“Grave of the Fireflies” is a timely movie, all the time

You all follow Movies with Mikey, right? He’s a guy who really loves the movies, and does these wonderful analyses of pop culture — between him and Lindsay Ellis I’m learning to see movies with a fresh eye.

Anyway, he’s started a new series, “Lessons Animation Taught Us”, and it’s…interesting.

Much of it is about how children and adults see these kid’s movies with a different eye. Lessons learned:

  • He really liked Disney’s “Sword in the Stone” as a kid — I didn’t care for it myself, but I read TH White’s book first, which I found much more vivid than the movie — but it’s really the story of an abused child deprived of all agency and trapped in a fate he didn’t want.

  • “Dumbo” is horrifying. It’s the story of an abused, tortured child told through the lens of a racist culture. Don’t show it to your children.

  • But the movie we are all obligated to see, and the one we should take more lessons from, is “Grave of the Fireflies”.

    Let that one sink in for a moment.

    I took my daughter to see that one when she was a teenager. We thought, ah, Studio Ghibli, it’ll be fun and quirky and thoughtful and beautiful. It’s a about a 3 year old girl dying slowly of starvation after the firebombing of Japan in WWII. We walked home afterwards in a kind of shocked silence.

Mikey is right, though. Americans should actually all see the consequences of our actions abroad.


  1. says

    I agree, with the caveat that you may actually be traumatised by this film. I’m still careful who I recommend this to given my own very intense response.

  2. rayceeya says

    I watched it once and have no desire to see it again. It was heartbreaking and beautiful and I cried. And I have no desire to watch it again.

    I’ll add one thing as well. If you choose to watch Grave of Fireflies, you must watch the whole film end to end, start to finish.

  3. says

    When Sarah was five, we showed her KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, and when the girl left home, she had a meltdown and we had to stop the movie to reassure her. It was a real eye-opener for us. We had known, in some way, that most animated films had broken families of whatever sort, but now we had to be aware that these could be triggers for someone who’d spent her first year in an orphanage.

    I was reminded recently that GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES was first released as a double bill with MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. This just plain boggles me.

    Dumbo was an abused kid, for sure. It was one of the few Disney features that wasn’t based on a known story. Ultimately, it’s a tale of triumph over adversity, but 4/5 of the movie is the adversity. Perhaps, as Gershon Legman has said, the point of a joke isn’t the punchline, but all the stuff you say before the punchline.

    As an original Disney feature, it bypassed the usual coin flip of whether I’d read the book before I saw the movie (in which case I’d prefer the book) or vice versa.

    (I’ve seen GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, and agree that it is a great film. No desire to discuss it, though. Hurts.)

  4. rejiquar says

    Our local art museum has a theater in that gorgeous 1920s gold’n’velvet tradition, utterly suitable for the art house and foreign films they show. We saw _Grave_ there many years ago, for adult audiences, but even so, I was unprepared for its impact. Like several other posters, I’ve never felt the need to see it again, though I did seek out _Barefoot Gen_, which is another Japanese manga treatment of the theme.

    _Grave of the Firefly_ ranks right up there with _Guernica_ for its searing, anti-war indictment.

    I would, however, suggest that _The Breadwinner_, which I saw recently on Netflix, might be more appropriate for children—like _Grave_ it’s not terrifically gory, and certainly doesn’t pull many punches. It does, however, have a slightly more upbeat ending. It’s also in (accented) English, so the kids needn’t be able to read subtitles to get the original version.

  5. Chakat Firepaw says

    @Kip T.W. #3

    I was reminded recently that GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES was first released as a double bill with MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. This just plain boggles me.

    Back when I saw it¹, the advice going around anime clubs was that you either showed Grave last or you followed it up with something like Totoro, so that release pairing doesn’t surprise me.

    1: Add me to the list of “saw it, it was a great film, never want to watch it again.”

  6. MHiggo says

    Mikey is an absolute delight. Not only is his analysis geared toward appreciating and celebrating what is good rather than tearing films down — an apparently rare tack among the YouTube film crowd these days — but he’s also quite the quizmaster. It’s great to see him doing so well after striking out on his own.

  7. Matrim says

    @5, rejiquar

    _Grave of the Firefly_ ranks right up there with _Guernica_ for its searing, anti-war indictment.

    According to the director, it’s not an anti-war film at all, and any such interpretation is not in line with his work. He saw it as an “image of a brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society.”

    The director apparently is anti-war, but feels that art depicting suffering to spread an anti-war message is as likely to be used by proponents of war to show that war is necessary to prevent such suffering in the long term.

  8. microraptor says

    Matrim @8:

    As François Truffaut noted, it’s hard to make a true anti-war movie that doesn’t in some way make war look cool.

  9. ridana says

    #3 @ Kip T.W.
    A friend of mine showed Spirited Away to her kids, and with all the images of creepy No-Face, sentient pollution blobs and dragons fighting and bleeding, the thing that absolutely freaked them out the most was the parents turning into pigs. Even when the movie ended and all was well, they still kept asking for assurances that their parents wouldn’t turn into pigs.

    There’s just no telling what’s going to resonate with individual kids. But despite Ghibli’s reputation for child-friendly fare, they still put out a lot of films chock full of nightmare fuel for young and old alike. See the infested, rampaging boar of Princess Mononoke or the red-eyed, larval Ohm of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Frankly, I’d recommend googling images and synopses from any Ghibli movie before watching them with your kids. Even Totoro has the hospitalized mother that could upset some kids, despite how it’s handled with kid gloves.
    Also, anime has a tendency to turn on a dime with its themes. For example Now and Then, Here and There starts out seeming to be about a genki kid who never gives up and always looks on the bright side in his happy village and loving family…and then at the end of the first episode turns into a nightmarish indictment of child soldiers and the despotism of a madman and his enablers. In other words, you can’t depend on just an innocuous-sounding title or a studio’s reputation, so do a little research first and choose wisely!

  10. patricklinnen says

    My folks tell me that Totoro terrified my youngest niece with the howl he gave out when he first showed up. However she loved the film. Enough so that it became her comfort video of choice, until the VHS tape wore out. Then they switched to DVD.

    While I don’t know about the rest of the Ghibli collection of films like Porco Rosso or Castle of Cagliostro, my nieces did enjoy the “Sherlock Hound” series the studio made for Italy. I have been told that “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” made an impression as well.

  11. hemidactylus says


    Bit OT maybe since people are talking about kids movies, but Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun was anti-war and didn’t seem to glorify war at all though it did pick up on some of the nobility, honor, duty, and other tropes. Horrifying tragic and traumatizing movie I would not have watched if not for a well worn Metallica video. Not for children or adults.

  12. wcaryk says

    I’ve watched most of what Studio Ghibli has put out, but I’ve still to summon the nerve to watch Grave of the Fireflies.

  13. unclefrogy says

    I have not seen any of the movies from studio Ghibli, I never even heard of them before. I am a bit of a fan of fairy tails and folk tales and many have very dark elements in then, children see thing as they are more easily then adults they see the dark things all around all ready. There are some Japanese movies I have seen that have a very different take on thing than Hollywood or the west in general, Dodesukaden and resurrection bridge come to mind. and most of the ghost stories.
    I have seen Johnny got his gun a couple of times, not sure it is anti-war as much as brutally honest about what is the soldiers lot and how no one can really confront it honestly, we hide the reality away.
    Disney on the other hand loves to coverup the much of the strongest parts of the stories it adopts with cute
    I must confess I teared up with just the discussion above
    uncle frogy

  14. gijoel says

    Yeah, I ain’t watching that film. I tried to read the Handmaid’s tale a few years ago and only got halfway through before I gave up in despair. I suspect Grave of fireflies is like that, awful in that they inspire awe and dread. Horrible in that they are horribly, brutally well written.

  15. anthrosciguy says

    We watched Grave of the Fireflies about ten years ago. It was one of the best movies we’ve ever seen. And we usually rewatch movies pretty often. But we haven’t been able to watch Grave of the Fireflies again.

    AFAIK the writer based the story on his own experiences during the war, when two of his sisters died of malnutrition. I’ve previously read that he blamed himself for at least one of those deaths.

  16. hemidactylus says


    I perceive Johnny Got His Gun as antiwar. How else could it be taken? I recall when my dad was still alive and we were watching some news show where there was an official military ceremony featured and they played “One”. I told my dad that it was an odd juxtaposition to play that song at a military ceremony. It seemed incongruous.

    As for Japanese movies I just received Rashomon. I had seen it before and have that and Hagakure as books. My interest in both was piqued by Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog. Blame Wu Tang and RZA.

    I did go to source with Koji Suzuki’s Ringu. Well worth the read for the real backstory before Hollywood stole and bastardized it and other Japanese horror. That was a travesty, but not as much as the Audition itself. That can’t be unseen and I heard Hollywood was going to steal that too. Why? I duped a friend into watching it by saying it was Japanese version of When Harry Met Sally. Imagine the shock that ensued.

  17. hemidactylus says

    19- Kip T.W.
    Thanks. One thing that really hit me hard in the movie even as a nonbeliever was Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of Jesus, especially the rage on the train. He didn’t rage like that again until Body Snatchers. But seriously the Jesus stuff in that movie drove me to tears.

    But also on antiwar front would have to be Quiet American book by Greene and portrayal by Michael Caine vs. Brendan Fraser in movie. Forget Audie Murphy version.

  18. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Grave of the Fireflies was seriously heart-wrenching drama that I still hesitate watching again, once was moving enough.
    I am a serious fan of everything from Ghibli Studios. (
    Howls Moving Castle the pinnacle).
    Most recently saw a special re-release of Return of the Cat as part of the Ghibli Festival underway. I highly recommend this movie for its lighthearted portrayal of a girl achieving her adulthood by embracing herself and her uniqueness among her peers. Left me with a big smile and warm heart as the credits rolled.
    The ‘English dub’ (oh, i know, real fans of anime all prefer “subs” vs “dubs”) I saw, had some great voices cast.
    check it out.

  19. gjpetch says

    Talking about T.H. White, I’d highly recommend The Book of Merlyn. It’s really among my favorite books ever, and I found it a good antidote to despair.

  20. Johnny Vector says

    I’m working my way through the Miyazaki canon, and it really does take a sudden turn for the better at Totoro. I hadn’t heard of Grave of the Fireflies, and now I’m sad in advance that I need to watch it.

    I will say that Mikey took me right out of the story when he pronounced “Ghibli” with a hard G. Ye gods, man, it’s right there in the katakana. スタジオジブリ。 Su-ta-ji-o ji-bu-ri.

  21. brett says

    I still really enjoy Sword in the Stone, but the ending is by and far the weakest part of it, and it has nothing to do thematically with the rest of the movie. The only reason it doesn’t feel completely tacked-on is because they started the movie with the bit about the sword in the stone . . . and then more or less ignored that for 90% of the film, which is Merlin trying to teach Arthur the importance of an education through some entertaining but bumbling lessons (I especially love the wizards duel, which Mikey liked as well).

    It wasn’t the only Disney film in that era to have that problem. Jungle Book also had a weak, tacked-on ending, and when I listed to the “School of Movies” podcast on it they said the creators of it more or less admitted they had no idea how to end the film (the live-action movie they made of it recently ends much better).


    According to the director, it’s not an anti-war film at all, and any such interpretation is not in line with his work. He saw it as an “image of a brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society.”

    I’ll second that as well. It’s what frames the movie – at key junctures, Seita and Setsuko are repeatedly failed by adults who know their plight but do nothing to help. There’s a good essay out there I read once that compared it with Barefoot Gen, which is also set in late WW2 Japan but is explicitly anti-war. I wonder if I can find.

  22. keinsignal says

    As I type this, I have on a shelf next to me just about the single most baffling movie tie-in product ever made: a little red-and-black tin of hard candies with a “Grave of the Fireflies” logo and a picture of the little girl from the movie.

    Hell of a conversation-starter (if you like conversations that start with “WHY WOULD ANYBODY DO THIS?”)

  23. says

    It’s actually quite terrible. Deeply manipulative and emotionally false Fireflies is one of the most cringey animated movies I’ve seen. I haven’t seen it in years but if I recall correct the older bother is largely (not exclusively) responsible for his sister’s oh so tragic death.

  24. says

    @26 Mike Smith

    He’s also like six or seven himself, and it was based on the author’s real experiences so… seems kind of “I think all feels are fake” of you to call it “cringey” and “emotionally false”.