Originally released in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies is a tough anime film to sit through. I don't say that as a slight against the quality of the picture, but rather as a way to express that the movie is simply too effective at what it aims to do. This tale of the often unseen atrocities of war, the innocence of youth, and just how fragile life really is will stick with you long after the disc has stopped spinning. It's a haunting, memorable piece that stands out from the crowd and I dare say that few animated films are this dark, yet so fascinating all at the same time. You'll want to look away, but be unable to even when you become fully aware of the events that are spiraling frustratingly out of control. In short, Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece.
The thing about watching Grave of the Fireflies that I would take away is the fact that it's like watching a train wreck. At the very beginning, you just know where it's going to go, but you simply can't look away. The two main characters die and there are flashbacks pertaining to the events that lead up to their death. From there the movie goes through the motions of showing you the tragedy that struck these kids, and that they are indeed characters to be pitied, not cast aside like some janitors do at the very beginning.
It all starts during the height of an Allied firebombing run through a Japanese town. Seita and his sister, Setsuko, are scrounging up the last bits and pieces of their life and on their way to be with their mother at the bomb shelter. As fire rains from the sky and their village is burnt down around them, you really wonder what's going to become of these kids. Alas it's not their fate to die yet, and before that happens they get to experience the horrors of war first hand. Their mother is burnt alive, their father is away fighting in the war, their home no longer exists, and any relatives they have live in a place unknown to them. There is a small light at the end of the tunnel though, since an aunt who lives nearby happens upon them and offers them a place to stay.
For Seita, life is especially tough at this point. He has to take care of his much younger sister and withhold the truth of their mother's death. It eats him up inside, but he puts on a strong face and does what he can to keep her spirits high. His days are filled with playing with Setsuko, and trying to forget about the dark spots in their lives. Unfortunately the aunt they have taken up residence with grows spiteful and bitter towards them and rides Seita hard, despite all he's been through. He's a lazy good for nothing that does nothing to help out, apparently. It's really cold, especially given the circumstances, and it's enough to force Seita and Setsuko to fend for themselves with barely more than a handful of change in their pocket and the clothes on their back.
The two take up refuge in a shelter of sorts and live out their days there. Seita continues to make decisions based on emotion, and it's really frustrating at times as you watch it. There are so many points where their paths could have gone another direction, but he continues to live day to day and protect Setsuko from the harsh realities of the world. Sadly with no job, no money, no food, and no proper care the children begin to slowly decay. It's incredibly painful to watch and it's clear that their lives run parallels to the fireflies they both hold dear. In other words they simply burn bright, but die early.
If you have never seen Grave of the Fireflies before then you simply must. It's without a doubt one of the most heart-wrenching animated films I have ever seen. Sure it's dark, foreboding, and depressing, but all of these elements are what make the movie so effective. This is masterful story telling and the characters feel so real and well-developed. Grave of the Fireflies has been available on DVD for quite some time already, but there's no time like the present to check it out. Consider the movie highly recommended.
Grave of the Fireflies is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. The picture quality is very good, and though the film came out over twenty years ago, the transfer doesn't show any sign of aging. The colors are vibrant, the image is sharp and clear, there's hardly any grain, and the disc contains no compression artifacts either. The show looks very similar to the transfer available on the prior release, so if you're looking for an upgrade you're not going to find much of an improvement here. Then again it's hard to improve upon something that looks this good.
Disappointingly, the audio for Grave of the Fireflies is still presented with English and Japanese 2.0 stereo tracks. The quality feels a tad lackluster in parts. The bombing runs do not pack the punch they should on the soundstage, and ambient noise is never quite as flush as it could be. There's not much in terms of a sense of immersion, but then again despite these complaints this is a dialogue driven film without much in the way of sound effects. The dubs for both languages are handled quite well, and I felt that there wasn't one that stood apart from the other.
The bonus features for this release are much the same as they were for the 2002 Collector's Series release. Considering the fact that there's nothing new here, it's hardly worth a double dip. Still, if you missed out on the original release, then it's nice to know you aren't shorted anything here.
On the lighter side of things there are some trailers for other ADV releases, alternate angle storyboard sequences, bonus storyboards, and various trailers for the film. A twelve minute long interview with Roger Ebert about the film and genre is included as well. This is the original interview from 2002. Another twelve minute features looks at the historical perspective of the film and how it relates to events that actually occurred. At just under eighteen minutes there's an interview with Director Isao Takahata, which offers some nice insight into the production of the film. There are also bios for Author Akiyuki Nosaka, and Takahata.
A DVNR featurette is included, which lasts a few minutes and looks at the digital process of restoring the film. Another feature that lasts a couple of minutes is a look at "then and now", regarding some of the locations used in the movie. All in all the selection of bonus features here is pretty good, but nothing to write home about. I did appreciate the supplemental material that pertained to the historical content more than the production ones, but both are quite good.
Grave of the Fireflies is arguably one of the most gut-churning animated films ever to be release. It's such a tragic story and the characters are handled so well that it simply stands out from the rest. This is the anime equivalent to Schindler's List in terms of impact and quality, and I can't recommend it enough. Sure, it may not be the kind of movie you go back to time and time again, but it makes such an impact on you that you simply can't ignore it. If you own the 2002 Collector's release, then there's no reason to pick this one up. However, if this isn't in your collection then consider it highly recommended.
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