Saturday, April 16, 2011

In the Grave of Fireflies

As a boy growing up on my parent’s farm in Colton, Saturday mornings were like a world of dreams. I’d awake early, don an old pair of black rubber boots and beat-up rain slicker, strap a belt of twisted twine around my waist to carry the hilt of a knife or rusted thermos as I trudged out into the tall grass. Spring mists thinned over the fields, and I would follow wolf’s tracks into the trees, fingers sticky on blackberry vines from an early thaw, down to the creek to build damns and catch crawdads under stones along the banks beneath evergreen pines. Those mornings are still so clear in my mind. The silence of the woods. The terror of unknown stillness. Stopping in your tracks because you heard a branch snap, miles from home. A boy’s beating heart seeking out his own fear. I recreate this with my girls all the time. It started as a way to learn Chinese, but it’s morphed into this whole secret realm of imaginary adventure between us. When we first arrived in Taiwan, Xian and Rebekah and I would go for these long walks through the neighborhood, down into the steep cement canals that bisect the city, up the back fire escapes of towering buildings, through the maze of market alleyways. I stop them and whisper. “Who remembers what umbrella is in Chinese?” “San,” Xian answers. “Okay, anyone carrying a san is a thief with a sword.” My girls nod, crouch low beneath the flashing cell phone store lights and blaring traffic horns. “Who remembers the word for helmet?” “Toukui,” Rebekah recalls. “Good. Anyone wearing a toukui is a soldier bent to take our gold.” My girls nod. “Now put on our cloaks of invisibility.” We throw hoods over our heads and race up the pedestrian crosswalk. Taiwanese people glare. They scurry and attempt to ignore us. But our pockets are full of bottle caps made of silver, and we carry with us the fire from across the sea. It’s urban adventuring at its absolute geekiness, and my kid-daughters love it. I know. I know. You’re shaking your head. You think I’m a complete dork of a dad. But believe me, I’ve got about three to four more years of this before it’s girl-sleepovers and texting me from the back seat asking if I can pull over a block from the movie theater because I’m just not cool enough to be seen in public. I get it. I get it. I just want them to love their childhood like I did. When I was a kid my three favorite stories were Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, and Star Wars. I had fake light saber fights with my younger brother in the barn loft and chewed grass blades on make-shift rafts. I understood fun. I want my girls to feel the same. Even though we are growing up in the city, in a foreign city, we can still have silly adventures and wild crusades. About a year ago I started making a concerted effort to pay more attention to children’s movies. I started with Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland, and even Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, but from there the search took me to some strange places: Japanese Anime. I marveled at Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, about a young boy and girl who try to save the last floating city in the clouds; or Katsuhiro Otomo’s ingenious Steamboy, about a brilliant flying superhero who saves London just before World War I. I followed that with two very chilling tales: Miyazaki’s dark Spirited Away and Otomo’s griping and mind-blowing Akira. At the center of both films, are characters trapped in spiritual or apocalyptic worlds. The struggle between good or evil is not even a consideration, but rather that we live in complete oblivion to the spirits, corrupting agents, and soulless corporations around us. That only knowledge of ourselves can make us both preservers and destroyers of the universe. I know, sort of heavy for a seven-year-old. Where’s that cloak of invisibility when you need it? But my absolute favorite Japanese anime is In the Grave of Fireflies, by Isao Takahata, about the ghosts of a brother and sister during the bombings of Kobe and their struggle against starvation and death. It is absolutely one of the most powerful anti-war films ever created. Yet again what struck me, as I watch and fast-forward parts my daughters are yet to be able to stomach, was that their questions were the same as Setsuko, the young sister: Why do fireflies have to die? Why do mothers also? Or how no one in the film saves the children. They are left to themselves, to die alone. These films are so different from the Toy Stories and Little Mermaids my daughters also know and love. They grip and crush us, leaving whole uneaten bowls of popcorn on the floor and us wrapped in each other’s arms rocking back and forth. It’s exactly like that at school. This week I was told to be silent again. I was told not to stick my foreigner nose where it doesn’t belong. Teacher Karen has this mentally retarded boy in her class whose name is Matthew. He talks out of turn, forgets his work, touches the other girls at times in creepy ways. He’s thirteen, and mom says it’s okay to strike him if Teacher Karen sees fit. So she does. That and scream at him, at the top of her lungs. She calls him stupid, fat, lazy, and dum. She makes him sit all the way on the other side of the classroom by the door. She screams at him for ten minutes at a time in the hallway in front of the whole school. She screams at him in the office and makes him stick his nose in the corner. She is absolutely horrible to him. It boils my blood. I can’t stand it. So I called her out. I confronted her. I told her she should be ashamed. That she has been given this incredible responsibility, that she must find another way. But no. Matthew is stupid, Teacher Karen insists. The only way he will understand is if you yell or hit. Then he sees you are serious. She has the support of the mother and the administration. I listen to Teacher Karen explain as I dream of tearing out her eyes. The night my girls and I play adventure again. Down through the park and into the trees we pick up stick swords to battle street light dragons and fill our pockets with pebbles as pieces of gold to buy passage on a ship that crosses the great highway next to the science museum. Rebekah rides atop my shoulders on the way back, too tired to walk. Xian hangs close, my hand resting right on her shoulder. Kinu will start playing this summer. We’ll initiate her with a pinecone war against the attacking swing-set army, or perhaps send her to steal the magical goblet out of the trash container at the local Starbucks castle. It’s the child’s heart in me, beating, seeking out this kind of love in my daughters, waiting for it to be returned in something more perfect than imagination.

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