Studio Ghibli’s The Grave of the Fireflies, which is based on the semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, was released in 1988 and has since become a timeless classic. The film, directed by Isao Takahata, follows the tragic story of Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, who must learn to survive the harsh realities of war after their house is destroyed in a firebombing raid.
From the outset of The Grave of the Fireflies, the Sakuma Drops, which Setsuko preciously carries, have such character and significance that they almost become a third protagonist within the film. While the meaning behind these sweets is never directly explained, they can be linked to the film’s historical context and its themes of innocence, childhood and even death.
What are Sakuma Drops?
Sakuma Drops are a type of Japanese hard candy made using real fruit juice. They were first developed by Sojiro Sakuma, a Japanese-style confectioner living in Tokyo. By 1908 (during the Meiji era), the Sakuma Candy Company would be formed and the sweets, with their distinctive tin-can packaging and unconventional taste, would take Japan by storm. While the candy’s eight flavors (grape, apple, lemon, strawberry, pineapple, Japanese peppermint, chocolate and orange) have largely remained the same over the last 100 years, its packaging has been altered frequently, making the now-iconic tins a highly collectible item.
The company has also gone through multiple transitions since its inception. When the Pacific War began in 1941, it became increasingly difficult for Japanese companies to access foreign products. By the following year, The Food Management Law was enacted, which instituted a national food rationing system for all Japanese citizens. This made sugar a luxury and sought-after item that was nearly impossible to obtain through legal channels unless it was provided by a person’s employer.
Ultimately, these challenges, along with the company’s factory being destroyed in a bombing raid, led to its closure in 1945. The Sakuma Candy Company would be restored shortly after the war by Nobunosuke Yokokura, a businessman born in Tama, who previously had a deep relationship with the company before it was dissolved. Sadly, in 2022, the Sakuma Candy Company announced that they would be shutting down after 114 years, citing lack of demand, labor shortages, rising energy costs and ingredient prices as the cause for their bankruptcy.
Sakuma Drops as a Symbol Within Grave of the Fireflies
Whenever the word ‘candy’ is mentioned, it can evoke a variety of different feelings, from the joy that the treat often brings to happy memories from childhood. They are often given by parents on special occasions, for being good or simply because they care.
For Setsuko, Sakuma Drops offer some respite from the world around her. She has been plunged into the darkness of war, which has led to her mother’s death, the family home being destroyed and becoming unwanted by her relatives. Unsurprisingly, this is a lot for a child of four to both intellectually and mentally process. Whether Setsuko has a tantrum or is well-behaved, she is rewarded by Seita with one of the candies from her tin. While a sweet may not offer a solution to the desperate situation she is facing, it provides a moment of relief where she can savor something pure and innocent.
As much as the Sakuma Drops are a symbol of hope for the film’s protagonists, they’re also one of hopelessness. As the story progresses, the tin of candies empties, and with each sweet that’s eaten, the characters descend further into despair. Although Setsuko realizes that she must ration her supply if she wishes to continue having her momentary escapes of happiness, it is inevitable that they will eventually all be gone. When the sweets have all been eaten, Seita uses the tin to create sweet-flavored water that he offers to his sister. This would be Setsuko’s last taste of happiness, as shortly after this scene, they are thrust out into the streets of Kobe to fend for themselves.
Grave of the Fireflies Sakuma Drops Embody Despair and Hope
Upon Setsuko’s death, Seita places her body into a casket along with her possessions. After resting the tin next to his sister, he pauses and picks it back up. For a while, Seita gazes at the now rusted tin and eventually decides to keep it. After cremating Setsuko, Seita uses it as a means of holding her ashes, replacing the sweets that she once loved. This is a brutal reminder that our time on this planet isn’t forever. Like the candies Setsuko enjoyed, there are only so many — eventually, they must run out. However, Grave of the Fireflies does manage to end on somewhat of a happy note if the viewer remembers the start of the film.
After Setsuko’s ashes are thrown into grasslands by a patrolling officer (and Seita himself passes away), the two siblings are finally reconnected. In this moment, the Sakuma Drops are restored to their former glory, highlighting that hope has returned. Both Seita and Setsuko are now at peace and no longer need to suffer from the harsh world they were living in.
As the film comes to a close, their souls overlook the modern metropolis of Japan, indicating that they are now timeless and able to see their country restored. Not only have these characters been able to regain their dignity, but so has Japan after the war ends. It’s a sign of hope that the darkest chapter in the country’s history has come to a close, and that its citizens will never again have to face the horrors that these characters experienced.