Central Park Media // 1988 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // October 8th, 2002
"Why do fireflies have to die so soon?" -- Setsuko
The ghost overlooks his failing body and calmly intones, "September 21, 1945. That was the night I died." This is the legacy of war: people walk past, disgusted, and try to ignore the horror. But for the boy, death is a blessing, a chance to wander free. As Seita lifts away, like a field of fireflies, he is reunited with his sister Setsuko. His boy's uniform, modeled on his father's naval dress, is clean and trim. His sister plays with her box of candy. All is well.
It is hard to believe that Grave of the Fireflies, one of the saddest animated films ever made, first appeared in theaters in a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro, as if to wrench an audience, Grand Guignol fashion, through the entire spectrum of emotions. Like Totoro, the plot of Grave of the Fireflies is deceptively simple. As World War II winds down, Japan suffers under incessant bombing by American forces. Two children, 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko, are bombed out of their Kobe home and their mother dies of her wounds. Taken in briefly by a resentful aunt, the children soon strike out on their own, moving into a cave shelter by a lake. Within a few months, they die of starvation.
In spite of this grim scenario, director Isao Takahata, perhaps best known to American audiences for his frequent collaborations with superstar director Hayao Miyazaki (he produced several of Miyazaki's features, and vice versa), suggests that this film's real message is that "to live is everything." And perhaps, in the end, he is correct. The certain tragedy of Seita and Setsuko offers, for the Japanese at least, a cathartic experience. See how we punish ourselves, how guilty we feel, the film tells us. See how we sacrifice our innocence through fire and famine and plague: a proper apocalypse to scourge our sins. Americans did much the same after Vietnam, with films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. And certainly there has long been an undercurrent of ambivalence in Japanese popular culture regarding World War II. Consider that child of the atom bomb, Godzilla, both a threat to Japan and a hero. Technology both injured and rebuilt the country, and Godzilla, a product of technology (who always destroys any new technology deployed against him), becomes both destroyer and savior.
In this way, we might see the success of Grave of the Fireflies in
Japan as a reflection of the need to deal in some way with the loss of World War
II, not just militarily but psychologically. Seita is the Japanese ego on the
brink of collapse, dressed up for a glorious war but not emotionally able to
cope with the consequences. Somewhere beyond his world, the war goes on without
him, in the hands of invisible soldiers and politicians. When Seita's aunt
scolds him on his uselessness, eventually driving the children out with her
scorn, her reaction is that of any ordinary, struggling individual as the war
turns sour: her initial patriotic fervor has muted to resentment toward the
people she blames for starting it (forgetting, of course, how she and everyone
else jumped on the bandwagon when things were going well).
And as Seita himself tries to protect his sister from the horror, lying to her about their mother's death, capturing fireflies to amuse her and pass the time, he is really hiding as well. His retreat into Setsuko's childhood idyll becomes an act of gradual suicide. The villagers shut them out, not wanting to face the consequences of their actions (and closing in on themselves for protection), and in turn, Seita rejects their world and embraces the playful world of Setsuko. As he robs homes while the bombers buzz overhead, he cheers the fiery attacks. After all, in a world where survival and self-interest reign, he must do everything he can to save Setsuko and himself, at the expense of others, or they will do it to him.
Takahata fixes on a powerful sign of the children's optimism throughout the film. Setsuko carries a container of candy fruit drops, which gradually runs out. In the end, Seita finds her sucking on a marble: their last vestige of hope has become illusory. After her death, he fills the tin with her ashes to carry in his final days. It is a moving symbol, one that could easily bring the film over the edge into melodrama. But the film avoids false emotion by focusing on the mundane details of survival. Silences, absences, prove more powerful than actions. And in this way, animation is perfectly suited to this story. In one scene early in the film, Seita kneels in the back of the frame, after lying to Setsuko about the seriousness of their mother's injuries. He looks away, waiting. Setsuko holds back tears, then begins softly to cry. The gap between Seita's action and Setsuko's is painful, a trauma suspended endlessly. In live action, our eye would be drawn somewhere, anywhere away from the pause, toward the smoke billowing in the background (static here in the painting) or the character's breathing. An average director would have to punctuate this scene with music or a cutaway or anything to distract us from the stark image. But in animation, Takahata can freeze and hold onto the pain as long as we can stand -- and then one moment more.
Grave of the Fireflies is certainly a heartbreaking experience, but in those pauses, those silences where we wait on edge for something to happen, we cannot turn away. Perhaps this says a lot about our own need to understand the consequences of war and how we might bear up under the strain. In any case, Central Park Media seems to realize the power of Grave of the Fireflies (something it is hard to say Disney understands, given their treatment of the rest of Miyazaki and Takahata's catalog) and has released the film in a handsome two-disc set. The feature on the first disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen, cleaned up so that it looks as fresh as the day of its release. I have seen several video versions, American and Japanese, of this film, and I have never seen the film in such excellent shape. The audio tracks are presented in Dolby 2.0, and for a change, the English voice performances are uniformly high quality. The first disc also offers an alternate angle feature with Takahata's original storyboards for the entire film.
Disc Two provides a number of different perspectives on the film. Roger Ebert steps in for a 12-minute interview from the set of his television show to talk about the "emotional breadth" of the film and the abstract, universal quality of its animation. I think he is here to validate the film as a "classic" for the sake of marketing, since CPM is scrupulous in avoiding nearly any mention of Takahata's relationship to Hayao Miyazaki (perhaps fearing a lawsuit by Disney for cashing in on Miyazaki's name). Of course, the film is a classic, even without Ebert's justifications (all of which are true). I suppose marketing is a stranger animal than art sometimes.
A section on the film's creative team offers an 18-minute interview with Isao Takahata, filmed at the Ghibli Studios. He discusses how he tried to expand the simple plot to emphasize the details of everyday life, while trying to whip the film into shape very quickly to beat a preset release date. He covers the film's production history, working with child actors, Seita's struggle between independence and his lack of patience, and his own personal memories of World War II bombings. Akiyuki Nosaka, author of the original story upon which the film is based, gets interviewed (along with Takahata and some of the artists) in a six-minute Japanese promotional video. Biographies of Takahata and Nosaka are also provided.
In the "Production Extras" section, you can watch featurettes on CPM's restoration of the film from an anamorphic Japanese master print, a gallery of artwork (also accessible via DVD-ROM), trailers, and a photo tour of the film's locations (some of which survived the war but were destroyed in the 1995 Kobe earthquake). There are also storyboarded sequences for several scenes that did not make it into the finished film. Accessible on the disc's DVD-ROM features is the English version of the film's screenplay.
A "Historical Perspective" section rounds out the extras: a 12-minute interview with historians Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook. Although they gush a bit at first about the film's emotional power, they quickly dive into detailed background on firebombing strategy and how the final stages of the war played out from both the American and Japanese points of view. The film's historical accuracy is reinforced here, and this segment is a welcome addition toward providing a complete picture of Grave of the Fireflies for the audience.
Central Park Media has done an excellent job restoring Grave of the Fireflies and providing a wealth of background information to enrich our appreciation of this underrated masterpiece. American fans of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli team should jump at this opportunity to try out this film. It is probably one of the saddest films you will ever see, but you will come away with an understanding of how a culture can cope with the legacy of war. Disney, take note: you need to treat Miyazaki's films (not to mention the Takahata films you bought with the Studio Ghibli package) with the sort of care CPM shows here with Takahata's 1988 masterpiece. Otherwise, you are wasting a precious artistic resource.
Although this court expresses sympathy for the tragic outcome of Seita and Setsuko's lives, Isao Takahata and company are released for their fine work. Central Park Media is commended for its efforts.
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2002 Nominee
* Top 100 Films: #35
Studio: Central Park Media
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English, dubbed)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese, original language)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Angle Storyboards
* Interview with Roger Ebert
* Interview with Isao Takahata
* Japanese Promotional Interviews
* Historical Perspective Featurette
* Biographies of Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka
* Restoration Demonstration
* Art Gallery
* Locations Featurette
* Deleted Scenes Storyboards
* English Script (DVD-ROM)
* Roger Ebert on Grave of the Fireflies