This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.
Both The Empty Can by Hayashi Kyoko and Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata told a story about the WWII in Japan and how it scarred the life of civilians. However the two stories use very distinct ways to resonate with their audiences. The former not only features an empty can but also leaves the emotional aspect of the story empty, focusing on objective descriptions of the A-bomb event in Nagasaki, an technique that pushes the audience back to the spot and urges them to develop their own feelings towards the event. Whereas the latter’s method is more hands-on, directly feeding the audience both what happened and how they should be feeling. It is not surprising that people sympathize with Setsuko, the little girl in Grave of the Fireflies. More unexpectedly, Hayashi’s approach is also able to bring the audience with her and in this case reflect more on the event itself.
Admittedly, Grave of Fireflies has been very successful in what it intends to do; starting with one of the most famous and depressing scenes in anime, it has moved millions to tears since its first release in 1988. After all, who could hold their tears seeing a little girl with an empty candy can dying in a shelter? However, what do the audience feel seeing a little girl closing her eyes with her older brother crying to death by her side? They feel sad for the characters. They think the war was horrific and against humanity. As simple as that. There is no space for the audience to ponder or to imagine. All the emotions have been delicately laid out for them. And they just need to follow the plot and shed tears. It is sad and moving and all, but it is somebody’s story, not theirs.
Now what do they feel when they see “the figure of a girl [Kinuko] as child, standing in the ruins of her home, bending over to pick up the bones of her mother and father from beneath the white ash” appeared before them in the dim light? They might wonder if she cried for her parents, for the lost home, or for the future in which she had to walk alone. They might also wonder if she was afraid, lost, or even angry. The audience did not know as they were not told. It has been left to them to decide how she felt as how they would feel in her position. Leaving a blank space such as this forces the audience to fill it in themselves which can only be achieved by putting themselves into the story and the shoes of the characters. Different people of course might develop different feelings. Whatever they did feel, sorrow, anguish, or loss, they would all reach the same conclusion: the war was horrific and against humanity. However the process remains substantial: this time they reach the conclusion themselves, by going through “their emotions” and living through “their stories”.
Being students/teachers for so many years, we all know how important it is for people to come up with their own solution. This way, not only do they remember it better, they also understand it. More than anything else, leaving blanks in the right spaces is an art, the one in which The Empty Can surely does a good job.