Who's Left Behind?

I have seen powerful anti-war flicks in my time, several of them anime. There's no doubt that Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most unnerving films I've ever seen, and others like Barefoot Gen really make light of the catastrophe that is war. However, one that had completely sailed under my radar was Who's Left Behind?. I've been unable to find any web presence about the movie whatsoever, even through Anipike, which is pretty stunning. What's more stunning is how a movie of this caliber can be overlooked--although the animation itself is nothing spectacular, it rivals some of the best anime I've seen. What's more, it deals with the topic of war (specifically World War II) in a different way than most other films, and that works well to create a surprising emotional response. I just didn't see this one coming.

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.

For the first half of the movie, perhaps, war is a distant shadow on the horizon, certainly nothing than can touch the home front of Japan. As such, going into the movie completely ignorant of its themes, the war plays such a small part at the beginning that I was completely caught up in the story of this little girl and her brothers. Only when time progressed and the war came closer and closer to Japan did things get serious, and by that point, I had a major interest invested in these characters. In this way, Who's Left Behind? is able to bring the viewer more deeply into the feelings at that time in history for the Japanese people. Although Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece, we try not to let ourselves get too attached to its characters, since in the opening scene we learn that the protagonists have both died. In Who's Left Behind?, we have no knowledge of what is coming, and somehow we connect at a greater level. We also have a very innocent, child-like view through the majority of the film, even in its heaviest moments, and so somehow it seems more real. In any case, be prepared if you see this film--you will get emotionally involved, and the ending packs a real jolt to the psyche. (At least it did to mine.) I think some will find the ending a little too sentimental considering the proceedings, but I thought it was just right.

From a technical level, the movie is animated well, and shares a look with films like Fireflies, Only Yesterday (Omoide Poroporo), and others that take a more realistic artistic style. The music is beautifully fitting, always stirring and occasionally haunting--I really liked the soundtrack a lot.

Overall, this is a very strong film that is worth the effort to find and watch. Though it may seem a tad slow to some (only because there is no real action to the film), I found it engaging throughout. If you are in the mood for a thoughtful human drama played out through a child's eyes, this is one to add to your list.

Who's Left Behind? -- brief adult language, themes that may be disturbing to children -- A