When I watched this movie, I steeled myself for a traumatic experience, based on every review I'd ever read of it, which usually include phrases like "don't watch this if you're suicidal." Instead, if I had to pick a single word to sum up the movie I saw, it would probably be 'beautiful'.
Certainly it was sad, and arguably depressing, but I've read this movie compared with 'Saving Private Ryan'. That's ridiculous. 'Grave of the Fireflies' is gentle and poetic more often than it's violent, and it's remarkably restrained in its anti-war message. It simply tells a story : there's very little at all in the way of moralizing or polemics. Why would a story like this need such heavy-handed tactics?
I've also read it argued that the movie is robbed of any suspense or impact when it's revealed in the opening scene that the main characters are dead. I have a quite different view of that device.
Firstly. the beginning of 'Fireflies' is, for all intents and purposes, a 'happy ending'. This is such a non-linear plot development that you could fail to notice it, and thereby only see the movie's gloom. The moment where the ghostly Seita takes the ghostly Setsuko's hand and nods to her is not only a happy moment, it signifies that the suffering - which is yet to come, as far as the viewer is concerned - is over, and they are together again (albeit still without parents).
As for a character revealing that he is dead in the first line of the movie, this is a device which has been used in centuries if not Milena. The crucial thing here is that 'Fireflies' isn't _about_ tension. It tells a story whose ultimate conclusion you already know (a legitimate narrative approach), and everything which happens during that story is emotionally infused with a foreknowledge of its ending. You find yourself hoping that things will go right now for Setsuko and Seita, and then the knowledge that ultimately it won't undercuts you with real emotional power. You know the characters are going to die, but you hope things won't be so bad in the meantime. It doesn't take much of an effort to make that an analogy for our own lives, which makes us all fireflies.
Perhaps what might make someone feel disappointed or cheated by this film is simply that it's so damn honest. I mean that: it's one of the most honest, artifice-free movies I've ever seen. It doesn't even really try to ram an anti-war message down your throat there is very little overt violence, and if there are some scenes of corpses and suffering, it's never gratuitous, and it's over quickly. Compare this with 'Private Ryan', where you have to suffer through 40 minutes of the most horrific blood and guts, only to reach a conclusion which, after much blood and thunder, signifies very little.
'Fireflies', OTOH, has far more beauty than gore. This is what really surprised me about it. Probably two thirds of the movie takes place in gorgeously drawn, tranquil rural or urban settings, with an almost pleasant dreamlike quality - even when the American bombers are flying overhead at one point there is a surreal, almost serene sense to it - and there are plenty of moments of happiness to offset the undeniably sadness and frustration of other scenes.
Perhaps best of all, Setsuko is one of the very, very few (if not the only) animated 4 year-old I've ever seen who actually _behaves_ like a four year old. I'm so sick of seeing preternaturally smart, sassy, sophisticated and precocious children in Hollywood movies. Setsuko's emotion and behaviors are _exactly_ right for a completely normal four year-old, and recognizing this lends many scenes incredible poignancy. Similarly, Seita is a teenage boy who behaves with the sort of mixture of pride, compassion and hubris which you'd expect of someone his age. He still believes that Japan will win the war he thinks it's up to him to take care of his sister with their mother gone and father who knows where. This leads him to make mistakes: possibly the most obvious one being where he fails to take the farmer's advice, swallow his pride and ask his nasty aunt to take them back in again. You would probably have to say his decision not to even try - to go it alone instead, was a very bad one, but - hello, people - here is a character who makes mistakes because he's actually human: a believable teenage boy in an extraordinary situation, who doesn't miraculously save the day, because his best judgment just isn't good enough.
Of course, his aunt may well have knocked them back anyway. Who knows?
Don't go into the film expecting tension, drama or even a tirade against war. It's a movie about the beauty and fragility of life and youth. If you think Japanese animation is all giant robots and superhuman schoolgirls, this could be the film which changes your mind. It's slow, poetic, beautiful and sad, and extraordinarily honest.
I must be the only person who didn't cry during this film (and I mean, I get choked up during some Disney movies). Yes, it is sad, but its beauty and honesty is what I'll remember.
NB: this review refers to the subtitled version of the film.