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Grave of the Fireflies: Collector's Series

Anime has become such a geeks-only niche genre that it's hard for novices to know where to start. For every film by Hayao Miyazaki or crossover efforts like Metropolis and Akira, there are plenty that will just as easily alienate the curious. And unsuspecting parents looking for something cute would be horrified if they stumbled over a title like UrotsukidUji: The Legend of the Overfiend. Even as Japanese animation becomes more and more influential in our popular culture (one need not look too much further than The Powerpuff Girls), it's not always easy to classify. In part this is because modern American animation, as exemplified by Disney's films, achieves a sort of transcendent beauty in its falseness, and only occasionally do our American pictures hope to be thought-provoking (as in Richard Linklater's pretentious Waking Life). Anime, on the other hand, can be more than talking tigers and faux-philosophy — and Isao Takahata's 1988 Grave of the Fireflies is a good example of the form at its best. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the movie is an emotionally rounded work that illustrates the effect that war has on children — it's as gripping as a live action film, if not more so. Beginning with his death, Seita (voiced in Japanese by Tsutomu Tatsumi and in English by J. Robert Spencer) tells of his demise. As World War II is drawing to a close and with his father in the Navy, Seita lives with his mom (Yoshiko Shinohara/Veronica Taylor) and sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi/Rhoda Chrosite) in the small Japanese port town Kobe. But his childhood comes to an abrupt end when bombing runs leave their home in ruins, and his mother fatally covered in burns. Knowing his mother's fate but keeping it from his younger sister, Seita travels with Setsuko to see a distant aunt who takes them both in. But she's not happy to have the two children, and she doesn't treat them as kindly as she does her tenants. However, Seita is a strong-willed boy, and soon he abandons his aunt's lodgings, taking Setsuko with him into the countryside, where they live off what little money they have and steal anything else. For a while the two siblings play as children do, but Seita can't look after all of their needs. And before long the situation goes from bad to worse.

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A powerful document about children as overlooked casualties of war, what's most obvious while watching Grave of the Fireflies is that it had to be animated — it would be too difficult, or too false, or too cloying to tell the story with child actors. But thanks to the animation, viewers can grasp the truths of Takahata's film without being alienated by the subject-matter. Furthermore, the animation doesn't only act as a buffer during the movie's harsher moments, but it also reveals beauty, even in the worst of situations (the bombing of Kobe is especially gorgeous, as the firebombs look like fireflies). The film is filled with many of these beautiful scenes — the sort that audiences have become accustomed to in animated films — but here they're burdened with a quiet sense of mourning. In the picture's centerpiece, Seita and Setsuko capture a large amount of fireflies to fill their tent, and the two are playfully illuminated. But by the next morning Setsuko must bury the dead fireflies, when she reveals to Seita that she knows their mother is dead. Grave of the Fireflies uses these short strokes and details of life as its foundation, and as Roger Ebert points out in his interview on the DVD, its the type of film that belongs more to the Neo-realist school than any animated genre. In fact, both the influence of postwar Italian directors, as well as humanist Japanese filmmakers such as Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, contribute to this masterful piece of antiwar cinema. Central Park Media's two-disc Collector's Series release of Grave of Fireflies presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and thankfully it's a stunning transfer. The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio is available in both dubbed English and the original Japanese (with optional English subtitles). Also included on Disc One is the entire film shown via the director's storyboards, as well as eight bonus trailers. Disc Two features an interview with Roger Ebert, who has long been a supporter of the film and has screened it at one of his "forgotten film festivals" (12 min.); an interview with director Isao Takahata (18 min.); a Japanese promo for the film (6 min.); and a featurette on the picture's historical background with authors Theodore F. Cook and Haruki Taya Cook (12 min.). Also on board are a comparison between the locations used in the film and their real counterparts, a featurette on the restoration, bonus storyboards, the U.S. and Japanese trailers, biographies for both Takahana and author Nosaka, and eight more bonus trailers. Dual-DVD Slimline keep-case.

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