Title: Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓)
Released: 1988

Director: Isao Takahata
Class Superlative: You’re the First, the Last, My Everything

In a Land of Pure Imagination Utter Devastation

The very first thing you learn about Seita is that he dies on September 21, 1945. Yup, it’s a war movie about children. You’re going to need tissues for this one, TRUST.

The tear pile from the last time I watched this. Trufax: I couldn’t even make it through the DVD menu without my eyes watering. And the waterworks officially started after the first three minutes.

(A disclaimer: I’m a really specific and erratic crier. Even the biggest YA tearjerkers don’t get actual tears from me — just a burst of “This is what crying would feel like.” So I just might be part robot. When I’m not being an emotional mess, I mean — like when I’m watching this movie. My biggest ugly-cries were actually reserved for the happy moments, because omg they don’t know what’s in store for them.)

The film is a flashback showing the events leading up to Seita’s death. As World War II nears its end, Seita and his little sister, Setsuko, head to a bomb shelter during the firebombing of Kobe. In the aftermath, the siblings are taken in by distant relatives, but it’s essentially just Seita and Setsuko against the world. And what a shitty world it can be sometimes.

Adorable Child Alert


Lovable Anthropomorphic Sidekick

None, really. But shout-out to the titular fireflies! (SOB.)

Wait, WTF?

Sigh, war is so terrible, y’all. Having just watched Catching Fire, I found this quote to be really apt: “There are survivors. There are no winners.”

Y’ALL, I CAN’T EVEN SEARCH GIFS WITHOUT GETTING TEARY EYED. This movie is so sad that it was paired with My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature during its theatrical release in Japan. And it’s based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel — so YEAH, this shit actually happened. (Not all of it, obvs, since the author survived to write said book. So it’s like a real-life reverse Atonement. Except, y’know, good.*) 

*That movie’s only redeeming qualities were introducing me to James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan, and making libraries sexy without using sexy librarians. I even tried to read the book to see if I’d like it any better. (NOPE.) But lest I lose all my recommending cred with you, the great Roger Ebert considered Grave of the Fireflies to be one of the best and most powerful war films. Then again, Mr. Ebert and I disagreed about Atonement, so.

Famous Voices

Grave of the Fireflies hasn’t received the big name treatment, since Disney doesn’t have distribution rights to it in the U.S. I own the Central Park Media version, which, in addition to clearly using an adult for Setsuko, has Tony-nominated actor J. Robert Spencer as Seita, and Veronica Taylor (Ash Ketchum!) as the mother.

Class Superlative: You’re the First, the Last, My Everything

I’ve actually wanted to sing the praises of this movie ever since I started writing for FYA, and I’m so glad to have an outlet to do so now. Even though it absolutely guts me with TOO.MUCH.FEELS. — I’m talking eyes stinging from crying, nose raw from tissue abrasion* — Grave of the Fireflies is one of (if not the) my all-time favourite movies. My relationship with this movie goes wayyyy back — as in, it’s one of the first films that I remember. Even as a clueless two-year-old blob child, I cried and I grieved for these characters — a story that my mom loves to recall.**

As I grew up, with more and more years distancing myself from it, this movie kept haunting me. I knew I had to find it again. And when I did, it broke me all over again — as it continues to do every time I muster the courage to watch it. Grave of the Fireflies has left a permanent scar in my heart, and I’ll carry it with me for as long as I live. 

* I worry that I’m overselling the sadness, but Megan no h agrees with me (“That movie is KILLER.”). So if you doubt my Atonement-hating self, trust her!

** A friend of hers actually recommended that I watch this, so there were at least two adults responsible for me seeing it as a toddler. There’s never a ‘right’ age to learn about the horrors of war — those who lived through it certainly didn’t have a say in the matter — but I wouldn’t advise doing that, y’know? Or do it. This movie is important, regardless of how old you are.

Exploring the Studio Ghibli Vault

Mandy (she/her) lives in Edmonton, AB. When she’s not raiding the library for YA books, she enjoys eating ice cream (esp. in cold weather), learning fancy pole dance tricks, and stanning BTS. Mandy has been writing for FYA since 2012, and she oversaw all things FYA Book Club from 2013 to 2023.