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by Mike Crandol,

Grave of the Fireflies

Collector's Series DVD

Grave of the Fireflies Special Edition
Near the end of World War II American forces began firebombing Japanese civilian targets to decrease morale and hasten surrender. When 12-year-old Seita and his little sister Setsuko lose their home and their mother to the attacks they are left to fend for themselves in a world of callous indifference. At first Seita is confident they can survive on their own, but no one could be prepared for the challenge of living in such uncertain times. Even still, the two children's love for each other provides shelter from the harsh reality that is closing in around them.
Unquestionably one of the greatest animated films that ever was or ever will be, Grave of the Fireflies is also one of the most depressing. Though required viewing for any serious fan of animation, this is not a movie to watch more than once or twice in a lifetime. Well, Central Park Media is forcing another look at this incredible (and incredibly sad) work by finally giving it a deluxe DVD release worthy of its stature.

Despite possibly being the most significant event in Japanese history, few anime are set during World War II, which immediately distinguishes Grave of the Fireflies from the pack. Though it shares some themes and a historical backdrop with Barefoot Gen, Fireflies is on the whole a very different animal, and remains unique in the world of animation. Gen is a story of survival and triumph over adversity; Fireflies is quite the opposite, as it's made clear in the first five minutes of the movie neither of its protagonists will survive 'til the end. The whole film can be summed up in one horrible sentence, “Two kids lose their parents and starve to death.” For good reason, no one has before or since attempted to put such a bleak story to animation. There's nothing entertaining about children starving. But if that were REALLY all it was about, the film would be an utter failure except as a harsh critical commentary.

The film works because of the relationship between Seita and his little sister Setsuko. It's not about their hardships so much as how they react to those hardships, and how they stick together to the bitter end. It's about Seita doing acrobatic tricks to entertain Setsuko even though their mother has just passed away. It's about two children playing at the beach despite their gloomy predicament. Even when they are forced to live in a riverside bunker, they make the most of it, and Setsuko delights in playing house (“This will be the kitchen, and this will be the front door,”). Truly, Grave of the Fireflies is about the bond between brother and sister, and that bond is here expressed so vividly it makes the eventual tragedy all the more moving and meaningful.

A Ghibli release from the same era as My Neighbor Totoro, Fireflies' animation is not as exquisite as the studio's later productions, but the beautiful art design more than compensates for the lower cel count. Director Isao Takahata and Art Designer Nizo Yamamoto skillfully balance some horrific images of war against an inviting recreation of a primarily rural Japan that has since vanished from the earth. The backgrounds are as lush and as vivid as any from Mononoke or Spirited Away. Effects animation is put to marvelous use in some gorgeous establishing shots of wind blowing through the trees or the onset of a rainstorm. And there is one example of tremendous character animation in a scene where Seita's face crumbles from an expression of dogged resilience to one of overwhelming despair…Disney couldn't have done it better.

Yoshio Mamiya's score is perfect as well: like the story itself it is mostly simple and quiet, but loud and urgent when it needs to be; the main theme is as haunting as the film itself. The music also plays a pivotal part in driving home one of the key emotional moments in the picture. No dialogue is spoken during the film's climax, and none is needed: an acapella rendition of “Home Sweet Home” and some contrasting shots of more fortunate children enjoying things we all take for granted speaks volumes.

If this were any other anime, I'd call the English dub a success. The American Seita and Setsuko are voiced by capable adult actors who do a decent job of imitating children's voices. They would be perfect in a more lighthearted production, but the gritty realism of Grave of the Fireflies calls for equally realistic vocal performances. The Japanese track's authentic child actors help the original version maintain a necessary level of believability that the English track lacks. Ayano Shiraishi should be given special mention; as Takahata explains in the supplemental features, the then-five-year-old actress carries much of the film solely with her sincere, heartfelt performance.

Over the past year Central Park Media has been steadily catching up with other distributors such as ADV and Bandai in their level of quality DVD production, and this release of Grave of the Fireflies is unquestionably one of the finest anime DVDs to ever hit the states. The unassuming packaging belies the wealth of extra material on this two-disc special edition. Disc one contains a wonderful-looking restored version of the film, and gives viewers the option to watch the entire movie in its storyboard stage! I cannot overemphasize what a treat this is for serious animation buffs. As is often the case in animation the storyboards capture much more spontaneity and life than many of the finished cel paintings, and this offers a rare and intimate glimpse into the inner workings of an animated feature. This is a feature that needs to be included on more animated DVD releases, and not just anime.

Disc Two's supplemental features include additional storyboards for planned scenes cut from the final movie as well as the standard still galleries and talent bios. An interesting and unique feature is a “then and now” photo comparison which shows how historical locations from the film look in modern-day Japan. But the most valuable materials here are the three interviews with Roger Ebert, authors Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook, and Isao Takahata. An outspoken admirer of Fireflies, Ebert gives his opinion of just what makes the film so great, and makes a strong argument for the decision to make such a grim story into an animated cartoon versus a more conventional live-action film. Mr. And Mrs. Cook provide a look into the military and political climate of 1940s Japan which will give American viewers a much greater understanding of the film's opening firebombing sequence. And finally, the great Takahata talks at length about his personal reasons for wanting to make the film, the actual production, and his thoughts on audience reaction. He also emphasizes a key point that is missed by many viewers: it is Seita's naiveté' and pride, innocent and noble as they may be, that cause the eventual tragedy. Despite her cruelty the children's aunt never turns her back on them, and though one can easily sympathize with Seita's decision to leave it is still the wrong choice.

I absolutely loved this movie upon seeing it for the first time, yet I had never, ever intended to watch it again. But this collector's edition release makes revisiting this somber work of genius a melancholy joy. If you haven't seen it yet, go out and buy it now. If you have, I'm sorry, but you're gonna have to see it one more time. Better get out your hankys.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+

+ one of the best movies ever made, great extra features
one of the most depressing movies ever made

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Production Info:
Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata
Storyboard: Yoshiyuki Momose
Music: Michio Mamiya
Character Design: Yoshifumi Kondō
Art Director: Nizo Yamamoto
Animation Director: Yoshifumi Kondō
Original Novel: Akiyuki Nosaka
Sound Director: Yasuo Uragami
Director of Photography: Nobuo Koyama
Executive producer: Ryoichi Sato
Producer: Toru Hara
Licensed by: Central Park Media

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Grave of the Fireflies (movie)

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Grave of the Fireflies - [Collector's Series] (DVD)

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