In the entertainment industry, from film to music to even anime, war often proves to be a popular subject. The thrill of battle and the tragedy of loss are powerful motivators that encourage bravado in the most encouraging of times, and reflection or regret in their most dire. Arguably the most popular subject for filmmakers continues to be World War II, in which the world united against a common enemy, and crushed what was almost universally seen as a great evil. Japan, especially anime, shies away from the topic for obvious reasons. They instead prefer to tell tales of fictional wars, and people far enough removed that the human context can elude the viewer. There have been exceptions, though, as tales of the nation’s greatest tragedy escaped to the film medium. Of these films, one could argue that the best known, and most important of these would be Grave of the Fireflies: Studio Ghibli’s film based on the novel of the same name.
The film begins at Sannomiya Station shortly after the end of World War II, where a young boy is seen dying of starvation. The boy, named Seita, was one of the so-called “lucky” survivors of the firebombing of Kobe, which led to the ruination of a vital economic artery for Japan and claimed countless lives in the process. As night falls, and looters pick through his body, Seita’s spirit arises to lead the world through a recollection his experiences. From the beginning, where the firebombs destroyed his home and claimed his mother, it becomes clear that his final weeks grueling. After the bombing, Seita is alone, charged with the care of only his young sister as he tries to survive in the barren wasteland that was Kobe. While there are moments of comfort and menial aid offered, it’s clear that Seita is truly alone, and that his days are indeed numbered.
War films often fall one of two into categories: inspirational epics or soul-crushing experiences. Grave of the Fireflies falls into the latter category, much like Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It’s a powerful, depressing film that can be difficult to watch at points. The idea that human failure, that humanity itself is a flawed, pathetic creature is at the root of the film, and further pushes its oppressive atmosphere. The idea that this isn’t merely some government plot or a situation caused by a room full of bureaucrats, that Seita’s suffering could have been easily avoided lingers through the latter half of the film, as his follies are presented as mere steps in the path to his own demise.
While the film was made in the late 1980s, it’s aged incredibly well, and impresses even by today’s standards. The animation is smooth, especially during the bombing scenes and scenes with a large amount of on-screen action. The film pulls few punches, and renders the grotesque, such as a scene where Seita sees his mother shortly after the fire-bombing, with a sort of wicked beauty. But such ugliness also gives way to beautiful scenes of tranquility, such as a flashback in which Seita gets a photograph taken with Setsuko and his parents.
Sentai Filmworks’s release of the film, which we used for this review, contains three audio tracks: the original Japanese, Central Park Media’s English dub from 1988, and a new English dub produced by Seraphim Digital. DVD buyers, be warned: only the Blu-Ray version contains Central Park Media’s dub, since the original masters for the version were lost. The copy on Sentai’s release is an alternate copy of the film, preserved due to its historical importance.
Central Park’s dub is tolerable, but it definitely shows its age. While it’s not as grating as other dubs from the time, it certainly has its flaws. The overall performance seems flat in comparison to its Japanese counterpart, and several characters seem ill-fitted for their parts. For example, Setsuko, who was voiced by Corinne Orr (Star Blazers, Speed Racer), sounds far too old for her character. Given the difficulty of the film’s subject matter and the immaturity of the dubbing scene at the time, though, one can give this particular version a pass.
In comparison, Seraphim Digital’s dub of the film provides a far different experience. The new dub, which uses both veteran actors and newcomers alike, manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of its predecessor. Unfortunately, this version is still unable to escape the fact that Setsuko, voiced by Emily Neves, sounds far too old for the role of the character. The dub would have been better served if Seraphim opted to follow Ghibli’s example and cast an actual child for the role. While it does detract from the experience, it’s far from a deal-breaker. The two biggest stand outs with this dub are Adam Gibbs. who plays Seita, and Marcy Bannor, who plays Seita’s aunt. Both actors go above and beyond in their roles, and come close to matching the quality of their Japanese counterparts.
Of the three audio offerings presented, the original Japanese track is undoubtedly the strongest. They provide the strongest emotional impact in their performance, which is especially impressive given the fact that much of the cast came from backgrounds outside of anime.
The soundtrack for the film is sparse, and mostly used to leverage the impact of more emotional scenes. This is but window dressing, though, as the film would make an equally strong impact even without the musical accompaniment.
Grave of the Fireflies is a film that all anime fans, and film fans in general should watch. While it’s not recommended that one watch it more than once (this reviewer viewed the film four times, which all but destroyed the emotional impact for him), that viewing will prove to be a truly unforgettable experience.