It's clear from the opening moments of Grave of the Fireflies that this is an animated film unlike any other. It begins in a post-WWII Japanese train station, where a young boy has died, slouched against a cold pillar. Concerned primarily with moving him out of the way, a janitor lifts a small metal box from the body and throws it outside, among the weeds. Stirring up a landscape of fireflies, the box pops open and we see a small girl -- probably no more than four years old -- appear luminously. In a few moments, the boy who had been found in the station joins her, and the viewer realizes that this pair -- Seita and his little sister Setsuko -- will die during the film.
What follows is the clear-eyed story of these two children. It moves quickly, from a harrowingly depicted fire bombing that destroys the siblings' home and kills their mother, to their arrival at their insensitive aunt's house. The children have access to their parents' savings, but Seita's arrogance keeps him from using the money for anything more than the smallest needs. And when Seita is chastised for not helping with the war effort, the children move to an abandoned bomb shelter in the countryside. Here, even as we see their clothes become torn and their bodies waste away, the children console themselves, bathing in the river and filling the cave each night with hundreds of fireflies, which die before morning.
By making Grave of the Fireflies an animated feature, the filmmakers have done something that would be impossible with a live action movie. If a child actress playing Setsuko died onscreen, we would be moved, as we are here; but there would be a very strong sense that one specific child had died. Here, where Setsuko is only an animated figure -- a representation of childhood -- her death becomes not the story of one little girl's death, but a reminder that in war, little girls die.
Critic Roger Ebert has appropriately said that Grave of the Fireflies "belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made." And in a world that invariably moves towards war, this movie -- which was named "Best Animated Feature Film" by the Chicago International Children's Film Festival -- may be one of the most valuable works of art a family could encounter.