Resonance without Emotions: The Empty Can (Not Setsuko’s)

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.


Aguri and Koren: Lost In Transition

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

The female characters in The Peony Garden by Nagai Kafu and Aguri by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro are portrayed very differently yet one can find some interesting similarities underneath. Both of them were puzzled by their desires, what they wanted in large and small aspects of life.

The story of The Peony Garden was told in the perspective of the male character. Nonetheless, Koren, the female character and a geisha, stood in the center of the story and contributed to more than half of the dialogues. In contrast, Aguri, also a geisha, received very little direct description. Her image was completely presented through Okada’s dreams and thoughts, surreal and twisted. At the end of the story, Aguri finally spited out two lines to show her obliviousness. “I don’t really know what I’d like. What do you think?” she asked Okada’s opinions for clothes. “Mmm. Not bad.” she answered after Okada offered a suggestion. In a few lines, a timid and indecisive girl who only whispered and always avoided eye contacts jumped to us. A handsome geisha, adored by men yet was so dependent and lost, was to be wrapped in Western clothes but still lived in the traditional Japanese conformity. She was never taught to voice her opinions. As a geisha, she was only taught to observe and to understand. She was used to masking her emotions with white powder and pleasing by all means. Thus she had no opinions of her own. In fifteen years, Aguri would become Koren. She would have lived with some customer just because she was offered. Then she would find that life with water bills dull and would go back to the extravagant, lively, and crowded life of a famous geisha. Later, she would consider the possibility of marriage just because that was what everybody else was doing.

Neither Koren nor Aguri knew what they wanted or desired. Koren considered getting married because there seemed to be nothing fun and everybody got married some time. Aguri was probably too young to consider her next phase in life. Dressed by Okada’s obsession, she showed no preferences even towards the simplest aspect of life. Of course this was very sad for not only women but the whole society in general. On the other hand, this was inevitable during the transition from a destitute time to a generally abundant one. The prosperity of economics at the end of Meiji and the beginning of Taisho periods freed the society and its people from worries over necessities and encouraged them to pursue niceties that poured in with Western cultures and fashion. Before people were not used to thinking about anything else but the next bills; they did not have time or energy to seek purposes of life. Then they are suddenly endowed with more choices and possibilities, nonetheless they did not know what or even how to desire. Few ever needed a map as there was only one path in life. Now they were thrown at thousands of thousands crossroads. Naturally they were lost. Like many others of that time period, Aguri and Koren could not find their directions.

Despite the focus on females, one has no reason to suspect that the phenomenon was gender-specific. Though it might manifest more significantly in women who were confined largely to households or fields and experiencing a more drastic change in status. In fact the phenomenon was not even time-specific. Transitions and reevaluation of traditional values almost always lead to “lost generations”. More typical are post-war (WWII) generations across the globe. For instance, in Japan during the mid-1950s, rich but bored kids formed a subculture coined sun tribe and featured in the interesting motion picture, Crazed Fruit by Ko Nakahira.