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Oscar-Qualified ‘Dragonfly’ Recounts the Devastating 1945 Tokyo Firebombing

For filmmaker Julia Morizawa, learning about her grandparents she’d only seen in a black and white photo meant coming face-to-face with the horrors of the single most destructive bombing raid in human history, and how asking questions and confronting the past is the only way to keep tragic events from being lost to history and possibly happening again.

For most people, disasters, natural or otherwise, are unfortunate events they read about or watch on the news. They may become topics of discussion, eliciting feelings of anger, sorry, frustration, or even indifference. Another day… another set of troubling events. Over time, as these disasters fade into history, and as direct witnesses pass away, people inevitably move on to more immediate concerns, both personal and societal. But for some second- or third-generation members of families whose parents or grandparents experienced such disasters firsthand, they come to a point in their lives when they realize that if they don’t confront these tragedies directly, ask questions, and try to learn about what actually happened, those stories, those realities, are lost forever. And for Julia Morizawa, director of a new 2D animated short film, Dragonfly, such witnesses are her own family members who lived in Tokyo and survived the infamous 1945 Tokyo firebombing by the U.S. during the waning months of World War II.

The Bombing of Tokyo refers to a series of bombing air raids launched by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Known as Operation Meetinghouse, the most devastating raids were conducted by the U.S. military on the night of March 9-10, 1945; they remain the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. 16 square miles of central Tokyo were destroyed, leaving an estimated 100,000 civilians dead and over one million homeless. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, by comparison, resulted in the immediate death of an estimated 70,000 to 150,000 people.

The raids lit up Tokyo’s wooden structures; the incendiary ordnance used was designed to spread destruction.

“Many years ago, in my early 20s, I got the bug to start researching my family heritage,” remembers Morizawa. “One of the first things I did was interview my parents and, when interviewing my mom, I asked her, ‘Do you know what your parents might've experienced during World War II?’ She was like, ‘I am not sure.’ Except, she had once been told that, during the war, they were living in Tokyo and then there was a big fire, so they had to go back home to the family farm in Komoro. Later, I started looking through these interviews, and I finally got to the point where I literally just Googled ‘1945 Tokyo Fire.’”

She continues, “I had never heard of the Tokyo Firebombing before this. I had heard, of course, of the atomic bombings, but I was shocked when the search results told me about this other devastating night.”

Dragonfly follows a young Sumiko – Morizawa’s mother’s real name – as she’s guided by her brother’s spirit through flashbacks of her family’s experience surviving the deadly Tokyo bombing. Sumiko witnesses her brother and mother’s blissful day-to-day routine, taking audiences through numerous Tokyo landmarks before being thrown into a frightful struggle to survive amidst the raging fires and billowing smoke. In the film – up for Oscar Shorts voting starting Thursday, December 14 – Morizawa not only uses her mother’s real name, but her grandparents’ real names as well. She also includes the real graveyard from the family farm, the kanji of Sumiko’s maiden name, and Sumiko’s favorite childhood activity: catching dragonflies.

What began as an effort to learn about the maternal grandparents Morizawa had never met and knew almost nothing about soon grew to encompass a larger mission: to teach others about this tragic disaster before its history is even more completely forgotten, lest it repeat itself in future generations. Morizawa, in fact, had two kids of her own over the course of the production, providing further incentive to learn about her family history so her own children would come to know it as well.  

“One of the things my mom said recently, because I interviewed her again, was that when she was growing up in Japan, they never taught about this part of history in school or anything, and her parents never talked about it,” notes Morizawa. “So, she has actually learned more about the Tokyo Firebombing from watching my film than she did going to school in Japan as a kid or communicating with her parents as a kid.”

Dragonfly’s story actually started as a feature-length live-action script. And though Morizawa still has a limited series TV pilot script that encompasses a much larger family history story, the filmmaker admits this short could only have been done in animation. 

“Many years after interviewing my mom, I'm thinking, ‘How can I get this produced?’” she shares. “I was telling a friend of mine, Fern Lim, who's also an associate producer on the project, about this story, and she had gone to a film festival and saw a block of animation. She reached out to me and was like, ‘That story about the firebombing... have you ever thought about making it into an animated short?’ And, at the time, my answer was ‘No.’ But she planted that bug, and it made so much sense because there are scenes that would be extremely difficult, nearly impossible, to produce in live-action as an independent filmmaker. From that moment, it was go-time.”

In 2019, Morizawa wrote a short script adaptation that became Dragonfly, then started pre-production right away, having the core team assembled by that summer and voiceover production wrapped by August. All the voiceover was done by friends of Morizawa’s who identify as Japanese American. Crowdfunding began in 2020 with animation director Maria Marta Linero soon beginning her hand-drawn storyboarding. By 2021, Linero brought in her Roly-Poly Animation studio partner Eva Benitez, lead animator on Dragonfly, and the two started the hard labor of animating in January 2021. The picture locked in March 2023. 

“I had pretty low expectations because of our budget,” Morizawa admits. “But what they gave me far exceeded what I’d hoped for. And it’s two women doing all of it by themselves. At some point, people I knew came out of the woodwork and jumped on as EPs later in the game as well to help me pay these two amazing women for all their hard labor.”

Linero and Benitez animated with Adobe Animate and used Adobe After Effects for post-production. The two women mixed frame-by-frame with cut-out animation; Morizawa would also send videotapes to the two animators of her performing the scenes and dialogue for reference, equipped with a stuffed Snoopy in place of a child.

While the scenes of the bombing aren’t overly graphic or gratuitous, they’re no less visceral, or haunting, and their sharp departure from the calm and serene lead-up plays to devastating effect. The horror is captured with incredible emotional impact.

“I wanted the stuff set in 1956 to be in full color and look a bit childlike, and I wanted the scenes set in 1945 to be in black and white, except for the fires when they start,” says Morizawa, who garnered visual inspiration from a handful of black and white photos of the event and paintings from survivors who bravely illustrated their memories. “The textures on the characters’ clothes in our film really change once the air raid sirens go off and the family steps outside as they get ready to evacuate. That was all Maria’s idea.”

She continues, “Maria said to me, ‘This is the moment that their lives change forever.’ So that was the moment when she started putting hard textures onto the clothing and the backgrounds. It’s more constantly moving and adds this hecticness to the action. Ultimately, the animation style is very simple. It's very budget-friendly. But this added bit of texture brings those scenes to life.”

In one of the film’s most powerful visual metaphors, as the firebombing scenes continue, all the characters except Sumiko’s family become “shadow people,” as Morizawa refers to them, who appear to be made from the smoke that marks the destruction of their homes. 

“It's meant to show these scenes are more memory than flashback,” says Morizawa. “And these background characters are not people who, in that moment, you remember. You remember your husband and your child, and you might spot a familiar face here or there, but everyone else is a blur. Everyone else is just a shadow. And that was also largely inspired by photographs from my research, where there are literally piles of burned corpses everywhere. They look like black shadows piled up on the streets. That image was ingrained in my memory.”

Though there were plenty of challenges that came with creating an animated film based on family history involving an infamous wartime tragedy, Morizawa says one of the biggest was keeping the faith that the film would come together at all. 

“It was such a long process, and the budget was so tight,” she shares. “I couldn't just throw money out to bring more people on board. I was constantly in fear. And I told Maria, ‘I was constantly afraid that one day you would call me or email me and say, ‘Julia, I can't do it anymore. I don't have time.’”

But the film did get made, was selected for half a dozen film festivals in the U.S. and has helped ensure those who died in the Tokyo firebombing will be remembered and not further lost to history.  

“I know my maternal grandparents only by photographs, and I want to give a bit of humanity to these faces that I only know from a couple of black and white photos,” says Morizawa. “I also hope people walk away from seeing the film and go back home and, if they've never done it, sit down and talk to their parents or their grandparents and ask them, ‘Hey, tell me about your life,’ before it's too late. Because it will be too late once they’re gone.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at