Grave of the Fireflies (Collector's Series) Review
Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) is generally acknowledged by film critics the world over as one of the most arresting anti-war films ever made... and yet most people in the West have never heard of it. Why? Primarily because the story is rendered as animé rather than live-action, and this has kept it from achieving the mainstream recognition that it certainly deserves.
Awarded First Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 1994 Chicago International Children's Film Festival, Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 Studio Ghibli production based upon a 1967 semi-autobiographical work by Akiyuki Nosaka, whose sister perished of starvation during World War II. (To give you an idea of how highly-regarded this story is by the Japanese people, I should mention that this book won the Naoki Award, more or less the Japanese analogue of the Booker Prize... or, for those in America, the Pulitzer.)
For those not familiar with the director, Isao Takahata, perhaps the name of his long-time collaborator, Hayao Miyazaki, will ring a bell. These two, through the renowned Studio Ghibli, have produced some of the most famous animated Japanese films in recent memory (My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, etc.). In fact, Grave of the Fireflies was initially released as a double-feature along with the upbeat My Neighbour Totoro.
Just to be clear, this is the second time Central Park Media (U.S. Manga) have released Grave of the Fireflies. The first DVD came out in 1998 and was a relatively bare-bones affair. This new version on the other hand (with a street date of 8 October 2002) is an impressive 2-disc set, part of the company's 'Collector's Series', and demonstrates a clear commitment on CPM's part to providing top-quality releases of animé classics. Dave Foster wrote a review of the Japanese R2 DVD of this film last year which makes some comparisons to the old R0 version, for those who may be curious.
Grave of the Fireflies focuses on the plight of the 14 year-old Seita and his 4 year-old sister Setsuko, orphaned during the firebombing raids that racked Japan just prior to its occupation by US forces in 1945. These two go from being children of moderate privilege (their father being a ranking officer in the Japanese Navy) to absolute destitution over the course of the story. Theirs is a gradual downward progression underscored by an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Their home in Kobe is nothing but a smouldering ruin. Their mother dies by the time they manage to locate her. Repeated attempts at contact fail to elicit a response from their father (with the strong implication that he too has perished). Although they are temporarily housed by their aunt, she begrudges feeding them and vilifies them for being freeloaders.
They soon discover to their dismay that in a war-ravaged economy the money they have inherited from their parents is worthless, so they cannot even buy food for themselves. This contrasts starkly with their situation prior to the air raid, where they can be seen carefully burying the extra rations they have received as the family of a naval officer in order to conceal them from potential thieves. When the relationship with their aunt finally reaches a breaking point, Seita makes the (in retrospect, fatal) decision that the two of them should strike out on their own. They move into an old, abandoned bomb shelter beside a lake and endeavour to be self-sufficient... but this proves impossible in a society that already has too few resources to sustain itself, much less any to spare for those who set themselves outside of it.
For those readers who fear I've gone spoiler-mad, I should point out that there's never any doubt as to Seita and Setsuko's eventual fate, as the entire story is told in flashback, the opening line being 'September 9th, 1945... that was the day I died.' The devastating effect of this film lies not in any surprise plot developments over the course of its 88-minute running time, but instead in its unflinchingly-realistic depiction of the inexorable events leading to the demise of these two children: from Seita's growing desperation (and inability) to save his sister, to Setsuko's delirium (at one point she can be seen eating 'rice balls' she has fashioned out of dirt), to the diarrhoea and awful rashes that are consequences of their shared malnutrition.
The emotional register of Grave of the Fireflies is set incredibly high; many viewers will be moved not merely to tears but to actual grief by this piece. It is painful to watch because it is such a frank examination of loss, and one possessed of a heartbreaking beauty. Although this film is set in wartime, the action does not escalate as such, so do not expect the story to be punctuated by the usual series of disasters and crises, then capped by a tidy conclusory act.
In point of fact, the one scene which most embodies the film's message appears quite a ways before the end, when Setsuko asks Seita, 'Why do fireflies die so young?' The previous night, the two of them had caught hundreds of the beautiful glowing insects and released them under the mosquito netting they slept under in the old bomb shelter, marvelling at the magical flickering light this brought to the darkness in which they lived. The next morning the fireflies are all dead, and the little girl ceremoniously buries them. The question she poses to her older brother works on more levels than just the literal one, and the audience is left pondering why Seita and Setsuko, too, have to die so young.
The picture quality of this release is excellent, as Central Park Media obtained a brand-new video master directly from Japan and then proceeded to clean it up through a state-of-the-art DVNR (digital video noise reduction) process. This is the first time I've ever seen this film and I have to count myself lucky to view it in such pristine condition. (A quick examination of either the original Japanese trailer or the DVNR featurette – both included on the second disc – will convince you what an amazing improvement has been achieved here.)
This is a beautiful anamorphic transfer, presented in the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. Blacks are nice and deep with not even a hint of macroblocking, colours are vibrant (although drawn from an almost watercolour palette rather than exhibiting the comic-strip boldness you may have come to associate with other animé), and the level of detail in the animation itself is astounding. Obviously there are limits to what could be done with a film dating back to 1988, so there is a lingering softness to many scenes which I do not feel particularly detracts from the visual impact of the show.
The first thing you'll notice when you play these DVDs is the absolutely lovely music featured in Grave of the Fireflies... mainly because one of the main themes plays on a loop beneath the main menu. Seriously, though, this film is definitely complemented by the beautiful, poignant melodies running throughout every important scene.
Moving beyond the score and into the realm of dialogue and sound effects, things continue to sound good. This is a bilingual presentation including both the original Japanese soundtrack as well as an English dub version. Considering the age of the show, it should come as no surprise that both of these are provided in Dolby Digital Stereo. What may come as some surprise is how good this stereo-only audio presentation sounds. Although certainly not up to the standards of Dolby Surround or 5.1, this is exceptionally crisp audio that manages to fill the front soundstage quite nicely. There's good attention to acoustics as well – an early example to listen for is the difference between the underground station where Seita dies and the field outside.
The only potential drawbacks to the audio are very minor... for instance, there are only a few places where you'll notice a lot of directionality out of the sound, and when it comes to bass, the soundtrack isn't very punchy except during some of the early bombing sequences. However, since this film is definitely more driven by dialogue and music than by its sound effects, it's hardly a worry.
As for the English dub, I don't really have any major complaints. (Shocking, yes, I know.) The voice actors turn in a fairly solid performance all around, although I confess that I find J. Robert Spencer's rendition of Seita to be much more acceptable to my ears than the woman cast to play Setsuko. All the same, I prefer the sound of the Japanese version, particularly since the original Setsuko was actually played by a little girl... so she sounds believably like one.
The menus on these DVDs really took me by surprise. Maybe I've been living in a cave for the past couple of months, but has anyone else seen bona fide widescreen menus on DVDs before? Well, I haven't... and the ones here look fabulous. I only discovered this when I went to check the DVD-ROM content of these discs, because the DVD player on my computer opens each menu in a spacious widescreen window, showing considerably more screen space than is visible when I played it on the TV. (I guess I should clarify that since I'm living in the US now, I no longer have a widescreen TV, just a standard 4:3 model.) As far as I can tell, the menu plays at full height either way, but if you have a computer or a widescreen TV, you'll get a little extra menu background at each side of your screen... whereas if you have a standard TV, this extra detail will be cropped out. CPM has carefully positioned the fixed graphics on any static menu pages in the centre of the screen so that they will be visible regardless.
Anyway, sorry for the digression, but I hope to see more of these widescreen menus in the future. They are all quite pleasant to look at, with the usual mix of static screens ('Disc Set-Up', 'Storyboards', and 'Trailers' on Disc 1; 'Creative Team Extras', 'Production Extras', 'DVD-ROM' and 'Trailers' on Disc 2) and animated ones ('Chapters' and the main menus of either disc). On Disc 1, the main menu cross-fades background images into the foreground while fireflies flit about the screen; on Disc 2, the main menu simulates a ride on the underground with tunnel lights flaring past at regular intervals. For all of the menus, access times are fast and occasionally treat you to a nice transition between screens.
Get settled in... you're going to be here for a while; according to the back of the DVD case, there's 71 minutes of bonus materials on the second disc alone.
Let's get Disc 1 out of the way first. As this is mainly taken up by Grave of the Fireflies itself, there's only room left for one special feature: the storyboards... for the entire film. You can toggle back and forth between the unframed storyboards and the finished film on the fly using the ANGLE button on your remote control. CPM are clearly staking their claim when it comes to providing extensive storyboards on their animé properties. The company's recent boxset release of Now and Then, Here and There contained a complete storyboarding of the final episode of the series, and now they've upped the ante once again with this industry-first special feature of audio-synchronised storyboards for an entire animated film. As if this weren't enough, the 88 minutes' worth of storyboards on this disc are also presented in anamorphic widescreen... which makes this a very meaty extra indeed for those fans who like to see exactly how a film like this is constructed and animated.
Disc 2 has a wealth of additional material, including 'Interview with Roger Ebert', 'Interview with Isao Takahata', 'Author Akiyuki Nosaka's Bio', 'Director Isao Takahata's Bio', 'Japanese Release Promo', 'DVNR Featurette', 'Art Gallery', 'Locations, Then and Now', 'Bonus Storyboards', 'US Trailer', 'Japanese Trailer', and 'Historical Perspective'.
The interview with noted film critic Roger Ebert is about 12 minutes long and was recorded this year exclusively for this DVD. It primarily consists of video segments of him pontificating on the set of his Ebert & Roeper 'movie review' show, intercut with extended segments from the film itself which seek to illustrate his various points. He has a few interesting things to say regarding the animé treatment of the story and stylistic similarities he sees to the works of other filmmakers, but there's also a lot of dead space here too.
In many ways much more insightful is the 18 minute long video interview with director Isao Takahata, recorded recently at Studio Ghibli in Japan. He voices a number of minor regrets regarding Grave of the Fireflies, including the fact that he had hoped to develop a more stylised approach for the story's artwork... but due to how quickly the opportunity to make the film came up, in the end it had to be animated conventionally. Another interesting sequence finds him discussing how they went about casting the children who played the two lead roles, and the specific production concessions that had to be made in order to make it easier on the 5 year-old girl playing Setsuko. (For instance, all of her scenes were recorded in advance so the animation could be done to match her dialogue, rather than the other way around as is standard for the industry.) Perhaps the most intriguing bit is where he expresses his surprise that – instead of recognising that Seita's choices led to his (and his sister's) death, audiences generally sympathise more with the boy's plight than he, as director, had ever intended them to.
The two bios are merely a slideshow of several static text screens containing capsule summaries of the director's and author's works. Better is the 7 minute long video promo, recorded prior to the film's original theatrical release back in 1988. This feature contains interview segments with both Nosaka and (a much younger-looking) Takahata where they politely sell the idea to the Japanese public. And – something I should have mentioned earlier – all of these Japanese interviews do have English subtitles, so you will be able to understand what they are going on about.
The DVNR featurette is a 5 minute long set of interviews with the crew in charge of the digital remastering of Grave of the Fireflies for this DVD release, including Tom Wayland (CPM), Charlie Weissman (DJM Films), and Robert Cocchini (Audio Video Plus International). They go into no small amount of detail regarding both the audio synchronisation issues surrounding the two language tracks and the digital video noise reduction process itself. Looking at the side-by-side 'before-and-after' video comparisons this segment is rife with, you can really see the difference.
The 'Art Gallery' contains about 60 stills, production sketches, and other related artwork of various sizes, presented unframed and in a slideshow format. 'Locations, Then and Now' is an unexpected bonus... taking over a dozen locations from the film and then providing actual photographs of those places in the modern day, along with explanatory/clarifying captions. Unfortunately, several of these locales (like their residents) suffered greatly in the Kobe earthquake of 1995.
'Bonus Storyboards' features complete storyboards for no less than 9 deleted scenes that never made it into the final animation, as well as a tenth catch-all category of incidental unused storyboards. Not tremendously exciting, but talk about completeness!
The US and Japanese trailers are very different animals... not very surprising considering that the former was created very recently to promote this Collector's Series DVD while the latter was made back in the late 80s. They're both about two minutes in length, but the old Japanese trailer really shows its age video-wise.
Finally, there's the 'Historical Perspective', again recorded this year exclusively for this DVD release. Similar in structure to the Ebert piece, this consists of a 12 minute long series of video interview segments featuring Professors Theodore and Haruko Cook – I'll let you guess which one's American and which one's Japanese – interlaced with segments from the film itself. Although there are a few highlights, this commentary is on the dry side and tends to do little more than explicitly spell out aspects of life in wartime Japan that you'll work out on your own just from watching Grave of the Fireflies. Another reason you may want to give it a miss is because there's something wrong with their microphones and the entirety of the interview is undercut by this annoying buzzing static noise. How the CPM audio mastering department missed this is beyond me.
The DVD-ROM content on Disc 2 is cleverly presented, and it's evident that some care went into producing it for this release. (One telltale sign is that Central Park Media isn't using its bog-standard DVD-ROM interface application, but have designed a highly-modified version just for this disc.) The features include 'Vocal Cast', 'Production Credits', 'Reviews & Awards', 'Gallery', 'Script', and 'Links'. The first two simply list the names of everyone involved in the production of the Japanese version, the English dub, and the DVD itself. 'Reviews & Awards' is a nice addition from a press perspective, as it includes brief excerpts from seven notable reviews of – and a list of nine major film awards won by – Grave of the Fireflies. The 'Gallery' contains precisely the same 60 or so images mentioned earlier under 'Art Gallery', the 'Script' contains the entire text of the English screenplay adaptation, and 'Links' is just a few URLs.
Although not really a special feature, both discs in this set include trailers for other Central Park Media (U.S. Manga) DVDs. The ones included on the first disc are for Revolutionary Girl Utena: Black Rose Saga, Now and Then, Here and There, Legend of Himiko, The Silk Road, and Pearl Harbor (not the Hollywood blockbuster, no). The trailers on the second disc include the same one for Utena, Project A-ko, Record of Lodoss War, Harmagedon, and Legend of the Dragon Kings: Under Fire.
I personally feel the packaging for this release of Grave of the Fireflies is perfect. Namely, it's a transparent Amaray case that incorporates a durable internal hinge to hold the second disc. Both hubs hold the discs securely yet yield them up without a struggle. It may not look as snazzy as one of those cardboard gatefold constructs, but unlike those, this packaging won't deteriorate over the coming years.
As you can see by clicking on the thumbnail image, the artwork chosen for the cover is steeped in earth tones – brown, mustard, ash – and is true to the spirit of the film, with only a few fireflies to alleviate the background gloom. The back cover of the case is packed with screenshots, DVD specs, quotations, and a capsule summary... and even more information is provided on the reverse, which can be read through the clear plastic Amaray.
It's hard not to stray into hyperbole or cliché when summarising a film like Grave of the Fireflies. It is unquestionably a masterpiece. It goes without saying that it has a very important message... and that you owe it to yourself to see this film at some point in your life, regardless of your feelings towards (or against) animé in general. That said, it is an intense watch and one that you may wish to shield young children from. (In other words, although this is a Studio Ghibli project, it does not share the lightheartedness witnessed in Miyazaki-helmed productions like My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, so be forewarned.)
This release is to my knowledge the best version of Grave of the Fireflies available anywhere. Not only is it anamorphic, but the transfer is based upon completely remastered video which makes this show look gorgeous. The sound (on both audio tracks) is as good as can be expected for Dolby 2.0, and the excellent selection of special features make this a DVD particularly worth owning. The only caveat is that, unlike the vast majority of Central Park Media's recent animé releases, this DVD is not R0 (all-region). It's a R1-only disc, probably a consequence of the distribution rights CPM (U.S. Manga) has for this title.