I didn’t expect this film to turn out like that… (CONTAINS SPOILERS.)
I initially watched this because it kept coming up on websites about the most depressing films etc. And I didn’t expect a lot from it, to be honest. I’ve never watched anime before (apart from Pokemon.) and I had low expectations. My expectations were surpassed.
1945. 14-year-old Seita dies of starvation. “That was the night I died…,” Hmm. People ignore Seita and avoid his dead body. When janitors search the body, they find a sweet tin filled with ashes and bones. Tossing it aside, it releases the spirit of little Setsuko, who was Seita’s beloved little sister.
It begins with the firebombing of Kobe in World War II. Before this, Seita and Setsuko live happily with their mother. Their father is away in the navy.
The brother and sister flee from the air-raid and Seita reassures his little sister when she worries about their mother. The mother is seriously injured and later dies. Seita is distraught when he is given his mother’s ring and Setsuko wants to see her mother, despite her brother’s efforts to distract her.
They are sent to live with an aunt. Seita had kept a tin of fruit drops (and these are a persistant image throughout the film.) and he also didn’t tell the aunt that the mother died, but had done so because he hadn’t wanted to worry his sister. The aunt constantly drops hints about Seita working and attending school, despite the fact that both places were bombed. She is resentful about the two children eating the food and later convinces Seita to sell kimonos so they can buy rice.
Seita and Setsuko go to the beach and they go swimming, imagining a happy scene when they see their mother again. When they sell the kimonos, they have rice at last but their aunt is resenful that they don’t work for their food. They are reduced to eating rice porridge and Setsuko is always hungry. Seita resolves to get the money out of their mother’s bank account.
They buy things such as a stove, and the aunt is still resentful at this, thinking that they did it to spite her. Seita makes some fruit drop water using the sweet can, and they decide to live in the air-raid shelter. Seita asks for food and straw from a farmer and they find wood and food in the forests.
They always think about happier times and think about their father. Setsuko watches fireflies and buries them all when they die. She reveals to her brother that she knew about their mother’s death. When Seita goes to trade again with the farmer, he discovers that there is nothing left to trade, and they are told to go back to the aunt.
Setsuko becomes ill and her brother encourages her to eat. They are both plagued with lice and very hungry. Seita steals crops such as sugar and potatoes to feed his sister when she is sick. When she is taken to the doctor, the doctor is unhelpful. Seita and Setsuko think about food, but later discover that the Japanese fleet has been sunk and their father is dead. Seita buys food such as chicken and watermelon for his sister, but discovers that Setsuko has been eating marbles. Setsuko wants Seita to eat rice balls made of mud and she later dies.
There is a tragic difference between the darkness and misery of Setsuko and Seita’s existence while those who were returning proclaimed that ‘it hadn’t changed at all’. The audience is then shown a montage of images of Setsuko in happier times, such as when she’s on the swing. (At this point I was swimming in tears.)
Setsuko is cremated and he puts her ashes in the candy tin, which is later discovered by the janitor. When Seita dies of starvation, he and Setsuko are reunited.
I had very low expectations for this film because it is not the sort of film that I ordinarily watch. I watched Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh years ago (I even played with the Yu Gi Oh spinner toys or whatever they were called. In an old frying pan. With my brother. Because I am A BOSS!) and when I saw the English dub of Fireflies, I expected an indifferent film that would be very forgettable. However, it gave me a lot to think about. It also made me think that we have very few films which show the true effect that the war had on vunerable people such as orphans, as this one shows.