- Grave of the Fireflies is a brutally realistic portrayal of life in war-torn Japan, showing the devastating impact of bombings, food shortages, and rationing.
- Seita and Setsuko die from starvation and malnutrition, with Setsuko’s condition deteriorating as she hallucinates and eats marbles.
- Seita kept Setsuko at the bomb shelter instead of returning to their aunt’s house because he was trying to protect her innocence and believed their father would return, but by the time he realized the war was over, it was too late.
Grave of the Fireflies has a reputation as one of the most depressing animated movies of all time, and its ending explains the cost of war on the people of Japan, particularly Seita and Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 animated movie from Studio Ghiblo, the second film produced by the Japanese studio following Castle in the Sky in 1986. Grave of the Fireflies is written and directed by Isao Takahata, one of the few filmmakers to produce multiple Studio Ghibli other than Hayao Miyazaki.
After their hometown, Kobe, Japan is bombed and burned to the ground and their mother dies, Seito and his younger sister Setsuko move in with an aunt. The aunt slowly becomes less tolerant of Seito and Setsuko sharing the family’s food and home, so the siblings leave and begin living in an abandoned bomb shelter outside of town. At first Seito has enough money left over from his mother to buy food Setsuko, but war rationing and limited supplies make it harder to get food. Eventually, even though the war is over, Setsuko dies of malnutrition, and Seito eventually shares a similar fate as the siblings’ spirits reunite in the afterlife.
Is Grave of the Fireflies a True Story?
How it’s different from the short story.
Grave of the Fireflies It’s based on a short story by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka. The story is fictional, but highly influenced by his experience growing up during and after WWII in Japan. There was a lot of interest in making Grave of the Fireflies in live-action (and it eventually was in 2005), but Nosaka didn’t think it could be done convincingly until he saw the storyboards for Takahata’s animated version. Nosaka’s sister died of malnutrition following the bombing of Kobe and he always felt responsible, so the story was his way of apologizing for failing to take better care of her.
In real life, Akuyiki Nosaka had two sisters, one of which died in the bombing of Kobe, while the other, Keiko, was an infant who died of malnutrition. Setsuko is inspired by Keiko.
While most Studio Ghibli movies are inspired by fictional stories with far more fantastical elements, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most grounded and brutal in its story. While it’s framed through the lens of the spirits of Seita and Setsuko observing their own life, it’s otherwise brutally realistic in its story and themes. While it’s not a literal retelling of any particular story, it’s generally an accurate depiction of life in a Japanese village like Kobe and how average citizens were impacted by regular air strikes, food shortages, and government rationing of resources.
How Did Seita and Setsuko Die?
The opening scene of Grave of the Fireflies shows Seita and several other boys around his age dying at the train station where they were begging for food. Given the circumstances, it’s pretty clear they died of starvation and malnutrition. The situation is far more explicit with Setsuko, as her condition slowly deteriorates and the doctor explicitly tells Seita she’s malnourished and needs food. Seita goes to the city to buy food for her and even feeds her a little bit of watermelon, but when he gets back it’s already too late. She’s delirious, eating marbles, and hallucinating that rocks are actually rice.
Why Didn’t Seita and Setsuko Go Back to Their Aunt’s House?
They didn’t have to die…
While Seita and Setsuko’s aunt is initially accommodating, she very quickly grows impatient with the children, particularly Seita, because he doesn’t do any work around the house or participate in helping the town or the war effort in any way. Their aunt regularly praises their uncle and cousin for the ways that they chip in and gives them extra portions at mealtime, but Seita focuses his energy on taking care of Setsuko instead. While they eventually leave their aunt’s house, they’re only a short distance away and could go back, so why does Seita keep Setsuko at the bomb shelter until she dies of malnutrition instead of returning and apologizing to his aunt?
Seita was resourceful, but it’s important to remember he was still just a kid. Initially, he was trying to shelter Setsuko from the news of their mother’s death, but later he was waiting for the return of their father. He thought he simply needed to take care of Setsuko until the war ended and their father returned, but by the time he discovered the war was over, and their father was probably dead, it was too late. News of their father’s death may have been the thing that could have finally convinced Seita to return to their aunt, but by that point, it was too late, since Setsuko died that same day.
Grave of the Fireflies Ending and True Meaning Explained
What do the Sakuma Drops and fireflies represent?
Since Japan was a member of the Axis in WWII and allied with Nazi Germany, not many stories about the war shed light on what it was like for the Japanese people. Supply shortages and government rations were common in other countries, too, as nations diverted basic resources to fund the war effort, but in far more industrialized societies like the United States, the average citizen struggled far less. In addition, Grave of the Fireflies shows how regular attacks from American bombers caused devastation to Japanese citizens, even if they weren’t directly involved in the war effort.
Throughout Grave of the Fireflies, Seita does his best to preserve Setsuko’s innocence by sheltering her from the news of their mother’s death. While it looks sweet at first, it’s ultimately what kills them both, when facing reality and working as a part of the village would have served them better in the long run. The tin of Sakuma Drops candy are an illustration of this throughout the movie. Seita gives Setsuko drops when she gets upset, and even has her eat one in place of food at one point, but the sugary candy doesn’t actually provide any nourishment, and when it runs out they have nothing left.
The theme of fireflies is established early on as they accompany the spirits of Setsuko and Seita. The movie’s title is explicitly referenced when the fireflies die and Setsuko makes them a grave outside the bomb shelter. While she buries the fireflies, she reveals she knows their mother died as Seita has a flashback to the bodies from their village and he allows himself to cry for the first time. In his effort to protect Setsuko’s innocence, she’d known anyway, and even something as simple as the death of the fireflies that lit their shelter for a night reminded them of the terrible human cost of a war that had nothing to do with them.