Reviewby Theron Martin,
Grave of the Fireflies
DVD - Remastered Edition
On the Japanese homefront during the last few months of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko lose both their home and their mother in the Allied firebombing of Kobe. With their father serving as an officer in the Imperial Navy and Seita not knowing how to contact his mother's family, the pair goes to live with a distant aunt on their father's side. Seita eventually chafes under his aunt's attitude about him not contributing towards supporting the war effort, so he decides to strike out on his own with Setsuko in tow. In the waning days of the war, though, strictly-rationed food becomes increasingly hard to get, and that gradually starts to take a dire toll on both of them.
Grave of the Fireflies is not a fun viewing experience; in fact, it may stand behind only Barefoot Gen as one of the most difficult of all anime titles to watch. It is a tragic tale where viewers know from the very first scene that the main character wasted away and died in a train station in September 1945, so almost all of the movie (beyond some scenes showing Seita and Setsuko as spirits) is a flashback depicting the events leading up to that. The result is a damning portrayal of the impact of World War II on the Japanese homefront and a condemnation of the way society at that time miserably failed to protect and serve its most vulnerable citizens.
Those factors have led to the movie being widely-regarded as an anti-war story, and it certainly does carry that impact, but that may have been more happenstance than actual intent on the creator's part. The movie is based off of a semiautobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, who essentially was Seita, even down to losing a younger sister to malnutrition. Thus the story can also be looked at – and, by some accounts, was intended to be looked at – as an apology by Nosaka to his sister for his failure to better take care of her. But that only makes the impact of the movie all the more powerful, especially in the devastating late scenes showing Setsuko on her final night alive, because one of the oft-overlooked aspects of the film is that this movie is not just about the failure of a system or people; it is about individual failure as well.
And that failure lies not on the shoulders of the unsympathetic aunt but on Seita himself. For all of the tragedy visited upon Seita and his sister, and for all of the suffering that he and his sister ultimately went through, Seita had an opportunity to do what was necessary for him and his sister to survive but his pride could not allow him to take it. Yes, his aunt was unpleasant, but he brought some of that upon himself with his behavior and ultimately refused to do the one thing that could have made all of the difference: swallow his pride and put up with her. One farmer later in the film even suggests that Seita do just that and return to the aunt when it was clear that Seita and his sister were in trouble, but even then he could not do it, and the moment sounds in the movie like a death knell. If any of this reflects the original writer's own behavior during that time period then the demons which haunted him for decades afterwards must have been strong, indeed, for in telling this story he certainly acknowledges his mistakes.
Human failure drives the story, but the terrible truths of the wartime bombardments and deprivations are hardly understated by the production. The scenes of the firebombings, where Seita looks into the sky and sees the torches whistling down, are awesome in a horrifying way, and the casual scenes of charred bodies or severely-burned but still-living victims like Setsuko's mother disturb just as much as the destroyed cityscape, the rashes and ravages that malnutrition takes on Seita and his sister, or the other youths dying in the train station along with Seita at the beginning. (For further elaboration on how the postwar period was just as unkind to war orphans, see Barefoot Gen 2.) Simple scenes, like ants crawling across pieces of watermelon or a firefly falling dead from the mosquito net on which it had perched, carry volumes of meaning, too, and scenes like the train station employee tossing Seita's metal tin into a field at the beginning of the movie hit with with a powerful impact when looked at in retrospect. Little touches like those pervade the production, which was written and directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder (and long-time Miyazaki collaborator) Isao Takahata.
And yes, that means that Studio Ghibli animated this one, with a few individuals who would later make their own names in the industry (including Hideaki Anno) among those doing the movie's grunt work. The result is a visual production which has the slightly rough feel commonly-seen in movies from the late '80s but nonetheless flawlessly stays on-model and brings its characters to life through smooth, active animation, simple but powerful imagery, and a wealth of exacting detail. For all of the ugliness that the movie portrays, the movie regularly finds room for beauty, too, which is brought home by one of the movie's best scenes: its final one, where the spirits of Seita and Setsuko sit on a park bench overlooking modern-day Kobe in a sublimely wistful moment. Excellent use of color shows in the red tinting given to the spirit scenes, while the texturing tricks used to play up the ragged state of the dead and dying are basic but very effective. The sparsely-used musical score is also effective when present, but Takahata seemed content to let the natural drama of the story deliver all of the necessary impact.
The English dub offered here is the same one present in previous releases and seems to be the original dub made by U.S. Manga Corps for their long-out-of-print original 1998 release. It is now probably most notable for featuring some of the earliest dubbing work by Crispin Freeman (in a couple of bit roles) and Veronica “Ash Ketchum” Taylor (as the mother), though none of the principle voice actors had significant anime careers. The same can also be said of the Japanese vocal cast, which is probably most noteworthy for casting an actual 5-year-old in the role of Setsuko. The English dub does a perfectly acceptable job in all roles except one: Setsuko just doesn't sound quite convincing as a four-year-old in English. That, unfortunately, is a big negative, since a good chunk of the pathos the movie delivers is at least partly dependent on that performance.
Sentai Filmworks' March 2012 remastered edition marks the fifth time over the years that the movie has been released on DVD, including previous releases by U.S. Manga Corps, Central Park Media, and ADV Films which date as far back as 1998. The cover art this time is merely a variation on the 1998 and 2009 releases and this one lacks any of the Extras seen on some earlier editions, most notably the 2002 Collector's Series release. The balancing factor is that this remastered version brings out crisper and brighter color than has been seen in any previous version, which results in some scenes which were previously much darker now having startlingly more detail visible in them. (The effect is similar to the improvements made with the remastered version of Akira a few years back.) Thus an ideal package would have been the movie DVD from this version with the Extras DVD from the 2002 version, but sadly, we don't get that here. Still, Sentai deserves credit for keeping this very important title in active circulation and it still serves as a great offering for those who have never seen/owned it before.
Anime covers such a broad and diverse array of genres that making a universal recommendation list is virtually impossible. Any such attempt, though, would have to include this one. Few will have much desire to watch this more than once, but everyone should watch it at least once.
NOTE: The next-to-last paragraph has been significantly revised since the original posting of this review.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Simple but powerful and affecting storytelling, strong production merits.
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