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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/24/02

Grave of the Fireflies
Collector's Series - 1988 (2002) - Studio Ghibli (Central Park Media)

review by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Grave of the Fireflies: Collector's Series

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/B+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
88 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), Amaray keep case packaging, storyboard art for entire film (presented on alternate angle during feature playback), 6 promotional trailers (Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Saga, Now & Then, Here & There, Legend of Himiko, The Silk Road, Pearl Harbor and Big Apple Anime Fest), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (12 chapters), languages: English and Japanese DD 2.0 , subtitles: English, Spanish, French, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Materials
Interview with Roger Ebert featurette (4x3, English DD 2.0, 12 mins), Interview with Isao Takahata featurette (4x3, Japanese DD 2.0 with English subtitles, 18 mins), text bio for author Akiyuki Nosaka, text bio for director Isao Takahata, Japanese Release Promo (4x3, Japanese DD 2.0 with English subtitles, 7 mins), DVNR Demonstration featurette (16x9, English DD 2.0, 4 mins), art gallery, Locations, Then and Now featurette (4x3, DD 2.0, 3 mins), bonus storyboards for 10 scenes not included in final film, U.S. and Japanese theatrical trailers (U.S. 16x9, Japanese 4x3), Historical Perspective featurette with Profs Theodore and Haruko Cook (16x9, English DD 2.0 with subtitles, 12 mins), DVD-ROM features (including screenplay, additional storyboards, art gallery and production credits), animated film-themed menu screens with music

Grave of the Fireflies is probably the greatest animated film you have never seen. Cited by Roger Ebert as one of the greatest war films ever made, it lacks traditional special effects, grand vistas and the usual Hollywood celebrity voices. But the film's power is undeniable.

Grave of the Fireflies is set near the end of World War II, as the American Air Force relentlessly firebombs the country of Japan, city by city, in an attempt to demoralize the populace into surrender. When the bombs get too close, young Seita begins burying his families belongings in the yard for safe keeping. Then he picks up his baby sister, Setsuko, strapping her onto his back just as their home is hit by a firebomb... with their mother still inside. Frightened and confused, Seita makes his way through the abandoned streets and into the mass exodus on the outskirts of town. When the attack has finally ended, Seita returns to find that their mother is dead, and that he and Setsuko are alone. What follows is a painful struggle for survival in the harshest conditions... and a shining testament to the enduring power of love and the Human spirit.

Originally released on DVD in early 1998, Grave of the Fireflies then sported a murky laserdisc rehash transfer and some of the slowest menus ever constructed. Thankfully, a complete Japanese special edition done was done in 2000. Using this same material, Central Park Media has delivered the most definitive DVD edition we're likely to see.

The new 16:9 transfer procured from Japan exhibits none of the annoyances that plagued the earlier release. Instead, rich hand drawn detail oozes from every frame. One thing to note is that unlike many more recent anime titles, Grave appears to have been telecined as a live action film rather than an animated feature. What does this mean? It gives the film weight - a more somber tone than would otherwise exist. There are a few instances where edge enhancement haloing does rear its ugly head (more on that later), but otherwise this is absolutely beautiful anamorphic widescreen video.

The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is also very nice for the most part. There appears to be some source issues occasionally, but I would guess that has to do with problems with the master recording rather than anything related to the DVD production. On the dubbed English DD 2.0 side, given that the elements are about ten years younger, the audio is crisp and clean. In all honesty, however, even if you watch everything else dubbed, please don't ruin the original experience of this film by viewing it with the English audio. For a film of this dramatic caliber, there are so many subtle nuances you're denying yourself if you don't listen to it in the original language (with English subtitles). Give the original Japanese a shot, just this once. I think you'll be glad you did.

The extras on this DVD are also a pleasant experience. For one thing, there is a whole other way to view this film! Available at any time while watching the feature, on an alternate angle as per Studio Ghibli tradition, is the "Leica reel" or timed storyboards for the entire film. These run concurrent with the final film's scenes. The storyboard option is well implemented, with only slight moire and other NTSC artifacting on the stills. It's a fine presentation and a fascinating way to view the film once you're familiar with it.

Starting off Disc Two is a video interview with Roger Ebert about this film. Ebert has long been a champion of anime in general, and especially Grave, even going so far as to include it on his "Ignored Films" list. Ebert does a fairly thorough job of comparing Takahata's style to that of other Japanese film masters, as well as commenting on the areas he find particularly moving. Next up, Professors Theodore and Haruko Cook providing historical perspective on the film (via a featurette), explaining attitudes on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, this segment suffers from a myriad of audio interference that was only discovered after the tapes were back at the studio. Rather than pulling the segment, CPM chose to include it despite the blemishes... a smart move, as there's a lot of great information here.

There is a DVNR Demonstration featurette, which really talks more about the complete restoration process, although it does cover the Digital Video Noise Reduction process itself, and how it was used to improve image quality. It's tad fluffy, but in one segment as the video is going through the final stages before compression, the technician says, "Now, let's turn up the sharpness..." (NNNOOOOOOO!!!!!). The last major featurette is a 20-minute interview with director Isao Takahata, that was originally seen on the Japanese DVD. Takahata is truly a master of his medium, and he talks about everything from how he first found this project to how they decided to pair it with My Neighbor Totoro. I only wish Miyazaki-sensei would share his thoughts in such detail! If you get nothing else out of this segment at all, you can still admire all of the interior shots of Studio Ghibli (and the cool silver rack of players for virtually every single home video format known to man). Rounding out the extras are biographies for author Akiyuki Nosaka and Isao Takahata, a design gallery, bonus storyboards for scenes that weren't included in the final film, the U.S. and Japanese trailers and bonus trailers for other anime available from Central Park.

Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, which was an interesting pairing to say the least. First you're brought down to the dark depths of despair with this film, and then you're lifted into the light of joy by Totoro. I can see that this probably worked extremely well as a complete theatrical experience. For that reason alone, it's a shame that a decent version of Totoro will not be available to U.S. consumers until at least 2004 (when Disney gets the rights). Still, without the pick-me-up of Totoro to soften the blow, Grave of the Fireflies actually resonates more deeply in the viewer's heart.

Make no mistake, director Takahata-san has not made a film with angry, anti-American undertones (which would seem appropriate in many ways) like the excellent Hadashi no Gen (a.k.a. Barefoot Gen). Instead, Grave of the Fireflies is a hauntingly beautiful film without a clear enemy, outside of the arrogance of youth and the curse of hunger, two universal themes that will leave any audience asking simply, "Why?" What more could any war film hope to accomplish?

Jeff Kleist
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