There's something beautiful and horrible about seeing children being brave and fending for one another. Beautiful because even at an early age, the smallest and weakest of us already have the strongest character and instinct to protect others; horrible because no child should be in life-or-death circumstances.
Based on the WWII memoir of Akiyuki Nosaka who wrote the story to chart his and his sister's own hardscrabble struggle to survive the American firebombings of Japan, this film isn't easy to watch but it's essential viewing among the great works of animation--or really of all film, for that matter.
The story begins 1945, with teenaged Seita narrating his own death in a metropolitan subway station. It's here that his spirit is reunited with that of his little sister Setsuko, allowing us to flash back to the start of the siblings trouble during the firebombings.
This U.S. strategy involved pounding military targets in major population centers with incendiary bombs--a particularly devastating tool given the number of wooden structures in Japan at the time. The impact is evident here--Setsuko and Seita's home, their neighbor's homes, pretty much every home in their middle-class Kobe neighborhoods are razed to the ground by the bombings, and the children are sent fleeing into crowded shelters.
Now here's where director Isao Takahata's first Studio Ghibli feature gets its hooks into you: the kids' mother dies from injuries sustained from the fires, but Seita can't bring himself to tell his sister, hiding it even from their stern aunt who grudgingly takes them in. Seita wants to spare Setsuko, to spare her from knowing death at such a young age (it's never stated outright in the film, but she seems to be around five or six).
But if there's one message in "Grave of the Fireflies," it's that try as you might, you can't hide from death. In a lesser movie, handled by a director or writer with less sensitivity and a need to hammer us with the emotions inherent in the story, this would be a miserable slog. But we don't get that story here--the script avoids any grand melodrama, in favor of a simple story of survival.
Seita makes mistakes--his pride allows him to choose what ends up a disastrous path for himself and Setsuko, but it's hard to say any of us wouldn't have done the same--the problem is that he held out hope and in the end, it just wasn't there. Those early days in their shelter home are almost idyllic for them, hidden from the bombings while free to enjoy nature and each other's company. Another wonderful thing about the movie: Seita is developed throughout the story as a realistic protagonist--his suffering is neither saintly nor perfect. He gets impatient, he's allowed to be scared, and as we see from the first frames, he's allowed to fail in the worst possible way.
And yet, "Grave of the Fireflies" is framed as a story of redemption, from the first shot of the siblings together to the haunting last. I felt a lump in my own throat in those last minutes, overlooking the rebuilt city in the end and I'll bet you will too.
Special features and presentation
We're getting closer to seeing "Grave of the Fireflies" in its theatrical format, with Section23 inching towards the original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with the slightly slimmer 1:77:1 blocking. The detail and color in the 1080p picture is strong and stable with very little of the typical dirt and degradation you tend to see in reproduced animation.
Section 23 offers the original Japanese mono track as well as a newly-recorded English dub, the latter ably representing composer Michio Mamiya's melancholy score.
Also included here is the feature-length storyboarding of the film (it clocks in at three minutes shorter than the film). Showing both rough and detailed pencil work and the Japanese audio (and English subs), it's an impressive assembly of the early materials for the film. It would have been nice to have some way to quickly and easily switch back and forth from the fully-animated feature and the storyboards in order to compare the materials.
Rounding out the features are a trio of storyboarded deleted/extended scenes in Japanese and the film's theatrical trailer.
"Grave of the Fireflies" is available now on Blu-ray from Section23 Films.