The Lost Fireflies
Dennis H. Fukushima, Jr.

Prior to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the incendiary bomb attacks
on densely populated civilian areas of major Japanese cities in 1945 were the most
destructive in world history. As far as the eye could see, cities were burnt to the
ground. The fires raged with such ferocity that many had no hope of escape and were
consumed in the flames. Clouds, thick with the ash from burning buildings and bodies,
sent down showers of black rain. In this bleak, dark setting, under these hopeless
conditions, Seita and Setsuko, two lost fireflies, begin their final journey together.

Seita does his best to protect his little sister from the horrors they run into along
the way. After seeing his mother's charred and bandaged body, barely clinging to life,
he tells an eager Setsuko that she has to wait until tomorrow before they can go and
see their mother. Setsuko is upset that she is unable to see her mother. She finds it
strange that Seita would have their mother's ring and yet be told she is in a hospital
far away. Subconsciously, she knows something is very wrong. Unable to cope, she
turns away from him and begins to cry. In a desperate effort to take his sister's mind
off of their mother, he begins to flip himself up and over the pull-up bars. The scene
cuts to a long overhead shot and we can see that the amusement Seita has turned
himself into has no effect upon his sister. What Setsuko desires is no toy. After
having virtually disappeared, the warmth and security embodied in their mother is
what she wants most. Made graphically clear with this shot, the bitter irony is that
they are utterly alone in the world. They travel to a nostalgic beach, as if traveling
back in time. Playing in the sand, Setsuko discovers a fly-ridden corpse. She asks her
brother if the man is sleeping, and he tells her to look away. The sad truth is,
regardless of the direction they turn in, they cannot escape the realities of war. On
the horizon, bomber planes return to deposit their droppings on a dying country, like
flies to a corpse. Despite Seita's efforts to the contrary, the specter of death
constantly invades their illusory world. In one of the most poignant scenes in the
film, Seita sees his sister playing in the dirt. When he asks her what she is doing, she
says she is burying the fireflies the same way their mother was. She reveals that she
was told the harsh truth long ago, and Seita tragically realizes all of his efforts to
protect her were in vain.

The strength Seita draws upon, to continue sloughing through the mire of his
existence, is based on the solid foundation of his family. Their mother was warm and
sensitive, and their father was strong and proud. Like most children, Seita and
Setsuko were totally dependent on their parents to provide a secure base from which
to safely venture out into the world. After braving the fires alone, finding the bomb
shelter engulfed in flames, and having to find their own escape, Seita assumes their
mother will be waiting for them, and that his father will "make them pay" (lit. "get
revenge for us"). He reassures Setsuko that once they are reunited with their parents,
everything will be fine. Shortly after, barely able to recognize her, Seita sees a brief,
ghastly glimpse of their mother. She suddenly dies and her maggot-infested body is
quickly taken away. It all seems like a bad dream; one he believes he will surely
awaken from. After the death of their mother, he pins all of his hopes on his father.
Later, however, he learns that even the father he was so proud of has lost the war for
Japan. As though his father was still alive, Seita's face seems to say, "how could you
do this to us?" Their father has vanished without a trace off the face of the earth.
Now all he has is Setsuko. But of the entire family, she is the least capable of
surviving an arduous journey such as theirs. Covered with insect bites and skin rash,
emaciated, and suffering from diarrhea due to malnutrition, Setsuko's condition
degrades. Seeing the last pillar of his family beginning to crumble, Seita makes a
concentrated effort to save her. Unfortunately, it is already too late. Not only her
body, but her mind has begun to waste away. Setsuko goes to sleep, but never wakes
up. Seita holds her in his arms as if trying to hold onto the last part of his own self.
The consuming black and howling wind represent the bleak darkness that has
surrounded him. The war has taken away his entire family and, therefore, his very
reason for living. It is an ominous black hole into which everything he cherished has

In an interview, Nosaka said, having been the sole survivor, he felt guilty for the death
of his sister. While scrounging for food, he had often fed himself first, and his sister
second. Her undeniable cause of death was hunger, and it was a sad fact that would
haunt Nosaka for years. It prompted him to write about the experience, in hopes of
purging the demons tormenting him. The same torment can be seen in Seita. Beside the
glowing embers of his sister's ashes, he sits absorbed in reflection, eating his last
meal with her. He has inadvertently allowed her to die, so that he can live. However,
all the food in the world cannot fill the void he now feels in his heart. He realizes in
this quiet moment, the pointlessness of his existence now that his sister is gone.
Searching for what he lost, he wanders down to the station with one purpose in mind.
Seeking a long awaited reunion, with his sister's name on his lips, he dies.

Takahata's animated film version remains largely faithful to the original story with
one major exception: the spirits. In the short story, the identity of the narrator is
not clear, but can be assumed, at least in part, to be the voice of the author. This
narrator tells the story through a third-person perspective. In the film, Seita's spirit
is free to move about, and as narrator, speaks through a first-person perspective. The
spirit world is washed in light red visually separating it from the world of the
living. This color surprisingly evokes neither anger nor anxiety, but rather warmth
and serenity. The film begins with Seita's death. It is the end of one journey, but the
beginning of another. Nosaka, as the spirit of Seita, is the ghost of his former self.
The journey of his spirit mirrors his own. Taking the spirit of Setsuko along with him,
together they board a train that physically takes them back in time. Looking into the
past, Seita virtually relives his life as they travel to each familiar place.

Seita's first flashback is triggered by the echo of Setsuko's nostalgic line, "if we
swim, we'll get hungry." One hot summer day, sometime before the war, the two are
enjoying themselves at the very same beach. As Seita swims out to a buoy and looks
back toward the shore, the quiet, slow undulation of the waves rhythmically soothes
away his worries. Their mother, in a beautiful kimono, comes to let them know she
has lunch ready for them. Back home, she has cold noodles and cold drinks, and she
softly fans them as they eat to their hearts' content. It is a time when they have a
home to go back to, a time when they have more than enough food to eat, and a time
when they have a loving mother to care for them. But this is all in the past. Indicating
approaching danger, the wail of a siren pulls him out of his daydream. Fixing him
firmly back into reality, he sees the reunion of a young woman and her mother in front
of Kaisei Hospital ? the same hospital that perhaps could have saved their mother.
Their day of fun has made them tired and hungry, and yet they still have a long road
ahead of them.

The second flashback occurs shortly after the first. Their aunt takes their mother's
best kimono, planning to barter them for rice. Whether or not she told Setsuko about
their mother's death, by that time, is not clear, however, she does say that there is no
use for them anymore, and speaks about their mother in the past tense. Setsuko, who
has been listening to their conversation, suddenly jumps up, and with tears streaming
down her cheeks, tries to keep their aunt from taking them away. Looking on, the
spirit of Seita turns away and covers his ears, trying to shut out the cries of his
little sister. The sight of his mother's kimono brings back memories of a time when
all four of them were together. It is spring and the family has gathered for a photo
beneath the cherry trees. Seita's father pats him on the back while Setsuko embraces
their mother, snuggling up to her cherry blossom-patterned kimono. A shot of the
falling cherry blossom petals dissolves into flowing white rice--cherished
memories transforming into precious nourishment.

In an interview, Nosaka stated that just after he picked up his sister's bones and
began to wander aimlessly, electricity was restored to the city. The lights came on
all at once and washed away the darkness. Having fought his way through hell, and
suddenly finding himself in heaven, the world of violence and suffering gave way to a
world of peace. With the completion of the film, both Seita and Nosaka have come to
the end of a long and painful road. Decades after the real-life events Nosaka lived
through, and years after the therapeutic semi-autobiography, Takahata helps bring
closure to both Seita's journey, and Nosaka's personal agony, with his version of the
story. By letting Seita die and be reunited with his sister, he allows the children to be
together in a world devoid of hunger, fear, and violence. With this film, he has finally
laid that part of Nosaka's troubled spirit to rest. In this light, therefore, "Hotaru no
Haka" ends on a positive note. The story has come full-circle. The past gives way to
the future, as war gives way to peace, as death gives way to life, and as the darkness
gives way to light. The last scene in the movie shows Seita and Setsuko sharing a
quiet moment together, looking out over the nighttime cityscape of a modern
metropolis. The world has been rebuilt and now lives in an age of peace: the lights
glowing brightly like the fireflies of life.


Here are some additional short, very informal reviews taken from the page:

Isao Takahata's powerful antiwar film has been praised by critics wherever it has
been screened around the world. When their mother is killed in the firebombing of
Tokyo near the end of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left
on their own: their father is away, serving in the Imperial Navy. The two children
initially stay with an aunt, but she has little affection for them and resents the time
and money they require. The two children set up housekeeping in a cave by a stream,
but their meager resources are quickly exhausted, and Seita is reduced to stealing to
feed his sister. Despite his efforts, she succumbs to malnutrition. Seita painfully
makes his way back to the devastated city where he quietly dies in a crowded railway

The strength of the film lies in Takahata's evenhanded portrayal of the characters. A sympathetic doctor, the greedy
aunt, the disinterested cousins all know there is little they can do for Seita and Setsuko. Their resources, like their
country's, are already overtaxed: anything they spare endangers their own survival. As in the Barefoot Gen films, no
mention is made of Japan's role in the war as an aggressor; but the depiction of the needless suffering endured by
its victims transcends national and ideological boundaries. --Charles Solomon

A perfect specimen of cinema/anime as an art form, November 8, 1999
Reviewer: Tom James ( from Vancouver, Canada

Towards the end of this excellent and unparalleled anti-war and very human movie, right when the Japanese
declared their defeat, Galli-Curci's rendition of the standard Home Sweet Home came on, and all the hitherto
untapped well of emotions in me (and others who've seen it) broke lose. The scratchy sound of the LP,
Galli-Curci's quavering and sorrow-filled voice (I rushed out and buy the CD), and the harrowing feeling in the
face of the young protagonist's courage and the unfeeling violence around him all combined to create a truly
unique moment that turns art into life itself. Like some of the other reviewers, I rarely if ever cry during a film,
but this film did it, it makes me cry everytime I watch it: the music, the animation, the storyline are very

It's hard to describe the emotional impact it has on me and on everyone I've recommended it to (and I've
recommended it to everyone I care about). I once showed it to three of my nieces (ages 10-13) on their visit and
three years later, they were still talking about it and asking to see it again and again: such is the impact of this
once-in-a-lifetime film. It's very organic, not preachy at all, yet its anti-war message is so clear, and it zeroes in on the human in all of us instead of trying to manipulate emotions from the outside.

All in all, one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Watch it with someone you love, be it your brother or sister or parents or children or boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse. It's very harrowing yet uplifting at the same time; watching it is an experience to be savored and shared with a loved one for a long time to come.

An Emotional Rollercoaster Of Tears, June 14, 2001
Reviewer: Thomas Yan Ong (see more about me) from Azusa, CA United States

Wow, where can I begin. I've just seen this movie and after reading so many of the other reviews, I have to agree
that this is a really moving film. I did cry... a lot, when I was watching it. It stirred up so much painful emotions
and sadness that it's impossible not to. I can't believe any animated movie can be this real. The story centers on a
boy named Seita and his cute little sister Setsuko. The story takes place during World War II when Japan was
being air bombed. The aftermath was devastating as it kills Seita's and Setsuko's mother leaving Seito to take care
of himself and and his sister. I don't want to map out the whole movie, I recommend for you to see it for
yourself. I was still in tears about fifteen minutes after the movie has ended and this coming from me, a person
who doesn't usually cry. I can honestly say that I have never cried so much. It made me think of how cruel war
can be and how much suffering there is in the world as well as in my own personal life. This anime is something
really special, and it is one of the best movies ever.

This film reduced me to a pool of tears, December 17, 2001
Reviewer: markyy3 (see more about me) from Fremont, CA USA

Ok, I'll admit it - I sobbed inconsolably for nearly an hour after this film ended and I'm definitely not the type to
cry when I see a movie (or anything else for that matter). I have to agree 100% with all the other reviewers who
wrote of how this film moved them. This film dealt with so many complex issues and feelings, yet the animation
portrayed each situation in exactly the right way, and no "live- action" film could have done better at showing
raw emotions. The story has been recapped by other reviewers , so I won't rehash whats already been said, but
another poignant scene to me came at the end that vividly pointed out the difference in wartime experiences
between the "common" Japanese citizens and the elite, who sent their families to mountain hideaways to escape
the US bombs.

Regardless of how you feel about World War 2, this film will have you sympathize with the plight of these two
young children and you'll be completely taken in by their story. Their grit, determination and desire to try to
live as "normal" life as possible during those times is a testament of their will and makes the ending even more
tragic. The scenes haunted me for days after I saw it, and has altered the way I see World War 2 and all war for
that matter. This is such an important film that should be seen by everyone. We very rarely even give a second
thought to the innocents involved in war and this film puts their experience in our hearts and minds.

An examination of the human nature..., December 5, 2000

Reviewer: Jon Cheung (see more about me) from Ottawa, Canada

Where Memento succeeded in stunning me totally and is my favourite movie, Grave of the Fireflies totally
succeeded in making me feel depressed for three whole days and is a very close 2nd on my favourites list.
Everyone I know who has seen this movie has been moved totally by this movie. From Roger Ebert himself to
Casey Mines of Movie Review Planet, this movie has been deemed "seamless". Ebert gave it a 4/4, and Mines
gave it a 10/10.

Why does this movie work? The plot is quite simple-and yet perfect. (or as close to perfect as possible.) I'll try to
explain this. In its simplicity, it moves you. It does not have to go through plot twist after plot twist like Memento to
stun you. No, rather it uses this simple plot and quietly, and with the utmost patience reduces you to tears. While it is
simple just by itself, this plot can also be seen as a very complicated one. One could see it as an examination of
human nature and the will to survive. In many precious moments, we see human instinct bared out for all to see.
Something we usually find simple, suddenly becomes a whole lot more meaningful in the context of the movie. We
can see from this example that a movie does not have to go to great lengths to be perfect.
Stunning and beautiful animation add to this movie. With golden-brown hues used throughout much of the movie,
the cinematography enhances the experience by that much more. The animation actually enhances this movie. Like
others have said, this movie could not have been done as well if it was not animated. The animation helps you
capture those precious moments, and the expressions the characters use. The feelings show on their faces so well,
love, anger, sadness, longing, pain...they are all there.

A very quiet movie. This silence that is consistent throughout the whole movie also makes this more an experience,
and not just a movie. The silence gives it that gritty reality that many movies search for--and yet, it is this, an
animated movie that succeeds in creating that atmosphere. This silence helps get rid of the characters facades and
masks away so that what we see is the raw and true emotions in their eyes. And it moves slowly but surely. Like the
boy and his sister struggling to survive, this movie slowly, bit by bit, strips away their dignity, until they are reduced to living like animals. And yet, they still manage to retain their sense of beauty and their struggle to survive. Even when things are bad, they can still see the beauty of life.They somehow are able to keep a tiny scrap of a tiny scrap of
their original dignity, essence, and personality. They are together; that is all that matters, this keeps them alive
everyday; this is their main struggle. Without one another, the will to survive would be gone.

And so, this is what this movie is about. Keeping that tiny scrap of dignity, no matter how bad things seem, and no
matter if you know the odds are against you. The beauty of life and the sense that life is always worth living is what
drove them to try and survive.