most tragic and heartbreaking films ever made, Grave of the Fireflies is a classic that deserves a place in every anime fan’s heart.
Seita and his little sister Setsuko are the focus of this dramatic World War II. Seita, a young man trying his best to survive, does everything he can to care for his little sister Setsuko. After all, they only have each other. Despite their circumstances, the two try to remain in high spirits, but the odds are stacked against them at every turn. Their struggle to survive naturally results in a number of heartbreaking moments, but, perhaps, none more so than the five listed below.
When Grave of the Fireflies opens, we witness the death of Seita. He sits in a train station almost lifeless as the world passes him by. It’s a sad sight to see, but nothing can prepare us for what comes next. He slumps to the ground, utters his sister’s name, and dies. Even if you haven’t seen the movie before, this is a very emotional moment.
Under normal circumstances, the death of a kid would be enough to make anyone cry, but Grave of the Fireflies takes this moment much further. Setsuko rises from the grass outside the station surrounded by a swarm of fireflies. Seita appears behind her, and we realize that they are together again in the afterlife.
From there, the film jumps back in time and forces us to watch the tragic events that led to their untimely deaths unfold. It’s hard to hold back tears when you know that, despite their best efforts, they will meet the same tragic end.
Seita and Setsuko’s Mom Gets Hurt
We only see a little of Seita and Setsuko’s mother before disaster strikes, but it’s long enough for us to empathize with her two children. We witness the sadness that comes from two young children coping with the loss of a parent. Their father’s (a member of the Navy who never appears in the film) absence makes their mother’s injury all the more tragic.
After their town is firebombed at the beginning of the film, their mother says goodbye and promises to meet her children at the town shelter. The next time we see her, she’s at the shelter and covered in bandages from head to toe. We don’t know what happened to their mom, but it’s painfully clear that she’s a goner. At that moment, when Setia should be concerned about himself, he desperately asks the man at the shelter about giving his mother her heart medicine. You may need to buy a new box of Kleenex after this scene.
Fireflies in the Shelter
Eventually, Seita and Setsuko run off on their own and wind up living in a small shelter next to a river. They take their remaining possessions and try to make a home out of their environment. In an attempt to make his sister happy, Seita helps Setsuko catch an entire box of fireflies. This leads to one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in the movie.
Seita and Setsuko release the box of fireflies in their shelter. The fireflies light up the room and fly around their hanging mosquito net. Setsuko happily drifts off to sleep, but as she does, the bugs begin to die out and fall to the ground. The next day, Setsuko scoops up her beloved fireflies and makes a mass grave for them, as she’s also just learned her mother is in a grave as well. The silent tears that Seita sheds at this moment are more than enough to bring on the waterworks.
Seita Arrested for Theft
Without any income and running low on food rations, Seita turns to stealing from local farms for food. A man catches Seita and beats him for trying to make off with a handful of radishes. As if the beating wasn’t bad enough, the man forces Seita to reveal where he and Setsuko had been hiding and then turns Seita into the police. This entire scene is difficult to watch, but it gets even worse when you notice poor Setsuko.
While Seita goes out at night, Setsuko is left alone. She cries helplessly as the careless man beats her brother and even follows them all the way to the police station. It’s clear that Setsuko can’t take care of herself. If Seita were thrown in jail, she’d be completely alone. Luckily, that doesn’t happen, but Setsuko’s vulnerability stays with us through the rest of the film.
Setsuko Passes Away
Setsuko’s imminent death is the most horrific tragedy to occur in the movie. Over the course of the film, we watch Setsuko become sicker and sicker due to malnourishment. Eventually, the lack of food catches up with her, and she loses her life. Her final moments are enough to make any member of the audience burst into tears.
All Seita and Setsuko had up until that point was each other. They survived without their parents and were rejected by other members of their family. It’s why Seita’s passing is not only depressing but necessary. It’s impossible to imagine one surviving without the other. This is what makes the beginning and ending so powerful. Grave of the Fireflies is about the bond these two have, even in the afterlife.