Grave Of The Fireflies

Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
Central Park Media
Extras: Commentary Track, Interviews, Biographies, Restoration Featurette, Storyboards, Art Gallery, Trailers

Why is it that the vast majority of adult American filmgoers continue to look down upon animated feature films as being just for kids? As a lifelong fan of animation I’ve never quite understood this bias. Fortunately not all cultures share this disdain for serious animation and countries like Japan continue to produce animated films squarely directed at an adult audience without feeling obligated to pander to the family film market.

1988’s "Grave of the Fireflies" is a monumental achievement in the history of animation and the anime subset that is used to classify most of the animated fare produced in Japan. Dealing with the very serious issues of warfare, loss, and hope this film stands as one of the most emotional pieces of art ever to appear on the silver screen.

While the movie has been available in a plain-jane DVD version for quite some time, the folks at Central Park Media recognized the importance of the film and its devoted fan following and decided to re-release the disc as a full-blown, 2-DVD special edition. What we have now is the definitive treatment of this classic film and I would encourage even those who tend to shy away from anime to give this one a try.

It’s impossible to offer up a review of this film without revealing some very major plot details so if this is to be your first viewing just skip ahead to the technical details and save the plot summary for later.

The film opens toward the end of World War Two as the victorious Americans are preparing to begin their occupation of the defeated Empire of Japan. When we first see young Seita he is alone in a train station drawing his last breaths.

Flashback a few weeks and we meet Seita and his younger sister Setsuko fleeing from the onslaught of the American aerial firebombing campaign against their home city of Kobe. Left alone when their mother succumbs to the bombing, the two set out to their aunt’s house in the hope of finding refuge. What they find instead is an indifferent and manipulative woman and soon enough the two children are once again out on their own and living in a cave. As the lack of food begins to take it’s toll on the children they try to find what little joy they can in life’s little pleasures and in just being together.

As the title suggests, "Grave of the Fireflies" offers up no trite happy endings. These two children suffer greatly as a result of events they had no part in and in the end they are just two more casualties of a war that claimed untold millions of innocent lives. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Ariyuki Nosaka, the film offers a damning indictment of war and man’s cruelty to his fellow man. Some wars may indeed be just and necessary but they still inevitably lead to the deaths of many innocent people.

"Grave of the Fireflies" is a heart-breaking work of art that slaps the audience across the face from its opening scene. It’s impossible to come away from a viewing of this film without feeling emotionally devastated. Not every film is meant to be pure escapist fantasy — some are designed to educate and move an audience and "Grave of the Fireflies" certainly succeeds in that regard.

Presented in 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, this new video transfer is much improved over the previous non-<$16x9,anamorphic> release. The image is fairly sharp and benefits greatly from the new digital processing. Many of the lush backgrounds are intentionally soft but this is very much by design. Colors are wonderfully vibrant and stable and black levels are solid save for a handful of the darker scenes. Blemishes and other defects are at a minimum and I noticed no ill effects from the digital noise reduction procedures. All in all this is the best I’ve ever seen the film look and longtime fans are in for a real treat with this new transfer.

Audio is presented in both the original Japanese and dubbed English language versions. Optional English subtitles are available. Both soundtracks are basic <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 stereo mixes. Dynamic range is a bit constrained and most of the activity is firmly anchored to the center speaker. Depending on your hardware you may notice some faint surround usage. Most importantly, dialogue, sound effects, and the musical score are all well-balanced and free from distortion.
The English dubbing is actually fairly decent for those who prefer not to read subtitles although the original Japanese soundtrack is the preferred option.

Where this new DVD really shines is in the extras department. Disc One contains the feature film as well as a handful of bonus features. The major extra on this disc is the Storyboards feature. Each and every storyboard from the film is included and the viewer can switch between the storyboards and the feature film by using the angle button on their remote. Talk about in-depth storyboarding! This first disc also contains trailers for five other DVDs offered by Central Park Media.

Disc Two is where the bulk of the extras reside. First up is a 12-minute interview with film critic Roger Ebert. As probably the greatest champion of the film in the United States it’s great to hear Mr. Ebert’s views on what he considers to be one of the finest feature films ever made.

Next up is the Creative Team Extras section which opens with an interview with director Isao Takahata. This 17-minute bit is presented with English subtitles and provides a great deal of insightful behind-the-scenes information.

Text biographies for the director and the author, Ariyuki Nosaka, are also included in this section as is a 6-minute Japanese Release Promo piece offered with English subtitles.

Under the Production Extras heading we find a wealth of featurettes focusing on the creation and restoration of the film. First up is a 4-minute look at the DVNR restoration process that instills even more respect for the hard work that went into creating this new video transfer.
Next is a 3-minute slideshow Art Gallery of production art followed by a 2-minute slideshow entitled Locations, Then and Now.
The Bonus Storyboards subsection features 10 storyboards for scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film.

Rounding out the extras in this section are the 2-minute U.S. Trailer and the 2-minute Japanese Trailer presented without English subtitles.

The Historical Perspective section offers up a 12-minute discussion by historians Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook in which they evaluate the factual basis for the film. Authors of an excellent oral history of the war entitled "Japan’s War," the duo bring a very informed point of view to their analysis of the film.

The DVD-ROM section offers up some fine extras for those with DVD-ROM equipped computers. The film’s script, additional storyboards, production art, and cast and crew filmographies are all included.

Rounding out the extras on Disc Two is the Trailers section with trailers for five other Central Park Media anime DVDs.

While that may not seem like a whole lot of bonus features to those more accustomed to the multi-DVD special editions released by the major Hollywood studios, for an anime DVD the extras on "Grave of the Fireflies" are almost unmatched. Covering everything from a critic’s perspective on the films to the historical basis for the story, the extras offer up a very comprehensive look at this important film.

To say that "Grave of the Fireflies" is difficult to watch would be an understatement. Its images of warfare, violence, and cruelty are made that much more devastating as everything is witnessed through the eyes of innocent children whose fate is predetermined from the opening frames of the film.

But, just as a film like "Schindler’s List" is able to reveal some faint glimmer of hope beneath the surface horror, so too does "Grave of the Fireflies" offer up some small degree of optimism for the future of mankind. Through all the terrible horrors Seita and Setsuko face they are still able to find joy in the very act of living and being together. In the end that’s what really counts in life and the novel this film is based upon serves simultaneously as an apology and a tribute to the author’s real-life sister who didn’t survive the war.

"Grave of the Fireflies" also serves as an important historical record chronicling an almost forgotten aspect of America’s war against Japan as seen through the eyes of the Japanese populace. While history certainly remembers Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fact of the matter is that the sustained use of incendiary bombs against cities constructed chiefly of wood and paper led to far more civilian deaths than the toll of the two atomic bomb attacks combined. Questions of right and wrong are rendered irrelevant when these horrific happenings are viewed through the eyes of children whose fondest hope is just to survive another day.

"Grave of the Fireflies" is a masterpiece pure and simple. And not just of animation or anime but of cinema in general. How such a sad and terrible film can also be so beautiful and joyful is a real mystery. I simply can’t imagine anyone walking away from this film unmoved by what transpires on the screen and that is about the highest compliment a film can be paid.

Central Park Media’s new 2-disc special edition DVD offers the definitive treatment of this landmark film. A gorgeous new video transfer is accompanied by a solid audio presentation and a wealth of truly informative bonus features. "Grave of the Fireflies" surpasses the usual "highest recommendation" standards and instead receives the "must see" appellation. If you own a DVD player this disc needs to be in it and sooner rather than later. Buy it or rent it but see it you must.