It’s Okay to Be Weak, Toward Becoming a Kind Country

Yōji Yamada

The reality where humans stand up.

I met Isao Takahata after watching the animation film “Gauche the Cellist” (1982) and having a dialogue about it. Since then, we’ve known each other for over thirty years. Later on, at the “Iwasaki Chihiro Art Museum”, he served as a council member and I as a director. We’ve met many times annually for a decade.

Takahata’s signature work, “Grave of the Fireflies” (released in 1988), is a story that depicts the tragedy of a brother and sister set in Kobe during wartime. The miserable life of the Japanese people at that time emerges with tremendous realism, stemming from precise and accurate depictions.

For instance, the way candies are consumed. I’ve known the Sakuma Drops tin since I was a child. Just hearing the clinking sound makes my heart flutter. But there’s a scene where three of them clump together and fall out—small fragments fall onto the palm, and Setsuko licks them off. This brilliant scene captures the longing for sweets at that time, making the audience feel deeply connected.

Or at the beach when Setsuko clumsily takes off her ‘mompe’ (a type of traditional pants) in a way characteristic of little children. Such gestures are depicted with utmost care. The feelings of young boys and girls, who suddenly get excited and frolic innocently on the sandy beach as waves roll in, are portrayed brilliantly.

To those of us who make live-action films, animation is quite mysterious.

What makes it mysterious is its fundamental nature of being a still image. If you steadily film a motionless boy’s face, suddenly his eyes might blink, or his neck might move. Living humans breathe and subtly move even when standing still, so there’s a slight discomfort in seeing a still figure. Excellent animation, however, omits unnecessary movements, making only the necessary parts move precisely, bringing human emotions vividly to the forefront. Before realizing it, the audience becomes engrossed in the human story, transported to a world unimaginable in drama films.

In reality, filming live actors results in a lot of unnecessary movements. Hence, we directors try not to make actors do superfluous actions. The epitome of this is probably in Yasujirō Ozu’s films. In Ozu’s works, actors like Chishū Ryū mostly remain silent without doing much. In film acting, minimal yet sufficient movement is essential, and it’s challenging for live actors to express this. Yet, Isao Takahata’s works craft this expression meticulously and creatively.

Even in sad situations, when boys and girls find something tiny to be happy about, their innocent frolicking figures are truly adorable. Our adult daily lives are mostly filled with unpleasant events, especially in today’s age. But occasionally, something strikes a chord and makes us think, “Ah, I’m alive,” or “Life isn’t so bad after all.” Perhaps what we call “happiness” is found in such moments. Children experience these moments quite frequently. Even in situations where you’d want to tell them, “This isn’t a time to be laughing,” they still play and make merry.

Setsuko, even under the terrifying conditions of air raids, laughs brightly like an angel. After crying out loud, she is smiling again the next moment. This work is remarkable not because it vividly portrays sorrow but because it depicts children trying to live joyfully in any situation, and captures moments when children feel truly happy.

Depicting a tragic situation heavily is relatively easy. But to portray fleeting moments of happiness amidst that, while subtly hinting at the profound underlying sadness, is genuinely challenging.

The Relationship Between Brother and Sister

Let’s delve deeper into the character construction of this work. Seita, the fourteen-year-old brother, is a prideful boy. He’d rather take care of and protect his sister than be insulted daily and rely on an unpleasant aunt.

Given that their father was a naval officer, their family was probably a relatively affluent middle-class household. References are made to them eating butter in the past, and their mother’s kimonos could be exchanged for quite valuable items. This contrasts with later in the story when Seita tries to barter using a stolen kimono and gets scolded for presenting such a “cheap item.”

If their father had been around, their household would likely be one of privilege and luxury. This very fact might be the cause of jealousy from their commoner aunt. Near the end, there’s a scene where young ladies in flared skirts are celebrating the war’s end. Kobe, as a location, has diverse areas. While there are neighborhoods inhabited mostly by laborers from small businesses, there are also upscale residential areas like Ashiya, making regional differences quite evident.

Due to the recklessness of a 14-year-old boy, he ended up doing what seemed unreasonable from an adult’s perspective. After it became public, there seemed to be various feedback suggesting Seita should have been more patient at his aunt’s house, or he should have withdrawn money a little earlier. In hindsight, there might have been a way to prevent his sister from dying, but the fact that such discussions emerge proves the power of the film.

Seita’s earnest love for his sister and the word “devotion” in terms of sacrificing everything for one person is one of the deep themes of the work.

The love a brother has for his sister is different from a man’s love for a woman; it’s pure, devoid of any sexual element. There’s a famous essay by Yanagita Kunio called “Sister’s Strength”, and this major compilation of his studies on shrine maidens posits the relationship of “a sister comforting her lonely brother” in the context of Japanese traditions, such as the rice planting festivals which have always placed women at their core.

Throughout the years of creating the “Tora-san” series, I’ve thought a lot about this special bond between siblings. In Tora-san, his sister Sakura is like a goddess, akin to the merciful Kannon. Tora-san’s feelings are purified when he thinks of his sister. Of course, he would want the Madonna to be happy, but love for the opposite sex is accompanied by carnal desires. On the other hand, the feeling of loving one’s sister is close to believing in gods or Buddha. I feel there is something akin to a unique Japanese “sister worship” in this.

The strong sentiment that you’d give everything for your sister, that as long as she’s happy it doesn’t matter what happens to you — there’s a scene where, for the sake of his sister, he steals crops and gets beaten up by the peasants. Few scenes are as poignant. I experienced the end of the war in Manchuria, so I deeply understand Seita’s hunger. Originally in Dalian, there were five Japanese middle schools. They kept closing one after the other until only one remained. At its auditorium, we were given a completion certificate that looked like a postcard made of mimeographed paper and told, “When you return to Japan, present this to any middle school you reach. Until we meet again in Japan, take care.” Afterwards, my father lost his income, and every Japanese was living hand to mouth.

What I remember vividly is selling Nanjing beans on street corners. We’d buy them from Chinese wholesalers, wrap them in newspaper triangles, hang them around our necks with a string attached to the ends of a drawer, and sell them on the street. But the hunger was too much, and I’d end up eating the beans I was selling. If I ate from one bag, I’d eat from the next. I’d eat a bit from each bag so they decreased evenly. It was like the “Little Match Girl” story. The agony of resisting the temptation of those Nanjing beans was immense. Eventually, I became numb as I saw more people around me starving to death.

Two years after the war ended, I returned to Japan, but I was still constantly hungry. I lived in a dormitory during my old high school days, and I was so hungry that I once pulled out a radish from a field in the middle of the night and ate it raw in my room. Despite knowing it was a crime to steal, we rationalized our actions saying that the field’s owner was wealthy. At the time, they used human waste as fertilizer, but we ate the radishes without a second thought.

That’s why I truly understand why Seita couldn’t resist eating the tomato. Stealing crops is a crime, the worst thing to do. I can understand why the farmers were angry enough to beat Seita, but their reactions were excessive. Back then, farmers were quite arrogant. Such depictions deeply resonate with me.

The True Horror of War

Recently, a newspaper feature on defeat recounted a heartbreaking story about when the Soviet army invaded Manchuria. The father died in battle, and the mother, leading her five children with the eldest being eleven years old, fled with other Japanese. But while trying to cross a river, she was coerced into seeing her one-year-old, three-year-old, and six-year-old as burdens and threw them into the water. The mother, escaping with the remaining two sisters, succumbed to exhaustion while begging on the streets of Shenyang. The younger sister was taken in by the Chinese, while the elder was rescued by a Japanese and repatriated to the mainland. She shared her story and died a few years later. This is a poignant episode that vividly depicts the brutality of war (Asahi Newspaper, June 18, 2013 morning edition).

When we think of war, we imagine bullets flying and confronting an “enemy.” But, during wartime, the people who were actually bullied were often fellow Japanese. People from the same town, farmers, even relatives like aunts could sometimes torment others in heinous ways, like forcing a mother to throw her children into a river. As shown in this work, even doctors would abandon malnourished young girls. Such incidents were all too common during the war.

Japan’s real enemy was the Japanese themselves. In this film, the portrayal of the aunt of Nishimiya is superb, but painful to watch. It’s distressing to the point that one might not want to continue viewing. That’s because I fear that had I been in aunt’s shoes, I might have acted the same. Her actions hold such a realism. In a scene where they eat porridge, she serves her daughter a full bowl, while giving just the thin soup to siblings Seita and Setsuko. She also acts uncomfortably and says hurtful things. The negative aspects of Japan’s patriarchal system are well-depicted.

Actually, the portrayal of characters like the aunt of Nishimiya is the strongest. In the 2008 live-action version, Keiko Matsuzaka played this role, and she was portrayed as a dislikeable character from the start. Yet, if one carefully considers her circumstances, it’s inappropriate to depict her as evil from the outset. As she aged, she might’ve regretted, thinking, “Why did I subject those children to such suffering?” She wasn’t inherently wicked at heart.

War isn’t just about a distant evil nation we fight against. Ordinary, good-hearted people—farmers, neighbors, relatives—they start baring their selfishness, despising and tormenting each other. The inherent human desire to live harmoniously and peacefully gets erased, and therein lies the true horror.

Even U.S. soldiers, when they return to their country, are good citizens. In a scene with aerial bombings, there’s a shot from above. The pilot, chewing gum, continuously pushes a button, unaware of the tragedies unfolding below. Dropping a bomb in English is referred to as “release.” The term “release” is typically used in positive contexts, like releasing a movie or record, or even releasing a caught fish…

In the overhead shot, where a pilot pushing the release button in the plane and the hellish landscape unfolding below are shown (a shot that cannot be captured in live-action), I feel Takahata’s sharp critical insight.

A Kind, Even If Weak, Nation

Mr. Takahata’s meticulous attention to reality is evident, for example, in the scenes where incendiary bombs fall. In fact, in my new work “The Little House”, released in January 2014, there’s a scene where a house burns due to an incendiary bomb, so I did a lot of research. The bundle of incendiary bombs, called “Molotov’s Bread Basket”, unravels in the air, falls to the ground like fireworks, pierces the houses and the ground, and after a brief pause, fierce flames erupt. The way they fall, the sound, the timing – Mr. Takahata, who experienced the air raids, has deeply researched and depicted this realistically.

In the Kobe air raid, 3,000 tons, and in the Tokyo air raid, 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped. Imagine 200 large trucks each loaded with 10 tons of incendiary bombs; it’s staggering. In the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands died instantly. I think today’s people really need to learn just how cruel war can be.

Those currently in power are starting to talk about changing the pacifist constitution, about making Japan a strong nation again or reclaiming Japan. What does “a strong nation” really mean?

We understand when we say “a sumo wrestler is strong” or “a baseball team is powerful”. But what is a “strong country”? Upon reflection, it’s a hollow term. It’s truly meaningless to debate using such abstract words.

Japan should be proud to be a country that has declared not to engage in war by force. We should be wary of those who loudly proclaim about a “strong” or “beautiful” nation. Perhaps we Japanese should listen more to voices like Setsuko’s in this film – the faint, barely audible ones.

I believe that Japan doesn’t need to be strong but should be a kind nation. Otherwise, the souls of the millions who died in that war, like the siblings in this movie, will never find peace.

In this film, the deceased siblings are watched over by the ghostly Seita. It’s not just an end upon death; Mr. Takahata introduced a perspective of the dead not present in the original work by Nosaka Akiyuki. The spirits linger and watch over the world.

We must continue to contemplate the fact that the souls of the three to three and a half million people who died in this war still wander. Amidst the watchful gaze of these countless souls, how should we proceed with this nation? I believe it’s essential to employ our imagination.

The Light of Fireflies

The life of the fireflies is symbolic in this story. On the bank of the pond where this boy and girl live, perhaps because it’s summer, fireflies dance beautifully as if comforting the girl’s heart. Even when the city of Kobe was reduced to scorched earth and its citizens ran out of food, only the fireflies continued to dance.

It reminds me of the times during and right after the war when there was no pollution. In the eras when the Japanese people faced hardships, the fireflies were happy. As this country rebuilt and factories sprung up in various cities, the fireflies began to disappear. When I was in middle school, around the time I returned from Manchuria, Japan had clear air. We were hungry, but the sky was blue, and the water was clean. As we experienced rapid economic growth, this country became polluted, not just in terms of nature but also people’s hearts. In the light of the fireflies, I feel something that we Japanese people have lost.

Watching this film, one becomes filled with a gentle emotion. A delicate sensitivity can be suddenly reclaimed. From these gentle feelings, I want to once again carefully consider our lives, our work, and this country. I wish for people to watch this film again, especially with children, to never forget the war. I believe it provides an excellent introduction to contemplating Japanese history.

Yamada Youji – Born in 1931 in Osaka Prefecture. Graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo. Joined Shochiku as an assistant director in 1954. His directorial debut was “The Stranger Upstairs” (1961). In 1977, he won the first Japan Academy Award for “The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness.” From 1969, he directed the “It’s Tough Being a Man” series. His representative works include “School” (1993), “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “Mother” (2007), and “About Her Brother” (2010) among others. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 2002. His latest work is “The Little House,” released nationwide in January 2014.

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