Shouwa Monogatari may seem like a pleasant but shallow pool, but it runs a little deeper than you think.
Slowly but surely, Shouwa Monogatari has been introducing some edgier material in with it’s simple, homespun family drama. It’s not exactly provocative, but what it does manage to be is refreshingly non-judgmental. There were a lot of things happening in Japan in 1964 (just as there are everywhere, at any time) and a portrait of working-class life set in that era can’t be complete without exploring some of the social upheavals that were happening at the time. In the last episode Kouhei and his mother visited relatives and we learned that her old sweetheart was a pacifist. There’s hardly a more divisive subject in Japan, but there was no editorializing – we were merely presented with the circumstances as they occurred, and left to make up our own minds. The focus was on the people, not on the larger principle.
Now, some people will surely want their series to stake out a position. I certainly have strong views on almost everything, and I don’t deny enjoying it when an anime or other creative form takes the same position. But I think that detachment works better in the context of this show, which isn’t trying to argue a case – rather, it wants to show us typical life as it really was, where matters like politics are most important in how they directly impact what happens in the home. And Shouwa Monogatari applies that same detachment to family politics as well. I certainly have strong views on the way Kouhei’s father treats his children, and I sometimes wish the series would condemn him openly for it – but I’ve come to accept that this isn’t how it works here.
All that applies this week to both family and country, as Tokyo faces a water shortage as Kouhei and his family prepare for Obon. Kyohei is learning to play the taiko for the Obon odori (I play a little taiko myself, and I highly recommend the activity as artistic outlet, exercise and stress releaser) and Taiichi is struggling with what to do about the growing student movement at his college. That’s been a hot topic in anime recently, and it was certainly a huge social earthquake in Japan in the 60’s. Taiichi is sympathetic to the group’s anti-war ideals, but doesn’t share their willingness to cast aside academics and family to pursue them. As usual, we’re left to make the decision for ourselves, more or less.
On the family front, there’s the matter of Kanoko’s boyfriend, who I already called out as a bit of a wolf. He takes her to a “kapperu kissa”, or couples café, which is definitely not the sort of place that nice girls go to. Fortunately she bails and fortunately he doesn’t press the issue, but I think that should be enough for her to drop him for good. And Grandma and Kyouhei are squabbling over his careless use of water for a squirt gun fight, which leads her to call him “stupid” and him to call her an old witch. Grandma is not an easy character to love – she kind of is an old witch, to be honest, a real sourpuss who never has anything nice to say about anybody. But she’s got it tough – she’s tired, her husband is gone, and she has bad memories of water shortages past. It’s here that a welcome presence saves the day – Yoshi-san’s brother-in-law and Kouhei’s great uncle. He saves the boy from whatever child abuse Yuuzou was about to inflict on him (a closed fist was involved) and gives him a little perspective on where the old lady is coming from.
I liked Great Uncle-san a lot – he was a refreshing change from the usual wall of verbal and physical abuse Kouhei usually takes from his father and sister (damn, she can be mean – and I have two big sisters so I know it’s true). His entrance was amusing, too, as Kouhei’s mistook him for the ghost of his Grandfather who he’d just seen in a dream. His tale to Kouhei was the first time the series has really addressed the topic of the war head-on – complete with flashbacks of the firebombing of Tokyo by American bombers. Again, there’s no editorializing here – the firebombing was a fact, plain and simple, and as always the civilians paid the price for the actions of their leaders. But it does make clear to Kouhei just how wrong he was to say nasty things to his nasty old Grandma, because no one who didn’t live through those days could ever fully understand the suffering and sacrifice it took just to survive.
It’s fitting that so much of the episode had a reflective tone, because that’s what Obon is all about – remembering those that have gone before us. Japanese from all over the country return to their hometowns (that’s what Great Uncle was doing there) to pay their respects to their ancestors and to be with their extended families. The magnificent Kore-eda Hirokazu film “Still Walking” (whose “I Wish” was reviewed on this site a few weeks ago) is a revealing look at this pilgrimage, and if you’re lucky enough to live near a Japanese community that holds an Obon festival (San Jose, CA is among the best) I heartily recommend that you attend.
Casual Stroll: “Tamagawa”