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GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Isao Takahata
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo (English and Japanese)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Central Park Media
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  October 8, 2002

“Why do fireflies die so soon?”

Film ****

War knows no prejudice.  It doesn't care if you're soldier or civilian, man or woman, young or old.  Grave of the Fireflies is a remarkable film about war in that it looks at it through the eyes of two young, doomed children who survive the bombings but not the aftermath.

Did I mention the movie is animated?  It's almost easy to forget, because rarely has an animated film captured such poignancy.  I admit, I cried when Bambi's mother died, and when Simba's father was killed.  I was touched by the plight of a doll in Toy Story 2.  I can think of many more examples where animation moved me to tears, but no other instance where it stunned me into absolute grief.

Director Isao Takahta crafted this anime masterpiece based on a novel by Ariyuka Nosaka.  He poured his own childhood experience into the story as a kind of penance for his survivor's guilt.  In his story, both the older brother and the younger sibling eventually succumb, but in real life, his sister died while he lived in the face of terrible starvation.

No, I haven't given anything away…the film opens with the death of the 14 year old brother, Seita, as just another forgotten victim of war who died not in combat, but from hunger and neglect…and possibly, simply losing the will to live.  As his spirit is reunited with that of his 5 year old sister Setsuko, and as their precious fireflies take one final flight, their story will be told.

Just weeks before the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, our planes began a series of firebombing campaigns over the island.  The Japanese way of life had grown to include air raid sirens, shelters, and fiery cans of napalm falling from the sky.  Seita and Setsuko have managed to stay alive through it all while their father is at war with the navy, but this time, their already sick mother dies from the bombing.

With so much loss and devastation, what are two children to do?  Seita tries to keep his and his sister's spirits up as they make the trek to their aunt's home, but they only find a selfish woman who even sells the children's belongings to buy rice and then complains about having to feed them any of it!

From their mother's death, they have money for food, but ironically, there is no food to be bought.  The aftermath of war sometimes creates an ugly every-man-for-himself attitude.  The food gets worse in quality and scarcer, until little Setsuko grows sick.  When Seita takes her to a doctor, he finds no sympathy nor medicine.  “Just give her some food,” the doctor says gruffly.  “Where am I going to GET food?” Seita desperately cries, but the doctor has moved on to the next patient.

This film is visually breathtaking despite its often simple constructiveness.  What makes it so is not necessarily attention to artistic detail, but attention to emotional detail.  The movie doesn't move quickly through scenes to keep the story going, but relaxes and lets us contemplate the world we're seeing.  We enjoy moments of young Setsuko playing with fireflies or running along the beach.  We mourn with Seita as we realize along with him that their situation is becoming irreversibly hopeless.  We think about war not in terms of us and them, of politics and ideals, but simply of victims. 

These are two children amongst the faceless uncountable lost by the ravaging of war and indifference of their fellow man.  In their world, they will be quietly forgotten.  In ours, they will live forever in our hearts and memories.

Video ***1/2

Central Park Media did a quality job of restoration for this anamorphic transfer.  Colors are bright and well rendered, and detail level is good against backgrounds that are often deliberately painted softly.  The simulated light from the blazes and the fireflies are remarkable to look at.  A few darker scenes come across a tad murky, but these are few and quickly passing.  Overall, this is a presentation worth of such a landmark animated film.

Audio ***

You can choose either original Japanese or English stereo soundtracks…I checked both out, and found that they both come across equally well.  Dynamic range comes from the bombing scenes, but apart from that, dialogue is always clean and clear, and the excellent musical score rings out nicely.  The overall presentation is a bit quiet; click up the volume on your sound system a notch or two and you'll be in fine shape.

Features ***1/2

This double disc set offers a tremendous package for anime fans.  Both discs include numerous bonus trailers, but Disc Two is where most of the goodies are.  There are separate interview segments with director Takahta, author Nosaka, and film critic Roger Ebert.  There are also printed bios for Takahata and Nosaka, plus featurettes on the restoration, the historical perspective, an art gallery, the original Japanese trailer and one for this DVD release, plus some extras for your DVD ROM.  Disc One also features a multi angle feature whereby you can watch a storyboard presentation of the film as well.

Summary:

Even if you normally don't care for anime or animated films in general, nobody should miss out on Grave of the Fireflies.  This heartbreaking masterpiece belies its cartoon presentation and plays like any great live action war movie you can remember.  Roger Ebert calls it one of the best, and I heartily agree.  This quality DVD offering from Central Park Media is a definite must own.