The 2010’s have very much marked the beginning of my adventure into the world of World War 2 themed Japanese Anime films. After reviewing Studio Ghibli’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988) in 2010 and the ‘Barefoot Gen’ films (1983 and 1986) last year, this year I am reviewing the 1991 film ‘Who’s Left Behind? – Kayoko’s Diary’, based on the memoirs of Kayoko Ebina. Now I am afraid I cannot be as straight forward with this review as I usually like to be as the film in question has had an extremely limited release outside of its native Japan and therefore is only available on the internet, especially YouTube and only in its original Japanese format. I am composing this review to the best of what I know from watching the film on YouTube with the obvious limitations of not being able to understand written or conversational Japanese. The only subtitled version I have been able to find so far is in Turkish.
As the title suggests, the film focuses on the life and times of 6 year old Kayoko who lives in Tokyo with her parents Otokichi and Yoshi, her Grandmother and her older brothers Tadayoshi, Takejiro and Kisaburo. Kisaburo is particularly close to Kayoko and they remain strong allies throughout the film despite the occasional torments that Kayoko’s brothers subject her to. The fact that Kayoko is the first and only girl to be born into the Nakane family is the main reason why her brothers sometimes torment her.
As the film progresses, so does the time period which begins in 1940 and gradually progresses to the Tokyo fire-bombing on March 9th-10th 1945. At the beginning, the impending threat of World War 2 is the least of Kayoko’s worries as she has enough trouble fitting in at school and at home as she easily gets upset and intimidated by several factors such as family, school-teachers, pressure and bullies. That is not to say Kayoko does not have any friends because she does but she tends to let simple things such as nightmares and little accidents or misunderstandings get to her very easily which causes great embarrassment to herself and her family.
As time goes by, the threat of War increases and so do Kayoko’s responsibilities as in time, her mother becomes pregnant and the Nakanes are blessed with their 5th child around about 1941 or 1942. This means another brother named Konosuke for Kayoko and a much younger one at that so Kayoko tries to face up to the responsibilities of being an older sibling which she actually handles reasonably well apart from one scene where she nearly loses Konosuke because she is distracted spending time with her friends.
The War soon takes precedence over everything else that once mattered as the Nakane family, having regularly shown their support for the Great Japanese Empire and its armed forces, begin donating several of their most treasured possessions to help with the War effort. The numerous donations include Kayoko’s favourite doll which she had been using to entertain her younger brother but Kayoko simply gives up the doll without a second thought. Indeed, by about 1943 or 1944, Kayoko is evacuated into the countryside of rural Numazu to go and live with her Aunt and has to leave her entire family behind as is emphasized in the film title.
Kayoko’s evacuation proves well-timed as from this point on, the film grows ever more darker in tone as the War situation rapidly turns against Japan and in favour of the invading American Armed Forces. Kayoko is already homesick enough as it is and regularly writes to her family back in Tokyo but the worst is still yet to come and all that she has been through up until now pales into insignificance by comparison as soon as 1945 comes along.
The first sign of how much the situation has deteriorated comes when Kayoko, her Aunt and all their neighbours retreat into the forests for cover as a fleet of American B-29 Super-fortress bombers fly overhead. As soon as Kayoko realises the American bombers are flying towards Tokyo, her heart immediately goes out for her family and wonders with a great sense of dread what is going to happen to them. Not long after this, Kayoko narrowly escapes being shot by a low-flying P-51 Mustang but a soldier on his bicycle is not so lucky. Kayoko then receives a visit from her injured brother Kisaburo who has come to tell her of the devastating fire-bomb attack on Tokyo and what it means for him and his sister. The now 11 year old Kayoko and her Aunt subsequently return to Tokyo and stay in a bunker on the outskirts of the destroyed city. At this point Kayoko realises the full extent of how lucky she was to be evacuated.
Overall, the film proves to be worth far more than its limited release outside of Japan suggests. It does take a while to properly get going in terms of emphasising just how devastating the effects of War can be, and certainly much longer than ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and ‘Barefoot Gen’ but still does an effective job of proving such a point. The animation quality definitely benefits from being nearly a decade more up to date than the first ‘Barefoot Gen’ but is still not quite up to Studio Ghibli’s standards. Because the film attempts to cram just over half a decade into an hour and a half’s duration, much of the focus is on Kayoko and her family trying to go about their everyday lives whilst supporting the War effort as much as they can right up until the evacuation scene. This proves rather poignant as well as an ominous sign of the terrible things to come as Kayoko’s brother Kisaburo runs for a great distance alongside the passenger train on which Kayoko is travelling to Numazu, trying to say a lot more than just a long goodbye.
The fact that the rate of the film is relatively slow for the most part actually works in its favour in this instance as it serves to emphasise how much Kayoko grows and matures as a person as the years come and go. For instance, when Kayoko wakes up in the aforementioned bunker, she bumps her head on the low ceiling and simply rubs it with no fuss. This is a significant change from the early stages of the film where Kayoko cries like a baby over something as simple as getting hit several times, a highly common occurrence over the course of the film. It is really when her younger brother Konosuke is born when Kayoko’s maturity really starts to gradually develop as she is now no longer the youngest child of the family even if she remains the only daughter.
On the whole, if you have already seen ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and the ‘Barefoot Gen’ films then this film will probably just feel like repetition to you and the lack of subtitles and translation will prove further off-putting to a non-Japanese audience. However if you were to still to give this film a chance even if like me, you cannot understand written or conversational Japanese, you may find the much slower gradual progression to the outbreak of War on the civilian side of Japan in this film a much more refreshing approach to a World War 2 themed Anime than those of it’s 1980’s counterparts. As if this film is not already hard enough to find as it is, there is also an even rarer remake made in 2005 to look out for.