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Grave of the Fireflies Blu-ray Review

Grave of the Fireflies Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Grave of the Fireflies
Movie, Blu-ray & DVD Details

Japanese Theatrical Release: April 16, 1988 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: TV-PG?

Director: Isao Takahata / Writers: Isao Takahata (screenplay), Akiyuki Nosaka (original story)

New English Dub Voice Cast: Adam Gibbs (Seita), Emily Neves (Setsuko), Marcy Bannor (Aunt), Shelly Calene-Black (Mother); Additional Voices: Luci Christian, Justin Doran, Susan Koozin, David Matranga, Rob Mungle, Sam Roman, Blake Shepard, David Wald

Japanese Voice Cast: Tsutomu Tasumi (Seita), Ayano Shiraishi (Setsuko), Akemi Yamaguchi (Aunt), Yoshiko Shinohara (Mother)

Original English Dub Voice Cast: J. Robert Spencer (Seita), Rhoda Chrosite (Setsuko), Amy Jones (Aunt), Veronica Taylor (Mother); Additional Voices: Nick Sullivan, Shannon Conley, Crispin Freeman, George Leaver, Dan Green

Song: Amelita Galli-Curci - "Home Sweet Home"

1.85:1 Widescreen / 2.0 DTS-HD MA (New English Dub, Japanese, Original English Dub)
Subtitles: English; Extras Subtitled in English; Not Closed Captioned
Blu-ray Release Date: November 20, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Still available on DVD ($19.98 SRP; March 6, 2012)
Previous DVD releases: 2-Disc Special Edition (July 7, 2009) and 2-Disc Collector's Series (October 8, 2002)

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Many consider Studio Ghibli to be the artistic height of Japanese animation. The studio won the second Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away and has ever since remained in the conversation for that award. Primary director Hayao Miyazaki is revered all over the world for his imaginative fantasy films. Among his biggest fans is Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, who has enthusiastically introduced some of the Ghibli films that distribution partner Disney has released here in North America. The Disney arrangement has raised anime awareness in the US and exposed many a youth to inspired movies they otherwise would have missed.
But that deal, signed in the late 1990s, has always excluded one critical piece of the Studio Ghibli canon: Grave of the Fireflies, a film whose rights have remained apart from the others. One upside to that anomaly: Grave is coming to Blu-ray Disc in the US next week, well ahead of most of the Disney-distributed Ghibli works.

On April 16, 1988, Studio Ghibli released their second and third films as a double feature. From Miyazaki, we got My Neighbor Totoro. From Isao Takahata, another Ghibli founder and director, there was Grave of the Fireflies. Nearly a quarter-century later, the films are still considered two of the best that Ghibli or any other studio has ever made. Both are among the few non-Pixar animated films currently placing in IMDb's all-time Top 250, with Grave ranking #106 and Totoro at #166. Such a pairing, while questionable thematically, was astonishing creatively, the equivalent of Pixar releasing Finding Nemo and The Incredibles in tandem. You would think that it made for an historic day in Japanese cinema, but being a spring debut, the box office returns weren't all that great. Believed to be the bigger gamble, Totoro stood out more of the two, its cheerful spirit and lovable characters lending to strong merchandise sales.

Grave of the Fireflies, meanwhile, has received no shortage of critical recognition, including extremely high praise from the influential Roger Ebert, an excerpt of which adorns the Blu-ray's rear cover.

An American air raid brings fire to the street where Seita and Setsuko live. Setsuko and Seita take note of the black rain that follows the bombings.

Set in 1945 Japan, the film follows two siblings who are separated from their mother in an air raid. Pre-teen big brother Seita and his kid sister Setsuko do not make it to a shelter before bombs are dropped on their hometown. While they are unscathed, their mother who they thought found safety did not fare as well. Seita finds her in an elementary school serving as a makeshift care facility, in critical condition and her face wrapped in bandages. She is to be transferred to a hospital for proper medical treatment, but she dies before that can happen.

Seita hides that devastating news from young Setsuko and from the distant aunt whose house they move into, with their father at sea in the Navy and the kids not knowing how to contact any other relative. The aunt proves to be quite the terrible host, making these helpless kids feel like unwelcome intruders and complaining about caring for them and providing for them, even after learning of their mother's death. Seita and Setsuko begin preparing their own dinners and then take the step of moving into an abandoned bomb shelter, at Aunt's recommendation. That depiction of an improbably cold aunt, herself a mother to a young child, rings untrue, but war does funny things to people and this story requires her lack of hospitality.

On their own, Seita and Setsuko find it difficult to get enough food to live on. They trade some of their mother's dresses in for rice and accept wartime rations, but it's not enough. Seita has to resort to stealing fruits and vegetables from a nearby garden and one night gets caught.

Orphaned survivors Seita and Setsuko try to make the best out of their bleak situation with a day at the beach.

It wouldn't be prudent to reveal any more of the plot than that, but suffice it to say, things get extremely bleak for these orphaned survivors. You'd be hard-pressed to find any animated film as dark and heartrending. Heck, even few live-action films have explored such dramatic depths. It's bizarre to imagine this sharing a double bill with Totoro,
which does have its own morsels of mature drama, but uses that as a backdrop to uplifting escapism involving a big cuddly forest creature and his little friends. Seita and Setsuko make no such enchanted acquaintances here. Apparently, Totoro played first in the original Ghibli double feature, the only conceivable order and yet one that surely drained the joy that filled moviegoers an hour and a half earlier and left them with heavy heart.

Grave must be tough to process at a young age. In fact, even grown-ups may struggle with this World War II tragedy. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved at all by this tale. And yet, this is no exercise in emotional manipulation or exploitation. There is beauty to the misery and though the standard fiction disclaimers are attached to the end credits, the film comes from a very real place, being based on Akiyuki Nosaka's semi-autobiographical 1967 novel of the same name drawn from his experiences as a young teenager in the Kobe firebombings of 1945. That foundation essentially shreds any argument you might try to make against the film, regarding its bleakness or insistence on making you cry. Real life inspires the best of art and this is a perfect example of something profound emerging from true horror.

That air of authenticity gives this dramatic production something that none of the other Ghibli films has. The humor, romance, magic and animals of those predominantly female coming-of-age tales just wouldn't fit in here. Depending on how important these elements are to your appreciation of Ghibli's works, Grave could be your least favorite entry in the canon. It's probably more likely to be your most favorite, although attaching the word "favorite" to it feels just as wrong as applying it to esteemed films like Schindler's List and Sophie's Choice. Nonetheless, you should be able to appreciate Grave of the Fireflies, if not for the hysterics it throws you into, then for the poignant, tasteful expression that produces it.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Whether it's because their film preservation methods are better or because their animation tends to be a lot simpler than Western contemporaries, Studio Ghibli's movies have long looked quite good on home video. Grave of the Fireflies is no exception. The 1.85:1 transfer on Sentai Filmworks' Blu-ray, which is billed a Remastered Edition, is practically perfect, boasting an element that is consistently clean, sharp, and vibrant. The limited motion and compelling settings lend nicely to high definition and this presentation doesn't disappoint in any way.

Ghibli films usually offer two soundtrack options, each with their own benefit. Whereas it's a no-brainer to prefer subtitles to dubbing on live-action foreign films, the choice isn't always as cut and dry on animation, especially Ghibli's where at least with Disney the English dubs have been faithful and smoothly matched mouth movements. Sentai provides three soundtracks to choose from here, all of them authored in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. The default is a new English dub. The original Japanese recordings are included. There is also the chance to hear the original English dub. The lattermost is accompanied by a disclaimer explaining that though the master elements are lost and the quality is less than desirable, it was preserved for its historical value, a nice decision for which those familiar with and fond of the dub should be grateful.

I opted for the original Japanese and was satisfied with it. There are two sets of English subtitles, one simply translating the scarce Japanese text on screen and the other giving us the complete dialogue in large, bold yellow subtitles. When lines from two different characters are uttered or when a character sings, the subtitles are white to reflect that. Typical for a Ghibli film but far from a given on other imported animation, there were no language issues at all with the grammatically sound subtitles.

Some shots have more to them than others in the storyboard version of the film. Curiously, two deleted scenes are presented in storyboard format in the wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

While Ghibli films have typically been treated to two-disc sets on DVD (and Grave among them), they're usually lightweight affairs that only need the platter to hold one long supplement of modest worth. That standard Ghibli supplement -- the film in storyboard form -- is the first bonus listed here.
And just like all the others, it attaches the final film's soundtrack (in this case, all three) and subtitle options to rough pencil drawings. It stands as a reminder of Ghibli films as a single filmmaker's vision and of the studio's commitment to planning out every shot in crude, hasty sketches. There must be an audience that really enjoys this inclusion (artists, perhaps?), but for the rest of us, you get just as much out of sampling it or fast-forwarding through it. Still, I don't think anyone's ever complained about getting too many bonus features, so it's nice that the studio puts in the time and effort to preserve these drawings and with such dignity.

Beyond that, we get more notable sets of storyboards for a couple of deleted scenes (1:53 & 0:38). One depicts Seita and Setsuko playing and the silent other shows someone artfully preparing a caramel apple treat. The first cut's dialogue is presented exclusively in Japanese with optional English subtitles. Both are curiously framed for the wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

I'm not sure what all this Japanese trailer text says, but it must be something to encourage you to see "Grave of the Fireflies" in theaters beginning April 16, 1988. Rain falls on Grave of the Fireflies' static Blu-ray menu screen.

A single original Japanese theatrical trailer for Grave of the Fireflies (1:47) is kindly preserved here and in HD, though there is nothing about it being a double feature with Totoro.

Also Available on Blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks holds trailers for Children Who Chase Voices, "Persona 4: The Animation", UN-Go, Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, Heaven's Memo Pad, and Broken Blade.
I have no idea what any of these are, but none of them look too appealing. The disc opens with an Anime Network ad.

The extras close with some Disc Credits.

The modest accompaniment here does not represent the extent of Grave's DVD bonus features. Central Park Media's two-disc edition included interviews with director Takahata, author Nosaka, and Roger Ebert; an audio commentary by history professors; biographies of Takahata and Nosaka; a documentary on the video restoration; bonus storyboards; and a U.S. trailer. Presumably that content did not come as part of Sentai's acquisition of the movie's rights following Central Park Media's 2009 bankruptcy. None of it turned up on Sentai's single-disc Grave DVD released in March.

The menu is static and silent. The disc does not let you pop-up the menu during playback of anything. Nor does it support bookmarks, but it does manage to resume unfinished playback of the movie or extras. There are no inserts or slipcovers, just an eco-friendly keepcase.

With their parents both killed, Setsuko and Seita find that starving in a bomb shelter isn't so nice. Afraid that they've just been discovered, Seita looks back cautiously.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Those who know Studio Ghibli purely from the films of Hayao Miyazaki may be surprised at the drama and emotion of Isao Takahata's powerful Grave of the Fireflies. This harrowing World War II tale of sibling survival may not be one you return to as frequently as one of Ghibli's coming-of-age fantasies. But more heartfelt and haunting than the vast majority of film (let alone animation), Grave demands to be seen and admired.

Sentai's Blu-ray would appear to now be the best way to see and admire it. Although it is light on bonus features and unfortunately a lot lighter than certain past DVD editions, the film itself endures and looks its very best in this excellent presentation. Both the film and disc warrant recommendations, but be prepared to have your heart broken.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Isao Takahata: My Neighbors the Yamadas • Pom Poko
Studio Ghibli on Blu-ray: Castle in the Sky • Whisper of the Heart • The Secret World of Arrietty • Ponyo
Studio Ghibli on DVD: Kiki's Delivery Service • Howl's Moving Castle • Porco Rosso • Spirited Away • Nausicaδ of the Valley of the Wind
New to Blu-ray: Brave • Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 2 • Prep & Landing • Arthur Christmas • Lawrence of Arabia
War Horse • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas • Hugo • Valiant • Up • The Water Horse

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Reviewed November 17, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1988 Studio Ghibli, Shinchosha and 2012 Sentai Filmworks.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.