Firebombs and Broomsticks

Indy Datta takes a look at the new BluRays of Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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After the recent theatrical run for the 1988 Ghibli double bill of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, today sees the release of a slew of Studio Ghibli titles in DVD/Blu-ray dual format editions. I was lucky enough to score review copies of Fireflies and Miyazaki’s follow-up to TotoroKiki’s Delivery Service. Thoughts on the films and the discs after the jump.

Grave of the Fireflies

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The Film

Takahata’s harrowing adapatation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s autobiographical novel about two children struggling to survive in the aftermath of the American firebombing of Kobe in the dying days of World War Two flopped on its original release, in a mystifyingly conceived double bill with Miyazaki’s lyrical and charming My Neighbour Totoro. Like Totoro, however, its reputation has waxed since then along with the domestic, and latterly international, reputation of Studio Ghibli, although Takahata has never attracted the universal international acclaim as a film maker that his creative partner has.

There are moments when one is watching Grave of the Fireflies when that seems unjust. The sheer, uncomprehending horror experienced by people at street level as their cities burned is vividly evoked by Takahata and his artists – unusually for a director of anime, Takahata doesn’t draw or animate the films himself – and the central duo of Seita and his little sister Setsuko is beautifully drawn, animated and (in the original Japanese) voiced.

But Takahata is not fully in control of his material; and the emotional and intellectual complexities of the source novel and his own interpretation of it are overwhelmed by the visceral force of his depiction of the atrocity of an industrial war waged against civilians, and the unflinching way he renders the suffering and death of Setsuko. Nosaka’s novel was intended in part to be an apology for the novelist’s own culpability for the death of his sister, and Takahata has on many occasions (including in an interview included in the special features on this release) said that he saw Seita’s stubbornness and selfishness as a metaphor for the lack of respect shown by Japanese youth for tradition and authority, and their callow materialism (Seita has access to money, but finds it avails him little in a world where nobody has anything to sell). Takahata’s interpretation is interesting in the light of the film itself, which does add nuance to his reactionary views – civil society, the institution of family, and a lack of basic human decency from most adults all fail Seita as much as he fails Setsuko, and rob him of his dignity as much as the American bombs rob him of his home – but Takahata’s reductive thoughts on his own creation are telling. And in the end, no complexity or ambiguity can survive our response to the suffering and death of Setsuko. Takahata may feel that his work is misprisioned when it is considered a war-is-hell screed, whether searing or crude, but that’s the film he’s made.

The Disc

Although there have been high quality DVD transfers, including the previous UK edition, this new StudioCanal Blu-ray edition must be the best this title has ever looked for most applications, completely noise free and showing as much detail as anyone could reasonably want. The video bit rate mostly hovers around 20-25 Mbps, which leads me to suppose that it is probably derived from the same materials as last year’s US Blu-ray release, with which it also shares special features and a new English language dub. There is a higher bit rate Japanese disc available, which might be the preferred edition for projection on to a large screen, but this transfer won’t disappoint anyone. The audio is 2.0 only, but sounds good.

As Fireflies is the one Ghibli title that Disney have never released in the US, the dub itself has no star names, and uses the same text as the English subtitles. The performances also closely follow the vocal intonations of the Japanese cast, making the English language version feel flat and affectless. Special features are extensive and substantial, although none are new to this disc, and audiovisual quality is generally poor. The highlight is an interview with the late Roger Ebert, one of the film’s foremost critical partisans, filmed for the original US DVD release.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

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The Film

Miyazaki’s loose adaptation of Eiko Kadano’s 1985 novel for children was Studio Ghibli’s first domestic hit, just a year after the initial box office failure of the Fireflies/Totoro double bill. Twenty-five years later, every moment of this delightfully matter-of-fact story about the coming of age of a teenage witch is still a joy. Of all Miyazaki’s films it’s the least touched by ambiguity, darkness or conflict, but I don’t miss any of those elements when watching it. Miyazaki’s moral genius is as perfectly meshed with his aesthetic genius as in any of his films. It’s expressed here through the triumph of optimism, altruism and enterprise over the sadness of growing up – conflicts with other characters aren’t resolved so much as wished away by benign authorial fiat, which sounds rubbish but, in context, is kind of brilliant. The bold, gently witty picture book characterisations are as sublime as the watercolour style rendition of the town that forms the film’s setting – a town that’s based on Visby in Sweden, which Miyazaki and Takahata visited on a failed mission to secure the rights to adapt the Pippi Longstocking stories –  but with touches of everywhere else from Paris to San Francisco. The most negative emotion I associate with watching it is how sore my face feels from grinning like a fool all the way through it. This is one of those films where writing too much about it feels pointless. Just buy it. Watch it with your kids. If you don’t have any kids, steal some from somewhere.

The Disc

Visually, this is even better than the Fireflies disc – the video bit rate is usually in excess of 30 Mbps – the colours pop off the screen, I can find nothing to criticise at all. The sound mix, as on the Fireflies disc, is 2.0 only, but solid. This is a major upgrade on any previously available home video version of the film, as close to a must-have as imaginable. If this is typical of the materials supplied by Disney for these releases, that will be equally true of all the other Miyazaki discs.

The extras are largely culled either from Disney’s previous releases or Disney EPKs – a series of short featurette interviews with Miyazaki, his producer Toshio Suzuki and the starry voice cast assembled by Disney for their 1998 English-language dub. New to this disc, as far as I can tell, is an excerpt from a fairly recent Japanese TV documentary about the real world locations that inspired the fictional places in Miyazaki’s films.

The English dub itself is the revised version used on the 2010 Disney DVD release, which removed some additional scoring, changed theme songs and even additional dialogue from the 1998 audio track. Largely well cast and well performed, it’s more of an acceptable alternative to the Japanese language track than the Fireflies dub. Although it changes the tone of the film somewhat, it doesn’t compromise it unduly for children too young to read subtitles.

Kiki’s Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies are released in dual-format DVD and BluRay editions today by StudioCanal.

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2 thoughts on “Firebombs and Broomsticks

  1. Sid has started today with a Totoro-Arrietty double bill (her choice – I just left her with the ipad, which has 20 films and three dozen games on it). I find it very surprising that kids go for these so much when, for instance, in Despicable Me 2 it was all about the Minions for T and none of the heart-warming emotional stuff and the Ghiblis are all about little touching scenes and kids. We won’t be trying Grave of the Fireflies out, though.

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