Moments That Changed Me – Hotaru no haka

Posted on 22/03/2011


And so, tried with the task of choosing the moments in cinema that changed him, his perspective and his view of cinema, he set off into the wilderness of his memories – be they good, bad, wondrous, horrific – and began writing them down. These are the Moments That Changed Me…

Hotaru no haka – 1988


I’m an idiot, so you’re more than welcome to scoff at the following statement, but I don’t believe you can truly appreciate the  power and importance of cinema as an art-form until it makes you hurt.

Films can do a lot of things to us; they can make us laugh, they can excite us, they can scare us, they can confuse us or challenge us. Hell, lots of films are able to move us or make us cry. And, because this directly relates to the film I’ll be discussing – lot’s of war films do all of the above. But there’s a very select group of films – and only two or three war film that I’ve ever seen – that work so well that they find you in a very subconscious, deeply emotional place and make you hurt.

Hurt in the same way that the death of a loved one hurts. Hurt in the same way that a break-up hurts. A hurt so acutely felt that we almost don’t actually remain adults anymore; we seemingly recede back into childhood – vulnerable, delicate, scared.

For me, Hotaru no haka (or Grave of the Fireflies) is just such a film. The first time I saw it, it hurt, and every time I’ve seen it since, it’s done the same thing.


I have no conscious recollection of who it was that actually recommended Hotaru no haka to me, or if anybody even recommended it to me. Probably nobody, come to think of it. Maybe it was just one of those films that emerged out of a mist; spotted on a shelf in JB and was somehow willed to pick it up, as if somebody was saying “Get it, you need to see it.”


I’ll get to the moment that it the most important for me in the movie in just a tick, but here’s a bit of background, because background is so totally riveting!

Originally released in a double-bill with Miyazaki’s magnificent My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, Hotaru no haka is at once a World War II drama, an anti-war film, a cautionary tale and – above all – one of the most moving stories about a brother and sister that I have ever seen.

Beginning at the film’s tragic ending and then working it’s way back through to that same point, the film follows the story of Seita and Setsuko, a young brother and sister – the eldest (the brother) probably no older than ten or eleven – caught in the midst of World War II Japan during the fire-bombings of . After their mother is killed in an air-raid, the children manage to seek temporary shelter with their aunt in the country, however her fractious relationship with the children forces them back out onto the streets, where they form a home-away-from-home in an abandoned shelter near a river.


Not a whole heap more needs to be said for the film’s synopsis, except for the importance of malnutrition to the story, and also to the emotional impact of the story. These kids have no food – they’re starving. Particularly the sister. Now, the fact that the film is drawn in such a painterly, innocent way, is a big part of the reason why when Setsuko – the sister, who you’ll see in the montage below – does begin to become so weak and emaciated that I can appreciate the full power of that image.

If I saw a real actress starving, there’s a good chance that the mere fact of that image could get in the way of the power of the image. The film confronts me in the most subconscious, child-like and emotional place because it is so innocently executed. It is an adult story with adult themes, set in a very adult world, but depicted in the most simple, beautiful way. It’s impact is not diminished by the lack of realism; rather, it is heightened.


The moment I’d like to use as an example of just how much this film hurts falls just after the death of Setsuko from starvation. Look at the way she is drawn, the way the music is used, how everything is painted, the way she appears and then disappears – now just a memory. This is still one of the single best uses of montage I have ever seen, and one whose power cannot be denied:



Obviously, one needs to see all that’s come before this point, but let me set up a little scene for you. I’m about seventeen or eighteen years old, I have somewhat more hair than I do now, and I’m sitting alone in my house, my legs crossed as I sit on the couch, watching this.

Happier times

The camera pans down to the women returning home, probably awaiting the return of their husbands; those who survived all the horror that has come for sixty-something minutes before this. Home Sweet Home begins to play on the gramophone, and already I know this is going to get me. I bring my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around them, a lump already emerging in my throat. And then I see Setsuko, the one human being – who has done nothing, who has done no wrong, who is so innocent and had a whole life ahead of – who I hoped would make it, laughing joyously as she chases a butterfly.

Then she’s gone.


Sounds no different to how anyone would watch sad film at home, really. Comfortable, content, happy. However, two and a half minutes later, I’m crying. No, not really crying, actually. That’s not the right word. Bawling. Howling. The way you cry when you’ve found out somebody’s died, the way you cry when your girlfriend says “It’s over”. You have no defense, no way of guarding yourself from letting it in. You have no choice. So you cry.

And cry.

And cry.


Looking at it in hindsight, I can name upwards of a dozen films that have made me cry, I can also name a couple of other war film that have done just that. In that sense, I’m definitely my mother’s son, because she will cry over freakin’ anything if there’s a string section playing behind it and the dialogue’s good (there’s a lot more to it than that, but we’re both very emotional audience members). This, however, was the first time I’d ever seen anything that made me hurt, and that, to me, is a testament to not only the power of animation, but the power of film in general.

When I put on my first full-length stage play about four or five months ago, one of the greatest, most complimentary and beautiful things I heard from any audience member was just how much the play had made them cry. I consider it a compliment because I remember Hotaru no haka because it did just that for me; got to me in a way that nothing before it ever had.


It is a big part of the reason why I want to be a film maker. So that I may – one day, perhaps – be able to do for audience what Isao Takahata did for me with this film.




If I haven’t already said it eighteen-thousand-million times before this, Hotaru no haka was the first time a film had ever had a serious emotional impact on me.