Grave of the Fireflies (a J!-ENT Anime Blu-ray Disc Review)

December 16, 2012 by  

Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” is the most profound anime film that I have ever watched in my life.   A heartbreaking war tale based on the childhood experience of novelist Nosaka Akiyuki, “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of the best war films of all time and definitely a film that must be experienced!  The Blu-ray release is also an improvement over the recently released DVD and worth the upgrade.  Highly recommended! 

Image courtesy of © 1988 Akiyuki Nosaka/Shinchosa. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Grave of the Fireflies


DURATION: 89 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, Original English 2.0, Subtitles: English


COMPANY: Sentai Filmworks

RELEASE DATE: November 20, 2012

Based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka

Written and Directed by Isao Takahata

Produced by Toru Hara

Executive Produced by Ryoichi Sato

Music by Michio Mamiya

Cinematography by Nobuo Koyama

Edited by Takeshi Seyama

Production Design by Ryoichi Sato

Art Direction by Nizou Yamamoto

Anime Production by Studio Ghibli

Featuring the voices of:

Tsutomu Tatsumi/J. Robert Spencer as Seita

Ayano Shiraishi/Rhoda Chrosite as Setsuko

Yoshiko Shinohara/Veronica Taylor as Mother

Akemi Yamaguchi/Amy Jones as Aunt

When their mother is killed in the firebombing of Tokyo near the end of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left on their own: their father is away, serving in the Imperial Navy. The two children initially stay with an aunt, but she has little affection for them and resents the time and money they require. The two children set up housekeeping in a cave by a stream, but their meager resources are quickly exhausted, and Seita is reduced to stealing to feed his sister.

There are films that stay with you and you can remember how devastated or how heartbroken you were after you watched it.

In my 18-years of reviewing anime, “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of the few few films that I have reviewed a few times in which no matter how many times I have viewed it, I am left with tears streaming down my face and left emotionally devastated.

“Hotaru no Haka” (Grave of the Fireflies) is a anime adaptation by director Iaso Takahata (co-founder of Studio Ghibli) and is based on a semi-autobiographic novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, which the story is based on his childhood experience during World War II.

The film has received primarily fantastic reviews and while we have seen various video releases of “Grave of the Fireflies” and a previous collector’s edition on DVD nearly a decade ago, the Sentai Filmworks DVD release of “Grave of the Fireflies” released in March 2012 featured a new digitally remastered and restored version of the film.  And now here we are with the Blu-ray release that features the film in 1080p High Definition but also featuring both English and Japanese soundtracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and also featuring the original 1988 English dub soundtrack.

“Grave of the Fireflies” is a film that revolves around a 14-year-old teenage boy named Seita and his 4-year-old, younger sister Setsuko.

The film begins with an image of Seita, who is one of the few who lay near the train station with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no assistance, just sitting their to die.  Seita dies and as the janitors checks on him, found next to him is a metal candy container with ashes and bones inside.

As the janitor throws the candy container out into the field, we see the spirits of Seita and his younger sister Setsuko reuniting together as fireflies fly around the field.

The spirit of Seita then shows us a flashback of his life in Japan, the story is set in World War II and Seita’s father is serving in the Japanese navy, while his mother (who has a bad heart condition) raises both he and his sister.   The sound of the air raid alarm engulfs the town and Seita encourages his mother to get to safety at a bomb shelter, while he gets a few supplies ready and also prepare his sister for the walk to the shelter.

But dozens of American B-29 bombers fly overhead and drops hundreds of bombs all over Kobe, Japan.

As Seita and Setsuko see destruction and death all over the place, they try to look for their mother.  As a family friend watches over Setsuko, Seita goes to check on his mother and finds out that she was among the many who were badly injured.  And with doctors and hospitals too full with injured and dead people, unfortunately, without major treatment, Seita’s mother is dead.

With a father that is fighting in the war, Seita and Setsuko have no choice but to stay with their aunt.  And because food is hard to come by due to the bombings, the only way people can get food is by selling their belongings to farmers or anyone that can give them money.  So, among the first things sold are Seita’s mother’s kimonos to help buy rice.

But the longer they stay with their aunt, it becomes an inconvenience to both.  His aunt feels that Seita is not pulling his own weight and is lazy.  She feels that most young men are dedicating their life to the emperor and their country and he is doing nothing.  But for Seita, he is busy taking care of his younger sister (who is having a difficult time adjusting without her mother).

And his aunt becomes even more strict towards them by not offering them any good food but rice porridge, as the good food only is saved for those who are dedicating their lives to their country.

Eventually, living with his aunt becomes too much of an inconvenience that he makes the decision to raise his sister on his own and live outdoors.

And as Keita and Setsuko live on their own and trying to find ways to eat and live outdoors, can the two survive living on their own?


“Grave of the Fireflies” is presented in 1080p High Definition and uses the HD digitally restored version that was released in Japan back in July 2012.  While watching the film, you notice how much clarity there is with the colors, how art backgrounds are much more detailed.  Colors are vibrant and during my viewing, I didn’t notice any problems with the picture quality whatsoever.  This is a solid restoration and fans should be happy with this Blu-ray release of “Grave of the Fireflies”.


“Grave of the Fireflies” is presented with three soundtracks.  You get the new Sentai Filmworks English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack, the original Japanese soundtrack in DTS-HD MA but now included is the original 1988 English dub that many people grew up watching when it was first released in the United States.  With the first two lossless tracks, there is better dynamic range, while the original, which sounds good but is not as robust.  Apparently, the original master for the original English dub is lost, so a duplicate track had to be used.

Regardless, the film sounds wonderful in HD and the fact that Sentai Filmworks included the original soundtrack is a bonus (note: this was not included in Sentai Filmworks original DVD release earlier this year) and I’m grateful for Sentai Filmworks for adding that.


“Grave of the Fireflies” comes with the following special features:

  • Storyboards for Grave of the Fireflies – (1:28:33) Watch the film with the original storyboards.
  • Deleted Scene 1 Storyboards – (1:53)
  • Deleted Scene 2 Storyboards – (:38)
  • Japanese Trailer – (1:47) The original Japanese theatrical trailer for “Hotaru no Haka” (Grave of the Fireflies).

Sure, if you are a cinema fan, there are war films that do a magnificent job of capturing the emotion and toll on humanity, may they be the Italian neorealist films of the past to various documentaries on genocide, but I have always considered “Grave of the Fireflies” as one of the greatest war films ever made.

Sure, the film is animated but by no means, should anyone discount this film as anything less. And the fact that you have the name of Studio Ghibli behind this wonderful film, you know that you are getting a quality animated film with a well-written and also deep storyline.

I remember watching this film for the very first time, I watched it along with my girlfriend and brother and neither of us knew what to expect.  And by the end of the film, the three of us were in tears, emotionally devastated.

Years later, I came across a wall scroll with the picture of the character Setsuko and to this day, over 15-years later, the scroll is hung up on my bathroom as a reminder that life is precious, enjoy life but also not to help those in need.

But the more I learned about the film overtime, I often thought about the original writer Nosaka Akiyuki.   The film is based on Nosaka’s experience of the bombings and how it took his family but the novel was a form of therapy for the writer as he had blamed himself for many years for the death of his younger sister who died of malnutrition.

And watching this film, although director Isao Takahata has said many times that this was not an anti-war film but a film about a brother and sister trying to survive after being isolated from society, having watched this film several times in the last two decades and even now, I still feel that the efficacy of “Grave of the Fireflies” lies in its message of the brutality of war but also how society reacted to those in need.

The brutality of war is logical, but in the story of these two characters trying to survive after the war, it was heartbreaking to see that those who survived the war and still had homes, there were a few who were not as sympathetic to these individuals who lost everything.  Even for a young teenage boy such as Keita and his young 4-year-old sister, there was a barely anyone wanting to help these children.

As a viewer, you were drawn to these children as we see the innocent brother and sister and eventually see the transition of two enthusiastic children full of life, including a slightly plump Setsuko but later to see them losing that enthusiasm and the site of a thin and near skeletal young 4-year-old is a devastating image.   You see the doctor telling Keita that she needs food, and he yells back “where do you expect me to get food?”…  It’s heartbreaking because it’s a different experience for those of us in the West who expect some sort of government assistance.  Who is there to help the children?  No one?

And at the time, when I first watched this film, I found it heartbreaking that no one would step-in to help these children, may it be the doctor, the adults or anyone who knew of the children’s plight, including the farmers.  I couldn’t fathom it.  But to contrast this film was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows”, another film based on a true story but this time, children in Japan via the 1990′s and the result is similar for both films.  Boys having to play parent and raise their sibling(s), taking on that responsibility.  And while part of us hopes they can do it, we know deep inside that these young individuals thrust into that world of having to harden themselves and bear the responsibility of an acting parent is going to end in failure.  There is no money, there is no work to make money and without money, there is no food, no medicine…nothing.

But the overall efficacy of “Grave of the Fireflies” is its pacing but how it gives the viewers that time to see the tragedy unfold, but then seeing a child of innocence, wide-eyed, smiles and then its lasting image of a goodbye to the character which resonates in our mind of how war is so brutal and hoping for those who experience the film, to do something positive with that emotional being of helping those in need.  Not just in wartime but knowing that there are many people out there, who are in need.

As for the Blu-ray release, the 2012 edition of “Grave of the Fireflies”, watching this film in HD, I was very pleased to see the digital restoration of this film.  Back when I reviewed the Sentai Filmworks DVD release, I questioned why it was not released on Blu-ray and on DVD (where in Japan, the Blu-ray was released).  But several months later and fortunately, American audiences now get a definitive version of the film on Blu-ray.  While the clarity, sharpness and vibrancy of the film was expetected HD and also more dynamic range with the Japanese and English lossless soundtracks, the big surprise for me was the inclusion of the original 1988 English dub.  Many of us who watched this film in the early ’90s, grew up with this English dub and the fact that Sentai Filmworks has included it on this Blu-ray is fantastic!

And another plus is that this Blu-ray release comes with four special features which the DVD version did not.  With that being said, not all special features from Japan made it into this Sentai Filmworks Blu-ray release.  The 18-minute interview with director Isao Takahata and the 12-minute interview with film critic Roger Ebert are missing.  There is also a 58-minute special feature with the animation director, art director, music director, color scheme and assistant animation director that was included in the Japanese Blu-ray release which would have been fantastic to see any of these.  But unfortunately, they are only on the Japanese Blu-ray release only.

Still, this is the best version of the film I have watched of the film and for those who invested in the DVD back in July, unfortunately, I have to say that it is worth upgrading to the Blu-ray release because it looks so much better and with the addition of the 1988 English dub and special features, especially for this Blu-ray release’s low price-point, it’s the definitive version to own!

Overall, “Grave of the Fireflies” is a profound film that still makes me cry no matter how many times I see it, and resonates strongly with me because of its heartbreaking storyline.  It’s definitely one of the best war films out there and should be experienced!  If you have never watched this film before, I highly recommend that you do.

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