The Glass Rabbit

It's difficult to know how long the ghost of 9/11 will hang over the United States. Twelve years later, we see references to it pop up in all sorts of places. As One World Trade Center nears completion -- and as the rest of the complex is finished over the next several years -- we're sure to see more. As the first major attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and one of only a handful against mainland America, it's not a memory that will fade soon.

If The Glass Rabbit is any indication, though, the ghost of World War II will haunt Japan far longer. The film's modern framing device shows just how much changed due to the war -- not only to the country's government but the mindset of the Japanese people. Made as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war, The Glass Rabbit gives us another tale of a child growing up during the conflict. For those who've never experienced any films in the genre, it will be effective. However, for those who have seen superior entries, the after-school-special animation and lack of unique perspective make this a second-tier title.

Toshiko's family owns a glass factory, and it's doing quite well. They manufacture heirlooms and artwork -- the title refers to a piece Toshiko owns -- but as WWII progresses, they produce more and more items for the war effort like glass vials. The factory becomes harder and harder to operate as the young men who work there get called up to service. The Ei family has three daughters and two sons, and of course, the boys are more than ready to fight to protect their homeland. Their parents are nervous about all the war talk, and yet they want to do their part. Toshiko's life changes little. The first time she really notices a change is when a young gentleman who's always been nice to her, loaning her books, goes into the armed forces.

As the years progress, things get more and more worrisome. Food gets more scarce; pots and pans are turned in to make bullets; children are sent into the countryside for their safety. As Toshiko's brothers enlist, she winds up caretaker to her younger sisters who would much rather be home in Tokyo with Mom and Dad. While things are rough, the war still seems far away. But as the air raids on Japan begin, Toshiko's world will be shattered over and over again...

The Glass Rabbit is best described as workmanlike. That's neither insult nor complement, just reality. The animation is OK for a telefilm, but not up to any greater standard. The style isn't cartoonish, exactly, but it's not realistic, either; considering its 2005 pedigree, it looked ten years dated when it premiered. The script, based on a memoir, presents us with a variety of vignettes; most of them connect together seamlessly, but there are times when we jump between scenes unexpectedly. It's slow but not boring, familiar without being a retread.

There's no doubt that Toshiko's tale of survival is compelling. I got swept up into it, and while her story sounds like many others who made it through the era, the minor details kept me interested. While the framing device leaves no doubt Toshiko will make it, the rest of the characters' fates are up in the air. When the devastation starts, it is powerful and personal. And unlike some other wartime films, the tragic aspects are tough but not manipulative or wrapped in excessive pathos. In fact, if there's a problem, it's that Toshiko and the others are occasionally too optimistic, even smiley, in the face of devastating personal loss. While the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake proved that the Japanese people are stoic and not given to grand emotionality or ruthless self-centeredness, they still mourn when those close to them die. The only thing that really bothered me is that the characters grow up, but their physical appearance never ages. It makes it impossible to accurate judge the ages of the girls, and that winds up affecting the show's total impact.

Having given it praise, I'm afraid I'm not sure who this film will appeal to on this side of the Pacific, given the precedents available to us. Grave of the Fireflies is the tearjerker extraordinaire that uses similar events to much greater emotional effect. Barefoot Gen, despite its flaws, shows us the grisly realities of the aftermath of an atomic bomb. Both of those are easy enough to find. And while it's only available via download, Who's Left Behind? is similar in its animation to The Glass Rabbit but is more subtle, which allows it to deliver an unnerving, unexpected gut punch as it surveys Japanese life before and after the war. All of them provide an angle that separates them from the others and gives the audience a reason to watch. The Glass Rabbit ultimately fails that test. Even though it has a couple of unique features, such as including an incident with an American GI, those elements are minor at best. That doesn't make it bad, just somewhat superfluous to the conversation.

Unintentionally, The Glass Rabbit also made me question the setup of so many Japanese WWII anime. Because of the post-war view on military conflict, there's little interest in promoting a positive view of the war itself. However, every film concentrates on young children caught up in the crossfire. It creates an automatic bond with the audience, but it limits the kind of stories that can be told. What would WWII look like through the eyes of the elderly, who believed in the emperor as a kind of god? What about the young man who picked up on the adult uncertainty about the necessity of the conflict but was forced into the fight? What did it look like to be one of those families out in the country who took on extra children? How did it feel to become foster parents to little ones likely to become orphans? There are so many stories to be told, and the "eyes of a child" viewpoint is just about done.

I can see why this film was made. I can see it being used to teach upper elementary and early middle school students about the war without getting too gruesome, traumatic, or emotional. Its final focus on the new Japanese constitution and the renunciation of war by the Japanese people is a worthy end note. It's meaningful, and I'd watch it again without complaint, especially if I wasn't up for the stomach-churning havoc of Grave of the Fireflies but wanted to introduce someone to this genre of animated wartime stories. But with so many fine picks available, I wouldn't move it to the top of my viewing queue, either.

The Glass Rabbit -- violence, emotional trauma and subject matter suited to upper elementary and beyond -- B