Rail of the Star

It's rare that a historical drama really teaches me something I didn't know. Not to sound like a snob, but I've always enjoyed history and find it fascinating. What I didn't know about, however, was the plight of the Japanese left in North Korea after the end of World War II. The flight of one family to South Korea in a desperate attempt to get back to Japan is Rail of the Star's main story, and it's fascinating. Unfortunately, the movie has several revealing failings, and it winds up being a minor work because of them. It's still decent, but not nearly as compelling as the brilliant Grave of the Fireflies or the touching Who's Left Behind?.

Rail of the Star follows Chiko and her family from 1940-1945. Chiko's family runs a business in North Korea during the war, and she grows up caught between childish whimsy and the reality of the occupation. Various events of her childhood, such as her father's draft into the Army and her family tragedy with typhoid, unspool against the backdrop of looming defeat. When Japan falls to the Allied forces, Korea is quickly split between the Russians and Americans, and Chiko's family is stuck in North Korea. Their only hope to avoid imprisonment and worse is to escape to South Korea, where they can be repatriated to their homeland.

I really wanted to like Rail of the Star. It just seemed like the kind of title I might really enjoy, and so I went in with high spirits. But those spirits were dashed pretty quickly. The animation makes me believe this was likely a made-for-TV movie. Besides its running length of 80 minutes, which would give plenty of time for commercials in a two-hour slot, it also has some of the worst animation I've seen in an anime feature. It follows most of the conventions of televised anime, which is fine in twenty-minute bursts but a little hard on the eyes after nearly an hour and a half. The character designs, which tend to be far more realistic than average, weren't bad, but neither were they eye-catching.

I've forgiven worse animation before, though, so I kept going with it. But then the first forty minutes nearly drained me of any hope for the show. That time covers nearly five years of Chiko's life, but she never really seems to grow up from 1940-1945, either in character or in animation. There were lots of little stories that often were meant to have poignant meaning, but told the way they were, I was either bored or unimpressed with their efforts to have me emotionally wracked. Rail has a nasty habit of trying to pile tragedy upon tragedy to gain dramatic weight, but it backfires. The result is that we almost don't care because we feel manipulated. I was also left feeling that the Japanese occupation of Korea, an important topic to be discussed, was wrongly slighted.

And then, forty minutes in, when all hope seems lost, the story takes a decided turn right about the point where the Japanese surrender. From this point on, the movie is very interesting. Like Night Crossing before it, Rail keeps you wondering about the plight of those trying to escape over the border. It's not quite as tense as it could be, but like a wayward car sliding over ice, the film pulls out of its skid and recovers quite nicely. The ending has a few deft touches, such as a Korean man who helps the escapees though never revealing his own motivations. The final ending is also touching, being possibly the only sentimental note in the film that doesn't come off as calculated. I enjoyed the ending far more than the beginning, to be certain.

With the VHS tape of Rail of the Star available through major outlets for only $6, it's a cheap purchase in comparison to a lot of anime, and the history buff will likely learn something new from this film. If you can get through the first half hour, the ending is well worth seeing. Overt sentimentality aside, it's not bad. However, as Grave of the Fireflies and Who's Left Behind? show us, films about war from a child's perspective can be told much better.

Rail of the Star -- themes that may be disturbing for young children -- B-