Posted on 9 November 2009 with categories: Anime Reviews



I actually watched this movie once before. It was about five years ago, I think. I just had discovered the wonders of the online anime community, and therefore was also keen on trying out the supposed “best anime ever”. It’s a movie that always gets listed among the most famous pieces of anime, alongside Ghost in the Shell and Hayao Miyazaki’s works. I didn’t like it, though. It bored me, it went on for too long and eventually I quit the movie about two-thirds in because I was bored out of my skull.

I finally gave in now. I figured that I might as well try it out a second time, especially considering how my taste has changed a lot during the past five years. And indeed, it made a totally different impression on me. I hated it once, but it’s actually a very well constructed movie. It’s not the saddest movie I’ve seen, but at the same time I can understand why this is regarded by some people as a masterpiece.

Grave of the Fireflies has a few things that set itself apart from most other WWII movies. Unlike most of them, it doesn’t start off with slice of life: it immediately throws the characters in darkness even though we hardly know anything about them at that point. After that, it’s basically the two lead characters as they try to survive after the horrible things that happened to them. Most lead characters in such a situation are written to be likable. This however is one heck of an exception. I won’t exactly go into the how and why for the sake of spoilers, but there aren’t a lot of lead characters that are more flawed than he is. And that’s what makes this movie so great.

The second point at which Grave of the Fireflies stands out is the realism. It was directed by Isao Takahata. I’ve often called this guy the king of realism, and this movie only reaffirms this. WWII-anime are already often realistic, but Grave of the Fireflies adds a whole new layer of realism with all sorts of small details and subtle touches that you can’t find in any other movie. Takahata really is one of the greatest anime directors out there: setting aside Pom Poko, there are absolutely no other series or movies that are more realistic than the works he directed.

I can’t call this a true masterpiece, though. This movie falls a bit short at fleshing out its characters. At the end of the movie, I still don’t really have the feeling that I truly know the two lead characters. While I originally dropped this movie for being too long-winded and boring, I now feel in retrospect that it easily could have been half an hour longer, so that the characters could get the time they need to properly get fleshed out.

Storytelling: 9/10
Characters: 8/10
Production-Values: 9/10
Setting: 8/10

23 Responses

  1. Taxy says:

    I can’t agree with you here. This movie isn’t supposed to portrait characters in ww2, imho it’s supposed to portrait the cruelty of war. It’s true, that it would be more effective, if the characters were fleshed out more, but I think this isn’t what the movie wants. It portraits war and what happens while and after war. With this point of view it’s just a great movie – don’t know, what really makes a “masterpiece”, but just for making anime more popular to the western world, I think this really could be called a masterpiece.

  2. Felipe says:

    Only 85?!

    As the person above me said, the film focus on war (IT IS a movie about war), and not on characters.

    I myself ain’t sentimental and almost never feel sad watching a movie(especially anime), but this one struck me hard.

  3. Kim says:

    This is one of my favorite anime films and I am glad you gave it another change. I think what makes the film even sadder is it is somewhat based on a true story (The “Seita” in reality survives and wrote the book on which the anime is based to get over some of his guilt).

    Still I think people who blame Seita for what happened don’t realize that in reality more teens might act like Seita instead of the heroes we are often shown in anime. I also think the cruelty Seita & Setsuko faced also shows the reality of how war changes normally good people.

  4. darkerthanblackswordsman says:

    Now this is astonishing! And it seemed to be your kind of film too…

    I saw it for the first time a year ago, and remember that it completely disabled me for the rest of the day. I am not a big fan of Takahata, but this is a genuine masterpiece.

  5. anon says:

    well, those japs deserved it. us should’ve nuked their whole country. they are a bunch of motherfuckers.

  6. Wyrdwad says:

    “Takahata really is one of the greatest anime directors out there: setting aside Pom Poko, there are absolutely no other series or movies that are more realistic than the works he directed.”

    What, you didn’t think Pom Poko was realistic? Why, those events happened to me just last week! ;)

    -Tom

  7. WatcherZero says:

    I think its incredibly powerful when you realise its semi autobiographical, the writer was the boy and his sister died but he did actually survive in real life.

  8. Machi says:

    I think the lack of character portrait does have something to do with the war. In that if one opts to interpret it, as it seems I’m not alone in it, what IS left of the characters after the cruelty of war? Very little as you say which is why I do laud the film on its depiction of war, another great war film I’d heartily recommend is Ivan’s Childhood (though its not anime), in that what the characters once had that would’ve defined them is gone. In this case it would be a semblance of their identity during more peaceful days, or as you ask for a portrait of the characters.

    On a sidenote it would be nice for people to refrain from ill remarks regarding the topic of WWII. And if you do have the guts to make such a remark own up to your remark rather than remain anonymous =/

  9. Chris K. says:

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with your review and say I agree with Taxy and Felipe. The real villain in this film is War itself, and it doesn’t matter a damn who started the war or if the main character is likable or flawed because they would suffer regardless.

    I think that Takahata’s whole message is that war is evil, those kids did nothing other than being born to deserve the suffering inflicted upon them. I, being a former military guy think that the portrayal of how war affects children and civilians to be quite accurate; no big ass robots, no teens fighting off hordes of adult soldiers. What really happens when kids and civilians end up in the wrong place at the wrong time is that they end up suffering or dead.

    This film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it really says something when film critics who don’t watch much anime place this film in the same standing as films like Sophie’s Choice, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

  10. olivia says:

    out of pure curiosity, what is the saddest thing you’ve ever watched (and forgive me if this is already said in your posts or comments)

  11. psgels says:

    Olivia: the three movies I consider the saddest are Oseam, Tekkon Kinkreet and The Dog of Flanders. Especially the last one stands out for me as one of the best movies I’ve seen.

  12. Jim says:

    The villain is the aunt who wouldn’t take care of them. Not much food? Find, kick the teen out but keep the little girl.

  13. Jim says:

    Spoilers: two abandoned kids, the little sister dying, that would be a tear jerker in any situation. Why did their aunt turn them out?

  14. anon2 says:

    yeah I agree with anon1 ESPECIALLY with the fact the Japs havent apologized to the rest of the asian world for, invading, and taking their women and raping them all up and down china and other asian countries, I watched the movie, and all that I could really see along with all the other Japanese movies is the oh woe is us (the japanese) we had to suffer through this horrible event despite us being the cause of it and inflicting ten times more pain on the rest of the asian-pacific world.

    I like anime, its fun but seriously, as a non Japanese asian, I say f**k this movie and f**k the japs…also f**k anyone who gets their panties in a bunch and wants to bitch about me stating my opinion, the japs did HORRIBLE shit that they can even say *We are sorry* for and yet everybody wants to feel sorry for them? f**k that shit.

  15. Chris says:

    All I will say to some commenters is don’t blame an entire race of people (most who I’m sure are aware of war atrocities and feel for victims) for the awful acts of soldiers in a different time. I do feel the Japanese government should issue a formal apology and hopefully the new party in power who are more liberal will do just that.

    And even though the atom bomb was necessary the victims did not deserve that, did you know many didn’t support the war?

    It’s like if Christians were to say Jews deserved the Holocaust because of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It’s a horrible thing to say and very hurtful to the victims and their families.

  16. Chris says:

    psgels I can see your opinion isn’t very popular about the movie, while in my opinion I’d give it an A, I think people should lighten up on your review. I guess it’s all part of being a blogger.

    And I agree Dog of Flanders is the most powerfully emotional anime film, or at least in the top 5.

  17. fireryone says:

    This was one of the first anime movies I watched.
    I understand your point of view psgels, but like the others, respectfully disagree.
    This is a masterpiece. It was long, but I was in awe of the touching details.

  18. windy says:

    I’ve heard a lot about that one! Maybe I’ll give it a try even if I’m mostly into anime series, all the anime movies I watched so far , ” supposedly being the best of the best!” were all a huge disappointment and totally boring ( people usually say ” after this, you won’t be able to watch the series ” yeah, right, well, it’s the opposite for me ” after watching those movies I can appreciate even more the quality , the entertainment values and the character-development in animated series) , giving the feeling of losing time for nothing!!!

  19. cad says:

    I can’t agree with the criticisms here; GotF is an anime about war, but more than anything, it is about the people who go through it all. So if one feels the characters weren’t fleshed out enough, this is a very major flaw.

  20. Shippoyasha says:

    Psgels, the reason why the characters don’t feel ‘fleshed out’ is because the point of the story was to show the reality of the war, not for characters to go through the motions of a backplot or intriguing twists and turns in the story. It’s like in real life in all its lack of drama and sudden twists of fate.

    This movie most definitely is a classic. I can’t really say otherwise.

  21. anon says:

    Ok you jerks who think the “japs” deserved the atomic bombing, you OBVIOUSLY are just idiotic teens who are obsessed with violent and stupid video games. Well here’s a newsflash:People dont “respawn” in real life! Murder is a horrible, cruel, unimmagenable thing. For a person to take another person’s life, it’s just horrible. You dont know what it’s like to lose someone you love. And the “japs” are people like us too. They have loved ones. They can feel and hurt, love and hate, just as we can. What we did to them was far worse than pear harbor. Instead of loving our neighbors as ourselves, we did “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” which made us as dirty and down-right villianous as the Japanese where for attacking pear harbor, if not worse. If you say that they deserved the A-bomb, then I can say that America deserved 9/11. No person deserves such a horrible and painful death as the Japanese suffered. You try being fried alive and see how it feels. You try being exposed to that much radiation, to see people melt before your eyes, and see how you like it, you heartless freak!

  22. billish says:

    I had put off this movie ever since.. well, I heard of it. Mainly because i knew it would be very slow and ultimately tragic. Thus, I really just didn’t like it. Sorry to say, but i just really couldn’t find it in me to care for these characters. It probably has much to do with my personal study of history, over about 5 years, in which I have already rationalized WWII and other great conflicts.
    Moving on, this, Psgels, is probably one of your only critiques that I completely agree on, though personally I didnt like the movie. I can TOTALLY see how this could be regarded as a masterpiece. You pretty much hit on every point, in my opinion.
    Last, I believe someone already stated it, but ultimately this movie is more about Seita’s experience with the effects of strife than the lesson’s of war itself. Considering it’s nature as an adaptation of a true story, the plot feels as if an apology to his sister; really, an apology for everything, within or without his control. I find, thinking about that, gives this movie great strenght.
    I would recommend this definately, but I would warn before about its slow and tragic nature.

  23. MaaxP says:

    Grave of the Fireflies is realistic, perhaps too realistic to be entertaining. The realism was as sad as you get from a tragic autobiography or memoir. Personally, I go to the news for reality and fiction for entertainment. Maybe, this is the dividing line some people have when it comes to stories – they expect something more than realism, such as hope.

    From a storytelling perspective I felt that the beginning deflated the ending. The slow decline within the story was devoid of hope, redemption, or a meaningful climax. Yes, war brings suffering – especially to the innocent who must endure hardship and cruelty from heartless family members and greedy neighbors. I get that. It’s just not something I find entertaining. I agree with the review.

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  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 12:29 PM)
    I just read the book. Never saw the films.
  • Emma
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 11:18 AM)
    Lolita is one of my favourite films of all time.
  • Emma
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 11:17 AM)
    It is easy to see however how people would wander to seeing lolita herself as a victim as people traditionally see the child as the victim in that situation.
  • Emma
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 11:15 AM)
    @Aidan: My opinion of lolita matches yours. However I would like to ask of the film adaptations which one worked better for you, the one with James mason or the one with Jeremy Irons?
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:47 AM)
    I didn’t like how people tended to degrade the characters just to match their view and forcefully paint black and white over it. It ain’t that simple.
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:47 AM)
    For example I read Lolita recently. In my opinion it was about two remarkable flawed indivuals. Horrible in there own ways. However when I looked at reviews of it I couldn’t help but notice that people tended to take sides. Either Humbert was the naive man taken in by a succubus or Lolita was the poor stupid girl abused by a monster.
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:40 AM)
    One of the reason I feel we hear about world war 2 far more than world war 1 is that it can be so easily be portrayed as good vs evil. Hitler was a perfect supervillain. Maybe even birthed the supervillain in fiction. It wasn’t like world war 1 which was not just one countries fault and was mainly boring trench fights. Moral complexity isn’t really what the masses like. They have a tendency to paint things black and white.
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:27 AM)
    @Friend, heard of it. No real interest in playing it.
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:27 AM)
    @Mikey, I know apocalypse now was based on heart of darkness. It’s just that the man who made spec ops said it was based on Heart of darkness but he took way more from apocalypse now than he did from Heart of darkness.
  • AidanAK47
    (Wednesday, Apr 16. 2014 10:25 AM)
    @Ninjarealist, I had a peak at the congo free state. Damn. You gotta wonder how someone pulls shit like this off and look in the mirrior and not think “Man, I am such an asshole.” Surprising that you hear bitching about 9/11 all the time and yet barely anything about this.
    It’s surprising the kind of unbelievable stuff that went down in history. For one I never knew Columbus was such a monster.

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