Article: It's a hard knocks Life
IT'S A HARD KNOCK LIFE
I can't remember when it happened exactly. It was about the time that the Chicago Bears were in the Super Bowl, which gave me pretty much my only reason to be interested in the Chicago Bears. But it was around that time that my wife and I discovered a television station in Chicago that devoted its Sunday evening broadcasts to "ethnic programming. It was roughly an hour of Spanish-language programming, followed by Korean programming, followed by Greek. And of course there was Japanese programming. And it was while watching the Japanese programming, I believe it was just after a long serialized biography of the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi had concluded, that I saw the most stunning anime I have ever seen in my life.
Keep in mind that I had already seen my share of anime and then some, most lately in the form of television shows such as "Star Blazers" and "Voltron." Also, as I've already stated, I considered myself an old hand at Japanese animation by virtue of my early exposure to the likes of "Astroboy" and "Speed Racer."
But then I saw it. It was a feature-length anime showed over five or six weeks, interrupted by commercials for Kokuho Rose rice and an export company that shipped "orenji" and "greipufurutsu" to Japan. I'm having to resort to memory here because to date I've found no trace whatsoever of this anime on the Web. And what I DO remember may not be totally accurate, as this was neither a sub nor a dub, and I don't understand conversational Japanese, so any more information on what I saw is entirely welcome. But I have definite memories of that anime.
I also remember the name: "Oshin."
"Oshin" was, as near as I can remember, an anime version of a long-running Japanese soap opera set in rural Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. The title character is a young girl. I believe her father was dead; at any rate, he wasn't in the picture. Because of their poverty, the mother sells the girl off to someone else. I don't know if her "employer" was a relative but she certainly was disagreeable. After escaping this harpie and after numerous trials, she is finally reunited with her mother. Her mother's reaction, though, is to wade into an icy stream in the middle of winter so that she can catch pneumonia and die. Oshin pleads with her mother to not give up and to hang on to life; at least I THINK she does, because I couldn't understand a word of dialogue. In the end, the mother relents to her child's pleas. There's no happy ending in the Western sense, no deus ex machina inheritance or anything to make their circumstances any more bearable. The two of them are together and will persevere, perseverance being a huge part of the Japanese ethos. In this story, that's as close to a happy ending as you can get.
What was so amazing about this anime? Short of having both the girl and her mother die at the end, the story couldn't get any more depressing. It featured no spectacular mecha-driven violence, although one young man who befriends Oshin and who is apparently a deserter from the Russo-Japanese War (I think that's why one scene featured an outline map of the countries) does get shot and dies in slo-mo. There's no sex, although in one incredible scene, Oshin is forced to surrender to her employer a coin her mother had given her. Oshin had worn the coin on a string around her neck, and almost as a way of maximizing Oshin's humiliation at losing this token, the woman grabs the coin from Oshin while the girl is naked.
Why do I still remember that scene, and the entire anime for that matter? It seems to have dropped off the otaku radar as near as I can tell. I can find no Web sites devoted to it, no links to it on the Anime Turnpike. It doesn't even cover the same ground as a lot of other anime; there are no aliens or mecha or any other fantasy elements. Perhaps only "Grave of the Fireflies" is as relentlessly realistic as "Oshin."
So what was the attraction? Why did I stick with it, week after week, not understanding a word of what was happening as the story unfolded? The answer is simple, really: I had come to care about what happened to Oshin.
THAT has to be the goal, the Grail, the reason any artist takes up any medium to tell any story. In the end, it comes down to whether a writer or filmmaker can get a perfect stranger to care about what happens to someone who may have no more existence than a shadow. Shakespeare's Hamlet marveled that a member of a troupe of actors could move him with a speech about Hecuba, a character in Homer's "Iliad." There I was, with an interest in anime but still far from being what anyone could call an otaku, watching an animated drama and trying to put the story together on the fly in bits and pieces. And all for the simple reason that I had come to care about a young girl named Oshin.
There have been other moments when I've watched anime and realized that it could tell a story every bit as effectively as live action film. But the very first time it happened for me was when I watched "Oshin." Without benefit of any other bridge between English and Japanese except the drawings, I found myself caught up in the plight of an orphan whose existence made Oliver Twist's look like a gaudy fantasy out of People magazine. From that time forward, I knew that anime not only had the power to entertain but also the power to move.
I only had one other run-in with "Oshin" in my life. In 1988 my wife and I were in San Francisco for a "second homeymoon" which was more like a belated first honeymoon. Somewhere outside the Little Ginza I saw a standing rack of videocassette boxes. One of them was "Oshin." It probably would have made a major dent in our traveling expenses if I'd bought it. I'm sorry I didn't.