In Japanese culture, fireflies symbolize the soul; they look like souls wandering around in the night. Hitodama, known in Japanese culture, are recently departed souls looming around forests and graveyards in the summertime, as sort of transition from leaving their bodies and going to the afterlife. As fireflies always appear in summer, this is also another connection.
Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film set in World War II Japan. This is actually based on a semi-autobiography by Akiyuki Nosaka, but there are some differences. Seita and Setsuko are two children directly affected by the war as their town is firebombed by US planes, and they’re left homeless and having to move in with a distant aunt after their mother became unable to take care of them. Their father was away, as being an officer of the naval forces. Treated lowly by their aunt’s family because they couldn’t work or go to school (on account of everything being destroyed), they decided to live on their own.
Roger Ebert has said this was one of the most powerful anti-war films, and I have to agree. While this is animated, there is nothing heartfelt about it. It’s really hard to talk about this film without spoiling it, and I really recommend people to watch it blindly, without looking anything up about it. You will cry after watching Grave of the Fireflies. Even people that I know who hate animated films cried after watching this. It is that powerful. The animation hasn’t aged too bad, but the music definitely has stayed top tier. It really aids the movie set the tone.
As much as I love this movie, I can’t stand watching it. I remember everything so vividly, that I’ll just start crying at the opening segment and probably continue doing so, on and off, until the movie’s over. My heart aches for these fictional siblings, despite always knowing the outcome. I definitely recommend everyone seeing this, even if you don’t like animated movies. You’ll be so captivated from the storyline that pretty soon after it started, you won’t give a shit.