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Grave Of The Fireflies: Collector's Series

As if to avoid stringing on his viewers with a falsely positive tone, Isao Takahata begins his tragic animated drama Grave Of The Fireflies with the demise of his protagonist, 14-year-old Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi). Malnourished, filthy, and seemingly lacking the will to survive, the teenager dies on the floor of a train station barely a month after Japan's surrender in WWII. He's surrounded by others like him, crumpled human refuse that train-riders avoid in mingled disgust and horror. The message: Seita's fate is far from unique. This mixture of the personal and impersonal, the close focus on two lives and the broad implications about the times that cut them short, is part of what made Fireflies a celebrated classic in Japan upon its 1988 debut, and what brought it to the U.S. years before anime releases were at all common in America. Adapting a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata scripted and directed Fireflies while his Studio Ghibli partner, Hayao Miyazaki, was scripting and directing his own classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The two films were produced and screened as a package, because Totoro was considered a difficult sell, while Fireflies, as an "educational" adaptation of a well-known historical book, had a guaranteed audience. But while both films won high praise at home and abroad, it's hard to imagine the initial impact of watching them back to back. Totoro is a bubbly, joyous film about the wonders of childhood, while Fireflies follows two children as they starve, suffer, and die after American planes firebomb their town. After losing his home and his mother in the same devastating attack, Seita takes his 4-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) to live with their aunt, who is sympathetic until she realizes that she may be stuck with them. As food becomes scarcer, and Seita spends his time supporting and entertaining his sister instead of helping with the war effort, the aunt becomes increasingly unpleasant; rather than cooperating with her, Seita flaunts his independence by moving himself and Setsuko into an unused bomb shelter, with tragic results. Nosaka, who lost his own young sister under similar circumstances, apparently intended his book in part to chronicle his shameful pride, while Takahata explains (during a 17-minute interview that's one of the primary bonuses on this stellar two-DVD set) that he wanted viewers to learn a moral lesson from Seita's hubris. Instead, he reports, they mostly sympathized with the boy, which is easy to do. Fireflies makes its doomed subjects seem utterly human, with the wealth of personal details and believable characterizations common to Studio Ghibli's peerless animated films, from Takahata's playful environmental comedy Pon Poko to Miyazaki's recent Spirited Away. Thematically dead-center between Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun and another grim animated tragedy, When The Wind Blows, Grave Of The Fireflies is not so much an anti-war statement as it is a protest against basic human selfishness, and the way it only worsens during trying times. This DVD's crisp, beautifully restored version enhances Takahata's lovely images, and his story is sweet, personal, and affecting, but Fireflies is still more than a little difficult to watch.


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