Carlos Valladares’s review published on Letterboxd:
Watched it with one of my good friends, and we both cried like babies, unabashedly, unashamedly. All at once, this is the most tragic, stoic, and moving explorations of space, human figure, and texture animated cinema has to offer. The godless coldness is Goya-like, as the siblings face an existential crisis that they are not prepared for, a world that has no sympathy for the likes of them. War inadvertently brings the worst out in people, including a haughty Japanese aunt who is blinded by a dehumanizing prioritization of Empire over Empathy. A plethora of tear-jerk images abound—a mother's corpse festering with maggots, an empty can of fruit drops, a festering rash on a malnourished kid's back. But the film's boldest technique—a jazzy, foregrounded dance of splintered wood-snow-fireflies-rice-ashes—subtly washes away the children's troubles with the playfulness and the liveliness their war-torn world lacks. Big bro Seita and kid sis Setsuko are coldly contrasted by the immovable, blurry-eyed, watercolored buildings perched like hawks in the far-far-away background. No help offered, all empathy felt. These Godlike images—Isao Takahata's forté—is enough to move one to tears. It takes a nation that suffered great failure and humiliation to produce a product this pure and invigorating. Echoing another poster, the death drive is beyond out-of-control: "one of the sickest films."
This film's reputation (i.e., it could make a stone cry) is all fine and dandy, but let us consider why it so tragic beyond the kids' situation. To do that, we must observe their astutely-drawn world, a half-sketched Japan that adds just as much tragedy to the situation as the plot. Takahata draws as if God has given up on not only his Children (the good people of Japan), he has given up on the backgrounds. These background details—the negative space, if you will, of the story—are exactly why we are reduced to Silly Putty by the horrid, frightening final minutes. Melodrama reborn by Takahata. Its power is contained just as much in its tinkling chimes, its flowery Joe Hisaishi-esque piano, and its solemn flutes as in its images. This is not, as skeptics would assume, a case of a filmmaker making up for deficiencies in emotion with a cheapy-weepy score. This is the sonic bolstering the visual, with otherworldly results.
I don't trust people who are not in tears by the end of this movie.