Ever since Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the Japanese have been conflicted about the amount of blame they bear for the war. The Japanese military, of course; nobody has anything good to say about the military-controlled government that got them into a losing war. But the people?
Starting in 1983, there have been several animated accounts of the horrific events of 1945, from the privations of the civilians who were literally starving, to the American military’s fire-bombing of several cities, culminating in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stories are all told from the viewpoint of helpless civilians, usually children. From 1988 to 1991, there was an annual summer movie, directed by Seiji Arihara and animated by Mushi Productions for release through the Nikkatsu theater chain as a Nikkatsu Children’s Movie. The genre has slowed since then, but not died out.
Here is a list of them.
Barefoot Gen. Hadashi no Gen. 85 minutes, theatrically released July 21, 1983, directed by Mori Masaki and animated by Gen Productions and Studio Madhouse. This is the thinly-fictionalized autobiography of producer Keiji Nakazawa (1939-2012), a cartoonist who, as a six-year-old boy, lived through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, witnessing his father and younger brother dying, crying for help, in the flaming rubble of their home. Nakazawa spent his life telling his wartime experiences through manga and animation. Nakazawa focused less blame on the American military for the bomb than on the Japanese military who started the war, and on the civilians who ignored his calls for help for himself, his badly-injured mother, and his dying little sister, shrugging him off with the excuse that “we’ve got troubles of our own.”
Barefoot Gen 2. Hadashi no Gen 2. 86 minutes, theatrically released June 14, 1986, directed by Mori Masaki, animated by Gen Productions and Studio Madhouse. The continuation of Gen’s/Keiji Nakazawa’s story, adapted from volume 2 of his manga, Barefoot Gen: Out of the Ashes, set in 1948. Life is more positive, thanks to massive food donations by the American occupation forces (whom Gen hates), but Hiroshima is only beginning to rebuild and Gen and his mother have a very difficult time. Gen begins to mix his hard life with the play of a normal nine-year-old. But the first long-term effect of the bomb’s radiation on the survivors are seen, including Gen’s mother’s impending death from cancer.
The two Barefoot Gen movies were basically work-for-hire productions by Studio Madhouse for Gen Productions, Nakazawa’s company that was mostly funded by donations from anti-war activists. In addition to the two Gen movies, Nakazawa and Gen Productions made Summer With Kuro (Kuro ga ita natsu), a 67 minute theatrical feature released June 4, 1990, directed by Takeshi Shirato and animated by RCC Chugaku Broadcasting. This is the fictional story of Kuro (Blackie), a cute kitten who lives through the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima.
Grave of the Fireflies. Hotaru no Haka, a 89-minute theatrical release on April 16, 1988, directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli. The story, in a flashback after his death, of Seita, a fourteen-year-old boy. He and his little sister Setsuko survive the March 16-17, 1945 firebombing that destroys Kobe and kills their mother. Left orphaned, the two children slowly starve to death amidst the chaos of Japanese society in the last months of the war. Based on a semibiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka.
A commercial failure because it is so depressing (since it is narrated by a child’s ghost, the audience knows from the beginning that it will have an unhappy ending), Grave of the Fireflies received almost unanimous rave reviews from critics, in Japan upon its theatrical release and in America upon its video release. Roger Ebert praised it in 2000 as one of the most beautiful anti-war films ever made. “Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. […] “Grave of the Fireflies” is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to “Schindler’s List” and says, “It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.”
Girls in Summer Clothes. Natsufuku no Shojo-tachi. A 50-minute TV special (34 minutes plus commercials) broadcast August 7, 1988, the 43rd anniversary of the nuclear bomb blast, directed by Toshio Hirata and Yoshiyuki Momose and animated by Studio Madhouse. In April 1945, the second- and third-year students girls’ school in Hiroshima are drafted for war work, leaving the 220 first-year girls almost alone. They become close friends. One of them, Yoko Moriwaki, keeps a diary, and much of the anime is based on the diary entries. The diary ends abruptly on August 7, 1945. None of the girls survive the nuclear blast.
Raining Fire. Hi no Ame ga Furu. 80 minutes, a theatrical feature released September 15, 1988, directed by Seiji Arihara and animated by Mushi Productions. An anime adaptation of a book containing eye-witness accounts of the fire-bombing of Fukuoka on June 19, 1945, presented as the observations of two children.
Kayoko’s Diary. Ushiro no Shomen Daare (literally The Front of the Back.) 90-minutes, a theatrical feature released September 3, 1991, directed by Seiji Arihara and animated by Mushi Productions. Kayoko is a little girl just starting first grade in Tokyo in 1940. As the war continues and she grows older, she goes from “fun” patriotic efforts such as singing martial songs in school and donating her plastic dolly to make explosives, to growing desperate privation as all food and resources are sent to the military. She is sent to the countryside to escape the American bombing of her city. She can see the distant light of Tokyo until the night of March 10, 1945 when Tokyo is fire-bombed; after that the city is dark. When she returns as the war ends, her neighborhood has been leveled and her family is dead. Based on the autobiography of Kayoko Ebina.
Rail of the Star. O-Hoshisama no Rail, 79 minutes, a TV movie broadcast July 10, 1993, directed by Satoru Namekawa and Toshio Hirata and animated by Studio Madhouse. The true story of Chitose (Chiko) Kobayashi, who grew up as a little girl in Japanese-occupied Pyongyang, Korea in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As she grew older, her family life deteriorated with Japan’s defeats in the war, and she realized the hatred of the Koreans to their Japanese masters. With Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Kobayashis are thrown out of their upper-class home by the Koreans (it had been seized from a Korean in the first place for Japanese settlers to live in). When it is announced that Pyongyang will fall into the U.S.S.R. occupation zone, Chiko’s father decides to take the family on a risky migration by foot to U.S.-occupied South Korea, following the North Star by night. (Yes, everyone knows that “The Starlight Railway” would be a better translation, but the Japanese rights-holder insisted upon a more-or-less literal translation. A literal translation would be “Divine Star of Rail”.)
The Angelus Bells. Nagasaki 1945: Angelus no Kane. 80 minutes, a theatrical feature released September 9, 2005, directed by Seiji Arihara and animated by Mushi Productions. Idealistic young Dr. Akizuki is assigned to run a tuberculous hospital near a closed Christian theological seminary on the outskirts of Nagasaki. He and his devoted staff are overwhelmed with critically injured and dying patients after the second atomic bomb is dropped on August 9, 1945.
To close, it should be noted that the Japanese have produced two feature-length adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank’s book is actually titled “The Diary of a Young Girl”. (1) Anne no Nikki: Anne Frank Monogatori. The Diary of Anne Frank: Anne Frank’s Story. This was a two-hour TV special movie (1 hour and 25 minutes without commercials) on September 28, 1979, produced by Nippon Animation. (2) Anne no Nikki. A 102-minute theatrical feature by Studio Madhouse, released on August 19, 1995.
The 1979 semi-realistic TV movie, directed by Eiji Okabe, features naturalistic designs for the actual story, which is broken up by Anne’s Picasso-like surrealistic dream sequences. The more realistic, better animated but less imaginative 1995 theatrical feature, directed by Akinori Nagaoka, is mostly notable for its music by Michael Nyman. The soundtrack album contains 19 tracks.
I assume that nobody here needs a plot synopsis of The Diary of Anne Frank. This to some extent balanced all of the animation showing Japanese children as the innocent victims of war.
Next week: I’m back to discussing non-Japanese animation.