Grave of the Fireflies, and Two Views of Japan
Lynn Huang asks whether there is a true Japan
By Lynn Huang
I first read about the animated movie Grave of the Fireflies in Peter Carey's Wrong About Japan. Carey's book is a delightful account of his trip to Japan with his teenage son. Carey's Japan was one of geishas, tea ceremonies and kabuki; his son's Japan was that of Nintendo, Gundam and Akihabara's Electric Town. Carey unwittingly forces his view of his "true Japan" on his son – including a four-hour kabuki performance – but grows to realise and accept his son's view too. It is a story about father and son, bridging the generation gap, and the old and new faces of Japan.
In the book, Carey describes Grave of the Fireflies as a brilliant, anti-war classic. He talks to a Japanese man who had experienced the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. The man said the firebombing was just as it was described in the movie. It is why his generation will always remain implacably opposed to war.
My interest was piqued. I didn't know much about the firebombing, except from the exhibits I saw at the Edo Museum in Tokyo. There were black-and-white photos of twisted metal, burnt-out towns, and a description of the civilian casualties. As I read the captions, the thoughts fired in my head as a Southeast Asian Chinese, almost a knee-jerk reaction – hey, where were the accompanying descriptions of the Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia preceding the firebombing? But then, I was being unfair. It was a museum about Tokyo's history, not World War II or Asian history.
I watched the DVD of Grave of the Fireflies alone at home on a Sunday afternoon. The movie is a 1988 Studio Ghibli production directed by Isao Takahata. It tells of a brother and sister, fourteen-year-old Seita and four-year-old Setsuko, who lose their mother in a firebombing raid. With their father away in the Imperial Navy, they struggle to make their own way in war-torn Japan. At first, life is manageable – they dig up their emergency provisions and move in with their aunt. As the war drags on, and rations become tighter, their aunt starts to focus her attention on looking after her own children and finally, feeling unwelcome, Seita and Setsuko move out and take shelter in a cave. Seita steals vegetables and loots houses during firebomb raids to eke out a living. Brother and sister grow gaunt and listless; Setsuko has persistent eczema from malnutrition. Finally, the inevitable happens and Setsuko dies, followed by Seita three months later.
It was probably good that I was alone at home then. After the movie, I cried hard and freely for a good five minutes.
It is an anti-war story alright. There is absolutely no redemption in the movie. The plot is a terminal decline from the start. In the beginning, Seita pacifies the crying Setsuko with sweets from a tin box. As the sweets run out, they fill it with water and sip the sugar-water. Setsuko understands, in her own four-year-old way, that times are hard and she does not complain. Then the sugar-water runs out too. The last time the box appears, it carries Setsuko's ashes.
The movie also explodes the myth of a close-knit Japanese society pulling together, uniting in adversity. It is each for his own – from the siblings' aunt looking after her own, to the vegetable farmer who cannot spare any of his produce, to the railway worker who rummages through the dying Seita's pockets for food.
I read recently that they are making Grave of the Fireflies into a TV series. One of the most popular actresses in Japan will play the siblings' aunt. I am not sure how well the movie would translate into a series, played by real people. The anime gives the movie a certain universality that will be lost once we are made to associate the characters with real life actors. The characters are drawn in the usual anime style – big eyes, stubby noses – and Setsuko is typically kawaii. I am not sure how they will coach a real four-year-old to play the same range of expressions that the anime Setsuko has. And the TV series would miss the point if it revolves around how the siblings' aunt is mean to them. She is just a minor character in the anime version, one of many catalysts in the siblings' journey towards their inevitable fate.
There was another reason why the movie left such a deep impression.
A few years ago, I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I saw the skeletal remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, the symbol of the Museum; the photos and statistics, and schools of hushed, polite students shuffling through the corridors.
I lingered over the exhibits, because all the while, there was a relentless, parallel commentary playing in my head that would not be silenced, threatening to block out what I was seeing. That parallel commentary was built from my history textbook's photos of Chinese civilians in Singapore beheaded by Japanese soldiers; descriptions of water torture by the Japanese military police Kempeitai; an elderly woman, mouth open in shock and grief, next to an overturned rickshaw, a pile of rubble and her dead grandchild; civilians lined up in a row and shot with a single bullet to the head or simply bayoneted by Japanese soldiers; Japanese soldiers cycling down through the Malayan Peninsula, heading south to kill – us.
Unable to ignore the pictures in my head, and somewhat ashamed to think these thoughts in a memorial dedicated to the A-bomb victims, I fled to the memorial for Korean victims of the A-bomb in the park. There, the thoughts in my head and the purpose of the memorial were aligned. I actually felt relieved.
I am a third-generation Singaporean. My parents were born after the war. I did not experience first-hand the cruelties of the Japanese occupation. What I know of the war comes from my grandmother's stories, my history textbook and visits to former POW camps such as the Changi Chapel and Museum. On my visits to Japan, I am met with nothing but politeness and hospitality, helped no doubt by my spouse (a gaijin who speaks fluent Japanese!). I enjoy Japanese pop culture, and I love Japanese food (hence my blog "Natto"). Yet, the sense of horror and grievance over the events of half a century ago is alive inside me. Why?
Michela Wrong, in her brilliant book I Didn't Do It For You, on how the world used, abused, and then forgot about the small African nation Eritrea, says in the Foreword:
She hit the spot. Collectively, we have nursed the grievance and woven it into our national identity (the British could not protect us from the Japanese, hence we fought for independence). It is not something that can be reasoned away.
So when Seita, unable to sleep in the cave, thinks of his father in the Imperial Navy and imagines a story of glorious militarism and conquest – I watch, but I have a parallel plot in my head.
Peter Carey, in his journey with his teenage son, sees the "old" Japan and the "new" Japan. For me, there are also two views of Japan. There is the ultra-modern version, home of the shinkansen and sarariman, which – to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama crudely – is too busy making money to make war. And there's the "Other Japan". Carey can see his old and new Japan coexisting comfortably today. I see only the ultra-modern one. The Other Japan, the one that dare not speak its name, I do not see (except for some right-wing politicking over Yasukuni). My hope is that what I do not see, no longer exists.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006