Kayoko is a young girl in 1940, just starting first grade. She's a bit of a crybaby, which is no secret to those around her. She loves playing with friends and singing cute schoolyard chants, and occasionally having fun with her three older brothers. Her mother is pregnant, and so she looks forward to being a big sister, only partially understanding the responsibility that might bring. Meanwhile, the war effort is growing, and it`s only the natural thing to do to be patriotic and support the country...
Kayoko goes so far as to contribute her favorite dolly, whose materials could help build explosives. Time passes, and as she grows older, Kayoko sees how the war has affected her life and those around her. Nothing can prepare her for 1945, however, and the bleak times that are soon to come. Based on original creator Kayoko Ebina's real life experience during World War 2 on Showa era.
Here in America, war movies tend to be a BIT too overdramatic for their own good, from what I've seen. Apparently, to get an emotional rise out of us, they try to show us as much death and destruction as possible so the tears can be yanked out of us...which, for most, fails horribly if done wrong. Not all of them are like this, however, but I'm not one who's really into war movies, and the ones I have seen didn't really interest me, as I felt they were too overdramatic for their own good and completely not subtle. Another thing I notice about war
movies here is that they tend to focus more on adults and their hard to understand struggles (mostly political, and I can't understand politics to save my life). But what about the kids? What about normal, middle-class families with children who are simply trying to get by in times like this? Thankfully, Japan's animated takes on war films have focused on the smaller things, and Who's Left Behind is one of them. Ha! I bet you thought I was going to review Grave of the Fireflies, didn't you? Sorry, but that won't come until MUCH later, and I didn't finish watching it yet...and I think many of you know why. But for now, let's shed some light on this obscure little gem called Who's Left Behind.
Unlike most war movies which throw you into the destruction and death right off, said elements don't come until MUCH later, and are very few and far in between, which I feel really worked in the film's favor considering how much time it devotes to showing the life of a young girl and her family before and after the war. Basically, our main character is Kayoko, a typical little girl who'd much rather have fun and play games with her friends at school and cries a lot whenever things don't go her way. She lives with her mother, father, grandmother, and three brothers, along with another sibling on the way. The war seems so far away to them, even though they hope for their country to succeed. Kayoko doesn't care about the war, nor does it have anything to do with her life here, so she doesn't bat an eye to it. But the war grows closer and closer, and Kayoko realizes that she's really going to have to grow up fast once things get bad.
The animation, while nice, does make the characters, mostly the kids, come off as a bit too cartoony for their own good, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Everything else looks absolutely stunning to look at. Backgrounds are drawn and painted nicely, and character movements are quite fluid considering how old this movie is (1991). In a way it kinds of reminds me of Porphy's Long Journey (Man I really need to review that!) in that it purposefully makes the characters look more simplistic than the things around them and their environment, which is effective here because as the film gets closer to the dark times, things look more gritty and the backgrounds have a more washed out edge to them that sold the war-like environment to me. The music, while also not having much to write home about, is nice, simple, and fits the mood perfectly. It's nothing special, but since I'm a huge fan of soft, classical music, it fits the movie like a glove, and didn't need to be anything more than it was.
The characters are where the movie really shines. This is MUCH more of a slice of life movie than anything else. I wasn't kidding when I said the action and actual destruction scenes are VERY few and far in between. There's very little death, but it's there, and almost always offscreen, and actual death scenes DO happen, but they're not explicit, which I feel worked in the movie's favor. The movie is just simply about Kayoko, her life, and her family, and the movie really goes out of its way to portray them as just a normal Japanese family, not a bunch of victims or aggressors. They do whatever they can to support their country, whether it's from cheering their soldiers on to giving materials away so they can be made into weapons and explosives, and so much detail goes into their daily lives that you really feel immersed in the characters and really get to know them from their little quirks to their fatal flaws and everything else, along with being treated to excellent character development in the form of seeing the characters grow and change over the course of the coming years of the war. The extreme focus on just the characters and not the actual conflict actually works in favor of the movie, because if you get to know the characters really well, then you'll be able to feel more sympathetic toward them when the conflict DOES sneak up on them. Since the movie is much more about the emotional losses that come from the war rather than the actual war itself, having engaging and good characters helps in this endeavor. Another detail I found interesting is the use of all of those Japanese nursery rhymes throughout the movie. Heck, one final stanza of one song is the title of the movie itself, and in a way its pretty symbolic if you think of the children's singing the songs as a way of conveying the fact that they're blissfully unaware of how badly things are going to turn out later on, and by stopping all the fun, they have to grow up fast if they want to get by. This is pretty much what Kayoko does in the final quarter of the movie. Kayoko herself is a pretty interesting character, though she starts off as a bratty little girl who'd much rather have fun than pay attention to the war and cries whenever something goes wrong or is forced to do something she doesn't want to. But she really does grow into a strong character later on, and in a very believable way while not losing one of her defining character traits. Her family is also very well developed as well.
Because of this, when bad things DO happen to the characters, you really feel sad for them and feel angry that they have to suffer like this when they didn't do anything to deserve it. Yes, I admit begrudgingly, I cried near the end of this movie, and so did a lot of other people. See? You don't need lots of death or destruction or a bunch of bad things happening all over the place in order for us to cry for the characters who suffer. if you don't feel for the characters or relate to them, or if they're not in any way engaging or interesting, then it comes off as boring and forced. Nowadays, we have really forgotten what makes a story good. We try really hard to jazz things up to make a super creative story that we fail to realize that even small, simple stories that have been done over and over again can be good, and sometimes, it's the old stories we've seen that are so full of life and make us feel emotions like empathy or joy or sadness. Going back to the simplicity is what makes Who's Left Behind special, because it isn't trying too hard to be something it isn't. It's just a nice albeit sad story about a girl and her family living their lives before the war. It isn't alienating, it's very informative, it's simple, it's charming, it's simplistic in the best of ways, it's enthralling, it's engaging, and there's no cliche victim vs villain plot anywhere. The best part is that the death scenes are very few and far in between, often not seen at all, but they're not overdone or overemphasized to the point of excessive melodrama. They're exactly what they're supposed to be: chilling.
Don't expect a tear fest or a gore fest in this movie. It's just a sweet but sad tale of a girl and her family trying to support their country even in the midst of turmoil. I would love to show this to my friends, family, and especially my kids one day, if I ever have any.
cried my eyes out when i was 7 and i still cried my eyes out a decade later. one of my favorite movies of all time. although i spent most of my time watching it crying, i had to get on the art. the art man. animation, graphics, art, it completely overtakes me especially in more classical anime. it is my ultimate fav. the main character is relatable in a way which makes her more lovable and like her mother said, everybody enjoys spending time with her. the seiyuu were incredible they captured the moments perfectly which is why i always prefer japanese dubbing over
other langs. im not really much of a war movie person but i have to admit my favorite movie of all time is a really really really sad war movie set in japan, tokyo, about a little girl.