Grave of the Fireflies (a J!-ENT Anime DVD Review)

February 27, 2012 by  

Studio Ghibli’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!  Highly recommended! 

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

TITLE: Grave of the Fireflies


DURATION: 89 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen, English and Japanese 2.0, Subtitles: English

COMPANY: Sentai Filmworks


RELEASED: March 6, 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 following voice talent:

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 2012 Sentai Filmworks DVD release of “Grave of the Fireflies” features a new digitally remastered and restored version of the film.  For now, this is a DVD release but hopefully in the near future, Sentai Filmworks will release it on Blu-ray.

“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 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen and in English and Japanese 2.0.

With the 2012 DVD release, the film has received a digital remaster and restoration and for those who enjoyed this film, it’s fantastic that the film has been re-released and received restoration but at the same time, it makes you wonder why there is only a DVD release and not a Blu-ray release.  As the film definitely deserves an HD release, I hope that Sentai Filmworks considers this title for a Blu-ray release in the near future.

With that being said, for those who have heard about this film and definitely want to experience one of the most profound war films ever made, the animation by Studio Ghibli is fantastic.  The picture quality looks very good and I didn’t see any film damage or any major problems.  Granted, it’s DVD but once again, the picture quality does show a bit more vibrance and sharpness and is deserving of a true HD release.

As for audio, you get a 2.0 soundtrack.  Front-channel driven and dialogue for the most part is clear.  The original Japanese voice acting is terrific, but this time around, I wanted to hear the English dub and voice acting is very good on the English dub end.  So, whether you prefer Japanese or English, both soundtracks are well-done!


“Grave of the Fireflies” comes with no special features.

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 DVD release, the 2012 edition of “Grave of the Fireflies” is a welcomed release as the other 2-disc version is out-of-print.  While the older release does have really awesome special features, this new version is digitally remastered and restored.  With that being said, previous owners should not give up the original DVD release because of those special features, as the Sentai Filmworks version does not come with any.

Also, I was hoping that with the film being digitally remastered and restored, that would mean a simultaneous Blu-ray release.  Unfortunately, it’s only DVD for now, but seeing how Sentai Filmworks have been good in returning to titles that were once released in DVD and re-releasing them on Blu-ray, I hope they consider doing this in the near future.

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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