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Film Reviews

Ghibli's Are Good: Grave Of The Fireflies And Kiki's Delivery Service Reviewed
Gary Green , July 10th, 2013 07:25

Gary Green revisits two underrated animation classics from Studio Ghibli, available now on Blu-ray for the first time

There are two pillars of the modern animated world: Pixar and Studio Ghibli. While the former has been seeing a downhill slide as of late (their subsidisation by Disney parallel with this), it can be argued that Ghibli’s efforts have been almost as strong as ever with features like Ponyo and Arietty arriving in the last few years to both critical and commercial applause. But its reputation is thanks to a run of instantly memorable, resonant classics released over the last twenty years; My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, to name the most celebrated. But two gems are wedged between these – Kiki’s Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies, and both exquisite movies are getting the much-needed Blu-ray treatment.

Both films were released just over a year apart, a little over two decades ago, and yet their influence hasn't waned a bit. 1988's Grave of the Fireflies tells the sad story of a brother and a sister caught in the collateral of World War II. What's primarily marketed as a children's film set in that horrific period of history would be considered a risky move nowadays, let alone nearly twenty-five years ago. But writer and director Isao Takahata's deft storytelling abilities make certain the picture gracefully carries out its long-gestating gut punch. This might infer that Grave of the Fireflies is a bleak picture, when the opposite is true. Great cinema in any medium balances the dark with the light, and sometimes even makes it difficult to distinguish the two. There are a handful of moments in Takahata's masterpiece (and that word most definitely applies here) that hit such heights that you can't help but realise that this is a war film, plain and simple, and not just a good one, but one of the greats (the late Roger Ebert was a huge advocate of the movie, calling it out as one of the best of that genre).

War itself is never explicitly portrayed in the film. This is a movie about the consequences of action, as opposed to the action itself and that’s what makes it a classic. Even from the first scene, Fireflies introduces us to an ambitious narrative style with powerful visual leitmotifs. The siblings Seita and Setsuko, heroes of our story, are seen bathed in a soft red light, ghosts in a smoking post-WWII world already close to being forgotten. They are, clearly, already dead. This is suicide for a children's movie, but crystal clear statement-making from filmmakers concerned solely with treating animation as an artform, rather than a Saturday morning cereal accompaniment. The greatest aspect of Seita and Setsuko's journey is that it's merely a variant on the story of any family affected by such tumult, the kind that can be told by not just the Japanese, but by the people of any nation involved in the horror of war. So while this was obviously never intended to be part of the same colourful canon Ghibili turned out over the next decade, it should be remembered as the studio’s crowning artistic achievement.

Conversely, Kiki's Delivery Service is at surface level the opposite of Fireflies. The plot is straightforward and the stakes are low, but it subverts even the most discerning, frown-wearing viewer with the kind of irreverence that Ghibli are famous for. Hayao Miyazaki, director of most of Ghibli's much-loved work including the aforementioned Big Four (My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle), helmed this as his fifth feature for Ghibli. A keen witch by the name of Kiki leaves home at thirteen, per an age-old tradition, to seek out and live in an alien town. Among the small amount of possessions she takes with her is her mother's broom, her father's radio, and her trusty talking black cat, Jiji. It's a simple tale, but one with important lessons for our protagonist that revolve around the perks - and burdens - of independence. As we fly with Kiki above the town she's adopted as her new home, seeking the destination for her latest delivery (and, by subtext, her own acceptance by these people), it slowly dawns this is an adroitly lyrical spin on the coming-of-age recipe we see in cinema so often, especially in animation.

What makes this otherwise pleasant, non-fussy picture stick in the mind over others is down to how Miyazaki doggedly handles the core themes of growing up through the eyes of Kiki the entire time. Unlike a Disney film, where the heroine would be whisked off to a bizarre land against her wishes and must find her way home, the very first scene in Delivery Service is Kiki deciding for herself to go out and experience the new. It's this crucial focus on the choice of the character, as opposed to the mechanics of story, that forge Kiki with a special quality that not just children, but also adults, can aspire to. It's a picture that’s small but on a large scale, touching without being mawkish, and complex without being complicated.

Naturally, it feels as if Blu-ray was created with such visually resplendent movies in mind. The transfer for both films is impeccable, with utmost clarity and an ambrosial grain making for an almost therapeutic viewing experience. But in Studio Ghibli's case, it all only serves to allow the equally as rich storytelling to shine through untarnished (which will be a relief for those who have owned either movie on VHS for all these years). Apart from the timeless characters and imaginative narratives, the most refreshing - and important - countenance of Ghibli's output is the vernacular present in these rich worlds. A witch walking down the street in the Ghibliverse receives not horrified glances, but mere acceptance (with a hint of awe now and then); the gulf between a pair of siblings and their mother is portrayed as painful, but never melodramatically. This cultural rift is highlighted best in the Disney-dubbed version of Kiki: the American-voiced feline friend Jiji is a markedly more wisecracking 'sidekick', as opposed to the cautious companion he is in the Japanese original. Not that there's anything particularly wrong about that particular choice, but a different culture is lost, drip by drip, with such petty decisions. This difference from Western ideology is what we should be showing our kids. That there's an entire world out there, one that's endlessly different but consistently beautiful. Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki's Delivery Service exhibit two gleaming sides of a priceless coin, one that only increases in value over the years. And if you don't have children, you can just always watch these gems yourself.

Grave Of The Fireflies and Kiki's Delivery Service are both out on Blu-ray from Studiocanal now.