Grave of the Fireflies... the title itself would suggest that it is a film about death. "September 21, 1945... That was the night I died," says the ghost of Seita, a fourteen-year-old boy. We see Seita lying about at a train station, looking ragged and forlorn. As the time passes by, he too, becomes a "goner." At his last moments, he clutches a rusty tin, which used to hold his four-year-old sister Setsuko's favorite fruit candy. The spirits of Seita and Setsuko meet, and they ride a train together. The end.
Then the story begins as a flashback. The film takes place during World War II, when Japan is attacked by incendiary bombs that destroy numerous towns in seas of fire. Sirens warn people to run to bomb shelters, but nonetheless, losses are inevitable. Seita and Setsuko become orphaned victims of the warfare, and they have to cope with surviving in a country where food is scarce and resources are insufficient. People struggle to protect themselves from this chaos. Starvation and illness lurk in dark corners, and no one can help. There is no hope. They are alone.
This is the most depressing animated film I've ever seen. On the other hand, it is also one of the most captivating and moving films I've ever seen. It is very real, and at times, more graphic than I would like it to be. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, this film creates a hopeless and dreary mood. This movie was based on Nosaka Akiyuki's novel, Hotaru no Haka. The novel was semi-autobiographical because the author also lost his younger sister in World War II to malnutrition, and he blamed himself for her death for a very long time. The novel allowed him to deal with her passing away.
An interesting note is that Grave of the Fireflies and Totoro were shown as a double feature at the theater.