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Tombstone of the Fireflies
Tombstone of the Fireflies

Reo Toshitake (left) and Rina Hatakeyama (right) as Seita and Setsuko in Tombstone of the Fireflies.
Japanese:

火垂るの墓

Year: 2008  
Director:

Taro Hyugaji

 
  Writer:

Takuya Nishioka, Akiyuki Nasaka (original novel)

  Cast:

Reo Yoshitake, Rina Hatakeyama, Seida Matsuko, Keiko Matsusaka, Jun Eto, Satoshi Yamanaka, Katsuaki Takahashi, Hiromi Chino, Risa Taniuchi, Maika Suzuki, Kazuki Hagiwara, Yukiko Yabe, Yoshio Harada

  The Skinny:

It’s an admirable attempt at a live-action adaptation of the classic anti-war story, but Tombstone of the Fireflies is too calculated in its portrayal of war to leave any lasting impact like its animated predecessor did.

   
Review
by
Kevin Ma:

It’s not clear who asked for a live-action version of Akiyuki Nosaka’s classic semi-autobiographical memoir Grave of the Fireflies, especially when it’s in the shadow of the classic Studio Ghibli animated film and the popular 2005 television drama, but director Taro Hyugaji brings one to the big screen anyway. Originally a project developed by director Kazuo Kuroki, the film was taken over by his student Hyugaji after Kuroki’s death in 2006. With obvious budget constraints (there are no scenes of the pivotal Kobe firebombing, which was in the animated film) and ridiculous standards to live up to, Tombstone of the Fireflies – probably named so in English to avoid comparisons to the anime – is nowhere near as powerful as its beloved predecessor. However, its uncompromising depiction of wartime Japan proves that a powerful story is still powerful, regardless of the format.

The biggest preconception audiences will have to overcome when watching the feature film version is how the story’s events are laid out compared to the animated film. This is especially tough since the impact of the animated film comes from the audiences’ ability to focus on the tragedy instead of the suggested disturbing images, which are beautified by the animated process. In the live-action version, Hyugaji has the tough task of achieving a balance between depicting these images without going over-the-top to shock his audiences. To a degree, the director does find that balance without sanitizing his subject matter, choosing to limit the depiction of war’s devastation to the sight of bloodless corpses on the streets and bandaged survivors in the aftermath of the bombings.

However, the problem with that depiction during the first half of the film is that the choice almost seems too calculated to create any effective emotions. The story is essentially the same – siblings Seita (Reo Yoshitake) and Setsuko (Rina Hatakeyama) lose their mother (former idol Seida Matasuko) in the fire bombings and have to survive in the dog-eat-dog society of wartime Japan – and the images of the aftermath will certainly shock some audiences who have never seen a war film. But the way and the fashion in which these images are presented fail to involve the audience emotionally. A large part of this can be contributed to the lackluster acting of the three major figures; Matsuko doesn’t do anything beyond appearing kindhearted as the mother, Yoshitake simply reacts shocked to everything happening around him, and Hatakeyama simply alternates between acting cute and childish. Instead of shellshocking the audience into sympathy, the first act of the film simply goes through the motions of a war film without much impact.

Fortunately, the film improves as it gets away from the requisite shock images and into the actual societal effects of World War II. The story takes the siblings into a countryside town as they search for a nameless distant relative who takes advantage of the children’s leftover supplies. Writer Takuya Nishioka moves away from the story’s animated counterpart by creating new characters that represent other parts of Japanese society, including a kind, patriotic schoolmaster (Jun Eto), and a college student (Satoshi Yamanaka) living with a war widow. While the budgetary constraints prevent Hyugaji from showing any large-scale devastation, his depiction of cruelty and selfishness within Japanese society at the time is effectively frustrating and heartbreaking at the same time.

The filmmakers make a wise (though seemingly very conscious) choice to deliver their most powerful moments in understated visuals, but some of the elements – namely the college student and his outcome – are too underdeveloped to become greater than their obvious purpose as thematic devices. The film tries its best to not just depress, but to say something about the effect of war beyond the battlefield. However, it ultimately tries too hard to deliver its anti-war messages and criticisms of Japanese society, to the point that it forgets to tell an intriguing story in the process.

But Hyugaji does have undeniably powerful source material to work with, and he presents it plainly without forcing the audience to reach for their tissues. Even as the film reaches its tragic and nihilistic third act, Hyugaji consciously avoids excess sentimentality and grandiose music cues that would easily push the film into melodrama territory. Instead, he lets his images speak for themselves and produces an ending slightly different than its predecessor, and yet one that is equally powerful visually. Tombstone of the Fireflies may not be a success on the level of classic anti-war films such as Fires on the Plain or the animated Grave of the Fireflies, but for a film that could’ve been a melodramatic moneymaking effort, this live-action adaptation is much like the young protagonists’ journey – an admirable effort that tries its best to beat the odds. (Kevin Ma, 2009)

   
Availability:

DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Bandai Visual
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
Making-of featurette

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image credit: allcinema.net

   
   
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