Grave of the Fireflies is one of the more depressing films that I have watched. After the release of Spirited Away, I was on a big Studio Ghibli kick. This was the third Ghibli film that I watched and by far the saddest in terms of the actual story.
Grave of the Fireflies takes place during the firebombings in Japan during the end of the Second World War. Two young children, Setsuko and Seita flee from their home when their village is being bombed. Their mother, who is already suffering from an illness, is caught in the bombings and becomes very badly burnt. While in a shelter, Setsuko and Seita's mother dies from her injuries. The two are left alone as their father is off fighting in the war.
Both Setsuko and Seita move in to live with an aunt, who becomes progressive cruel and cold to the two of them as food supplies run low. She reminds the two that they have worn out their welcome and urges them to leave. The two find an abandoned bomb shelter, which they turn into their new home. Having very little in the way of food, Setsuko gives Seita a fruit drop tin, which begins making a number of appearances through the film.
The fruit drop tin often becomes synonymous with Setsuko and Seita's youth. As their supplies run low, Setsuko begins resorting to stealing from others during firebombings. As he returns home one day, Setsuko finds a malnourished Seita eating mud balls after thinking that they are fruit drops while hallucinating.
Seita never recovers from her malnourishment and in the end dies. Setsuko cremates her and keeps some of her ashes in the fruit drop tin with a picture of their father. The film ends at the end of the war with Setsuko passing away at a train station while holding the tin and looking at the picture of their father. The final scene in the film shows both Setsuko and Seita standing in a field of fireflies (which they used to light the abandoned shelter they were living in) with no damage to their clothes or bodies. This scene is one of the few times that the two appear to be genuinely happy in the film.
Now normally I wouldn't go into this much detail with the story of an anime. The truth is through that this is the strongest element that makes this film a success. This is one of the only films I can think of where Studio Ghibli has based the story off of something so real and not left off with the traditional happy ending.
For a film with such strong depressing emotions, it is amazing. Although many would watch this and say that it is nothing but sadness, I chose to look at the ending scene in the field of fireflies as the happy ending. It showed that after all the pain and suffering these two kids went through they were able to still reach peace in death.
If you haven't already put together from this review, the film is deep emotionally and is certainly worth taking a couple of hours out to watch. The animation style and music is phenomenal as always with Studio Ghibli films, but this story has to be one of the better ones that he has produced, primarily because of the realism and pain that can sometimes be forgotten when thinking about the impacts on Japan during the Second World War.