When their mother dies from wounds suffered during an American air raid in the final days of World War II, Seita (Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (Shiraishi) try to survive on their own. At first, the youths enjoy their independent existence on the outskirts of town, but reality eventually settles in as Seita begins to understand the difficult responsibility of caretaking when food and kindness are scarce.
Far from an animé fantasy or children’s storybook film, Studio Ghibli’s “Fireflies” is quite simply one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking war films you’ll ever see. Opening on a scene of starvation and then flashing back to depict the circumstances leading up to the miserable death of its young protagonist, Takahata relays his story with low-key, magisterial dignity and a palpable, true-to-life sense of pain and horror. If you doubt the mature, dramatic powers of animation, then lay eyes on “Fireflies.”