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As a Japanese national growing up in occupied Korea during World War II, young Chiko learns that soldiers on the battlefield are not the only casualties of armed conflict. As the Japanese Empire reaps the increasingly bitter harvest of a failing war effort, her well-to-do middle-class family is rocked by tragedy, losing friends and loved ones to the everyday domestic hazards of life in the 1940s, before peace brings the greatest danger of all. Korea is divided between the victors, and Chiko's family is in Pyongyang, in the northern half. The Soviet Army begins a search for Japanese veterans like her father, a factory manager called up for military service. Chiko and her surviving relatives embark upon an epic journey to the U.S. Occupied Zone below the 38th parallel. They must rely on the help of the Korean people to get them to safety. Many Koreans suffered during the Japanese colonization, but in this sanitized true-life story (based on a book by Chitose "Chiko" Kobayashi), everything works out tidily. The threadbare but clean and perky-looking Japanese survivors manage to reach safety with the help of forgiving Korean villagers who put human life above race, nationality, or revenge, and Chiko grows up in modern, prosperous Japan, remembering the war through the eyes of a child.
It's not an exclusively Japanese tendency to present war stories in the best possible light-every nation talks about the suffering of its own civilians and the terrible impact of war on children, though sadly only after the event. For this approach, children make the ideal protagonists, since they can't be held responsible for any of the events they observe. A very similar story premise, also based on semiautobiographical memoirs, was transformed into something sublime by the artistry of Studio Ghibli in Grave of the Fireflies, whose success encouraged a number of imitators, of which Rail of the Star is perhaps the most blinkered. Compared to the deeply romanticized view of war presented in The Cockpit or the realistic yet humane outlook of Barefoot Gen, it's pap, used by the Japanese to assure themselves that World War II was some sort of unexpected natural disaster, and that Koreans don't hold much of a grudge for 50 years of colonial rule. Ironically, RotS's artificial worthiness made it more marketable abroad, where American distributors warmed to its deluded cultural relativism, the "bring me your poor" concept of the U.S. zone as refuge, and the opportunity to demonstrate that not all of their anime output was guns and hooters.