In September 21, 1945, Seita (voiced by Robert Spencer), a Japanese adolescent begins remembering from the afterlife how he and his little sister Setsuko (Corinne Orr) tried to survive, both the bombing of their town by American planes and its aftermath. After the Empire of Japan surrendered, the protagonists faced hunger, illness, and the cold indifference of others while trying to stay together.
Their father was serving in the Navy when their mother dies in one of the several fire bombings inflicted upon the town where they live. Seita becomes the provider for his little sister who is a cute and adorable round face cherub- like child who loves fireflies. In the midst of all the devastation, she holds on to her brother for protection and affection.
After living for a while with the only relative they could locate in the chaos after the bombings, they feel pushed by this nagging distant aunt to move elsewhere. At first, they manage to live in the woods and survive, but later things go from bad to worse.
This painfully beautiful story, directed by Isao Takahata, is displayed through the art of traditional animation (no computer-generated effects). Made in 1988, before the techniques we’ve got used to like today, this film is rich in color and movement. Its characters feel so real, you will forget you are watching an animated movie. The way they move their feet and legs, for example, is so anatomically precise that anyone can appreciate the talent and effort put into these details by artists who aimed to transmit an important message to the audience. For me, the most humanly close scene is when Seita discovers that Setsuko has been told by someone else that their mother is dead. The facial expressions and the tears make the viewer realize why traditional animation was the best vehicle to tell this precious story.
You might think this is too grim of a story for an animation movie. That’s precisely why it’s so remarkably important.
See also directed by Isao Takahata: Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968)