One of the Most Powerful Animations Ever Made
March 1945 and teenager Seita is left to secure the home and look after his little sister Setsuko whilst their mum heads to the bomb shelter, having gone on ahead because of her heart condition. But before Seita finishes the bombing starts and through burning alleyways he carries Setsuko to safety meeting with others and their mum who soon dies during to extensive injuries. With no immediate family Seita and Setsuko go to live with a distant aunt who takes their mother's Kimono to sell to buy food and mistreats them. After they can't take it anymore Seita and Setsuko decide to leave. But as what little they have in provisions soon run out Setsuko starts to become gravely ill and forces Seita to break the law by trying to steal from farmers to provide his serious ill sister with food....
I will leave the synopsis there because "Grave of the Fireflies" is one of those movies which have to be watched to be understood, to be able to comprehend not only the story but also the look. And that sadly means it is a movie which can't be reviewed and done justice to without discussing details so for those who don't want to know what happens just sit and watch it except be warned this is a harrowing movie and not some cutesy children's animation.
So to put it simply "Grave of the Fireflies" is the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko trying to survive all alone as Japan fell towards the end of the war. Their journey sees them taking in small pleasures such as catching fireflies which they keep in a sweetie tin but also having to deal with heartbreak as their mum dies and most likely their dad who was in the Japanese Navy. But we see how Seita takes on the responsibility of caring for his sister and helping her deal with death and the new world they live in.
That still seems pretty straight forwards except the movie starts with Seita saying "September 9th, 1945... That was the day I died." So immediately we know this is not technically a happy story in the traditional sense. Plus as these opening animated scenes unfold the more observant will realise that it isn't just Seita who dies as we witness a train station janitor tossing away a sweet tin he finds on the dead body of the floor of the station and we see fireflies come out as it pops open as it hits the floor and see Seita and Setsuko together.
The thing is that "Grave of the Fireflies" is a strange mix because it is sweet how Seita cares for his little sister but it is also harrowing with some graphic scenes including one revolving around their mother's death. As you would expect for an animation from Studio Ghibli it is stunning but it is also more, it is incredibly hard hitting.
What this all boils down to is that "Grave of the Fireflies" is a movie which watched once you will never forget but you will want to watch it time and again. It is visually beautiful but also harrowing and powerful with a story of love but also of sadness. It is in fact a movie full of contradictions which is one of the reasons why it is so compelling.