Itís not often enough that we see films of this calibre. Grave of the Fireflies is an astounding achievement in not only animť, but the animated format itself.
Set in the final days of World War II, Grave details the story of two young siblings - Seita, 14 and Setsuko, four - caught in a firebombing and separated from their mother. After the bombing has passed, they look for her at the bomb shelter to find it destroyed and her severely injured. She doesnít live for long and the children must fend for themselves in a world struggling to survive with crippling rationing and indifferent and angry countrymen.
|"September 21st, 1945Ö That was the night I diedÖ "|
Being taken in by a stern and cruel aunt, they soon realise they're truly alone as news drifts to them of their fatherís death at sea. Deciding they canít stomach any more of the auntís mistreatment, they leave and live in an abandoned shelter on a riverbank. Here Seita tries to make Setsuko as comfortable as possible, but they constantly struggle with hunger and in desperation Seita turns to petty crime to keep what remains of his family together.
Itís not often we experience war from anyone but the victorís viewpoint, but here director Isao Takahata takes us into the decay of an empire as the final days of the war run out. He does so without sloppy sentiment and delivers a film of rich and haunting content; even finding time to reflect on the wonder and beauty of life amidst the destruction. Every frame resonates with evocative and magnificently rendered backgrounds displayed in the original cinema aspect and make full use of it. Some truly superb wide angles and long background pans put us amid the horror most effectively, and not a single frame is wasted in telling the story in as beautiful a manner as possible.
While there may well have been a temptation to cry foul or inject guilt to the powers that be, this has been avoided dutifully, instead creating a world in which anyone could find themselves. Although set in World War II, the events could involve anyone, in any nation, at any time. Faceless bombers drop their malignant payloads, not the ĎAmericansí. The people on the receiving end arenít entirely Japanese in appearance, rather a more generic human base showing the film isnít just about two children during World War II, itís about children and victims of war the world over. Itís a statement against the horrors perpetrated by those in power, not about any local issue. And that aids the film in describing the human drama so well in that we as westerners can relate to it all the more. War itself is the enemy here, not any specific boogey-monster.
Beautifully and magnificently told, Grave is one of those rare moments in cinema in which a story has been told in a manner befitting its importance without prejudice or pretension. Itís not just two children suffering here, itís everyone. Itís humanity. Itís the world. Its point is delivered in a blunt but effective manner done so effectively it has the ability to inspire even the most stony of viewers to look within.
Itís said that wars are fought and lost on television these days, that people donít feel war the way they used to, but after watching a film of such eloquence and haunting beauty, itís hard to imagine this is true. War is awful, regardless of whom it is against and, in the end, itís the innocents that suffer the most. Grave of the Fireflies is a magnificent film of aching elegance and heartbreaking imagery and one that will stay with you long after it is over.
And thatís probably the most important thing of all.
Digitally restored and remastered, Grave looks better than it ever has. I can safely say that after watching one of the extras, but Iíll discuss that a bit further on. Colours are rich and vibrant here with the majority of the palette employing good earthy colours. This makes the bright colours, when they appear, seem all the brighter and this is just how it is supposed to be perceived. Internal lighting of the film is brilliant with some quality effects, though computer aided animation is still several years away at the time this film was made. Of particular note is the lighting of the fireflies. These are brilliantly conceived and executed and the animated colouring of the hand-painted cels works in perfect tandem with them.
Film artefacts have been pretty much removed altogether, including the original reel change markers, and the film looks effectively clean and sharp. The restoration work is a magnificent achievement and one of reference quality without doubt. The layer change is only marginally noticeable at 51:50 as the slightest of pauses and is between cuts, so doesnít disrupt. The video quality here is exceptional and a real credit to the folks at Madman. Considering the film was made in 1988, it looks like it was made yesterday, even if it is shot to hand-painted cel.
Sadly we only receive a Dolby Digital stereo mix here and while this is effective, a 5.1 surround mix would have been great. Even so, there is no real faulting the sound. Having been cleaned and remastered, it sounds perfect with all levels balanced nicely. I listened to the English dialogue track and this is well acted and not as stilted in the way that some animť suffers.
Sound effects are realistic and suited, without overdoing it. Of particular note is the sound of falling firebombs that whistle in a very convincing manner. Music too is the perfect accompaniment to the film. Scored by Yoshio Mamiya, it employs panpipes and other traditional Japanese instruments, simply evoking the mood from its understatement. It also conveys a feeling of the time and context it is placed into which works to set the period, but doesnít establish it entirely firmly - further aiding the Ďany periodí feeling.
Grave of the Fireflies is a film everyone should experience to fully understand the position of the innocents in wartime. Itís all well and good to encourage the blanket bombing of a country, because from the air we donít see the individual faces of fellow human beings. Here, that is taken away and we see just what the effect is on the population living under that blanket.
Nothing is gained, but much is lost and there are truly no victors in this sort of remote and guileless atrocity.
Itís a powerful film and a haunting story made all the more horrible because itís based in reality, if not with real characters. Cinema doesnít get much more real than this in an animated format, and Grave of the Fireflies stands alone for just that reason. A masterwork.