04 October 2014

The Last Air Raid Kumagaya (最後の空襲くまがや, 1993)

In 1978, Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita, made the powerful ground-breaking film Pica-Don (ピカドン, 1978) which depicts the bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945 from the perspective of the victims of the atrocity.  An early example of an animated documentary, the Pica-Don was based on the testimonies and drawings of the survivors.  This use of animation to depict the unimaginable was done with the intent of educating people around the world about the horrors of war in effort to bring about world peace.  It is this same desire for “love and peace” that led the Kinoshitas to become involved in the founding of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in 1985 (Source: hiroanim.org)

With The Last Air Raid Kumagaya (最後の空襲くまがや / Saigo no Kūshū Kumagaya, 1993), Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita continue to drive home the message about the futility of war.  As they did with Pica-Don, they based this 29-minute long animated film on historical records, interviews with witnesses/survivors, and the documents belonging to survivors. 

The first part of the film is critical of domestic propaganda.  A female narrator says that the common people of Japan were ignorant of the “evils of war”, such as the atrocities’ committed by their military in the South Pacific and Okinawa.   The film suggests that people believed the propaganda, which hid from them the fact that the Japanese were fighting a losing battle.  The narrator says that in the closing days of the war, the general populace believed the myths of their country’s victories abroad and were oblivious that their emperor was on the verge of surrender. 

It is in this context that the story of the last American air raid on Japan unfolds.  The central character is a 7 year old girl called Sachiko.  She has just lost her immediate family in the firebombing of Tokyo and takes the train to her uncle’s family in Kumagaya in Saitama Prefecture.  She is not out of danger yet, for the train gets shot at by a plane along the journey.  Her uncle meets her at the station and he and his whole family welcome her with open arms.  With her cousins, Sachiko explores the beauty of the natural landscape around Kumagaya. 

Sadly, these beautiful days of late summer are not to last.  The final movement of the film depicts the final air raid of the war.  The city descends into fear and chaos and Sachiko gets separated from her family with tragic results.  This film has no happy ending, for war brings no happy endings except in schmaltzy Hollywood features.  Just when you think the film has served up more sadness than you can bear, the shock ending is a real kick in the gut.  Along with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, 1988), this film not only has a strong anti-war message, but it also the highlights the suffering of children in times of war.   

The terrible irony of what happened in Kumagaya on August 15, 1945, was that as the people were reeling in shock in the ashes of the attack, Emperor Hirohito’s speech announcing Japan’s defeat came on the radio.  It is hard to imagine how the people of Kumagaya, and other cities bombed that final day (Osaka, Tokoyama, Isesaki) felt about the futility of their suffering at that moment.

This short film, animated beautifully with handmade cutouts, can be screened at the Peace Museum of Saitama (埼玉県平和資料館).  It is a useful educational film, but I would not recommend it for children under the age of 14.  It has deeply distressing imagery and raises some important political debates that require careful guidance by educators.  Although we do glimpse the American planes responsible for the air raids, I would argue that the film actually points the blame for the suffering of the Japanese people during the war on the Japanese government itself.  It is not easy material, but certainly useful when taught in the greater context of propaganda and war.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014