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Central Park Media presents
Grave of the Fireflies: CE (1988)

"Why do fireflies have to die so soon?"
- Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: October 06, 2002

Stars: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi
Other Stars: Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi
Director: Isao Takahata

Manufacturer: CPM
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence and intense images)
Run Time: 01:30m:03s
Release Date: October 08, 2002
UPC: 719987220621
Genre: anime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Grave of the Fireflies follows two children as they struggle to survive in the aftermath of the firebombing of Japan during World War II. Towards the end of the war, in 1945, Allied planes dropped napalm canisters on Japanese cities, seeking not to destroy military targets, but to cripple the nation—to cause the "permanent absenteeism" of the Japanese workforce.

Seita is a young boy of about 13; his sister Setsuko is four or five. They lose their mother during an air raid (though she isn't killed instantly, and Seita visits her in the hospital, her body burned so badly she had to be identified by her jewelry) and are shipped off to live with an aunt. The woman treats them cruelly—she's deeply resentful of the fact that Seita doesn't work or attend school (though he has a good reason—he used to do both, but the buildings have been destroyed). Eventually, the two leave, and Seita finds an abandoned bomb shelter where they can live. He struggles to find food and to feed his sister, but the war has calloused the hearts of the Japanese; they can find little compassion for one more starving street urchin. It's clear that Seita and Setsuko are doomed—the first image of the film is of Seita, slumped in a subway, dying, leaving his ghost to narrate the story of his last few weeks on Earth. Such a tragic tale could easily slip into melodrama, but Grave of the Fireflies rarely falters. Only during a final, wrenching montage does the film noticeably shift from realism, though likely by then the tears, if they are coming, have done so already.

American audiences aren't used to this level of emotion in their animated films; most Disney pictures, even if they do eek out a tear or two, are fairly benign, always with happy ending in tow. In fact, many find it difficult to relate to animated characters on any significant level, more than likely because Americans, on the whole, are simply not used to the style of storytelling. Fittingly, this detachment is vital to Grave of the Fireflies. It simply could not have been filmed live-action. No one would stand to watch a toddler slowly starve over the course of the film, and no child that young could give such a subtle, natural, heartbreaking performance. Writer/director Takahata's direction is poetic; he lulls you into caring for these characters, to the point where you eventually don't even notice that they are mere drawings. Setsuko is easily the most realistically animated character I have even seen. The drawings aren't photo-real, but the emotions are transcendent.

It's been said that all serious war films, or at least those of which highlight the devastating costs of conflict, are in fact anti-war. Such is undoubtedly true of Grave of the Fireflies. Rarely do such stories focus so little on the actual conflict. It's a story of survival, plain and simple, and why Japan is at war is of little consequence to Seita. He's too busy keeping his sister from starving. It's easy, when you flip on the news, to write off reports of continued bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq; films like this one make it harder to ignore the realities of war.

Takahata has long worked with animation master Hayao Miyazaki at Ghibli Studios, the source of such films as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Most Ghibli films aren't quite so bleak, focusing on mysticism, often featuring young protagonists who discover something extraordinary about themselves or the world. But Grave of the Fireflies, based on an award-winning Japanese novel, is a unique creature, bringing all of the artistry and technical skill of the studio to bear in a story that's entirely removed from fantasy.

There are images that will haunt you. At one point, Seita and Setsuko capture hundreds of fireflies, release them inside their dark bunker, and watch them like they are watching the stars. The next day, Setsuko places the dead insects in a grave, as she imagines her mother was buried. Life is so fleeting, a light snuffed out before the night is done. That an animated film can so simply express something so profoundly tragic, something so essentially human—such is the power of Grave of the Fireflies.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Grave of the Fireflies is presented in its original aspect ratio, with anamorphic enhancement to boot. I was pleased with the transfer already; not until I saw the restoration featurette over on the bonus disc did I realize just how fine a job Central Park Media has done with this release. DVNR (digital video noise reduction) was used to clean up a new print of the film from Japan; the process removes excessive grain and allows for the operators to correct color balance. The results aren't perfect, but considering the quality of transfers of many anime films (particularly from the 1980s), I'd say the efforts were worthwhile. Colors look solid, though a bit more muted than in the typical American feature. Some grain is still present, but it adds a filmic look to the transfer and never distracts. I noticed no significant instances of aliasing and only a touch of artifacting. Blacks are nice and solid, though detail is a bit lacking in darker scenes.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Japaneseyes

Audio Transfer Review: This is a dialogue-heavy film, and it sounds very good throughout—speech is well placed in the center channel and always clear. The haunting score spreads nicely across the front soundstage. Sound effects are also primarily confined to the mains (albeit with a few instances of directionality), but there is some occasional bleed into the surround channels (particularly during the air raid scenes).

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Revolutionary Girl Utera, Now & Then, Here & There, Legend of Himiko, The Silk Road, Pearl Harbor: The View from Japan, Project A-Ko, Record of Lodoss War, Harmageddon, Legend of the Dragon Kings: Under Fire
1 Multiple Angles with remote access
10 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Art Gallery
  2. Locations: Then and Now
Extras Review: This is the second release of Grave of the Fireflies to region one DVD; in addition to a new transfer, this version also includes an entire disc of supplements, making an upgrade a no-brainer.

Though most of the extras are reserved for the second disc, the first contains one very valuable supplement. Using the alternate angle option (available via remote access), the entire film is presented in storyboard form, synched to the completed audio. It's not often we get to see every storyboard produced for an animated film, and the option provides a welcome look into the development process. As the credits run on the film proper, the alternate angle option lists a few production facts, as well as the awards won.

Disc One also houses the first of two trailer galleries, with spots for Revolutionary Girl Utera, Now & Then, Here & There, Legend of Himiko, The Silk Road, and Pearl Harbor: The View from Japan.

Disc Two breaks the extras into several sections. Accessible from the main screen is a 12-minute interview with film critic Roger Ebert, who discusses the film from the set of his weekly TV series. He offers a mix of personal reaction and insight, and also talks about meeting with the director, Isao Takahata. He is, as always, an interesting speaker, and he's got some good things to say about the film.

Selecting Creative Team Extras from the main menu takes you to another page of options. An interview with Isao Takahata runs 17 minutes; the director speaks compassionately about his vision for the project, discussing everything from initial conception to artistic choices to reactions to the film's release. Animated text bios, set to the score, and provided for the director and author Akiyuki Nosaka, upon whose novel the film is based. Also present in this section is the Japanese Release Promo a six-minute clip from 1988, featuring interviews with the Takahata, Nosaka, and some of the artists. It's far more substantial that the typical U.S. making-of clip, but six minutes doesn't provide a lot of time for in-depth discussion.

Production Extras houses the aforementioned DVNR Featurette. This four-minute piece reveals the steps that went into digitally remastering the image for this release. An animated Art Gallery is set to the score and runs three minutes. Locations, Then and Now is another interesting animated gallery, this one comparing scenery from the film with Japan today. Bonus Storyboards houses 10 of what are, essentially, deleted scenes—full storyboards, sans audio, for scenes that were never animated. This section also includes the original Japanese and U.S. trailers.

The Historical Perspective featurette is accessible from the main menu. This 12-minute interview with husband and wife historians, Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook, is a rather dry summation of what was going on in rural Japan during WWII, and what effect the firebombing had on the Japanese populace. It's useful information—most people probably aren't aware that firebombing and raids killed far more Japanese than did dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but the presentation is a bit lacking. It feels like school. Also, the audio here suffers from some sort of electronic distortion at times.

The second trailer gallery, again accessible from the main menu, includes clips for anime releases Project A-Ko, Record of Lodoss War, Harmageddon, and Legend of the Dragon Kings: Under Fire.

DVD-ROM supplements include the original screenplay, cast and crew credits, an art gallery, and a few additional storyboards.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Roger Ebert called Grave of the Fireflies one of the greatest war films ever made. I'd say it would be more apt to label it a potent anti-war story, the lyrical, elegiac journey of two innocent casualties of a war they do not understand. It's also a fairly shocking example of the differences between American and Japanese animation—no major American animated film comes close to this film's artistry and depth. Central Park Media has put together a fine 2-disc set, complete with a sumptuous new transfer and revealing extras.


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