‘Tracing Her Shadow’ tells sad story

Posted April 13, 2021


QINGDAO, China — “Tracing Her Shadow” depicts the lives of Japanese war orphans during World War II, an underrepresented group, in a humorous and light-hearted tone.

However, this story’s nature is depressing, and it is a tragedy that consists of multiple individual miserable life stories. It’s a small but touchable movie with critical ideas and an ingenious narrative. 

Actress Yanshu Wu in the theater poster for “Tracing Her Shadow.”

“Tracing Her Shadow” is an original Chinese film written and directed by Pengfei Song. It was released in China on March 19.

The story is about an old Chinese woman, Grandma Chen (played by Yanshu Wu), who went to Japan to find her adopted daughter Lihua, a Japanese war orphan in World War II and lost touch with Grandma Chen for years.

Xiaoze (played by Ze Ying), the second generation of war orphans, helped Grandma Chen trace Lihua’s trail in Japan, and a retired Japanese policeman (played by Jun Kunimura) later joined their search.

Director Pengfei went to Nara, Japan, to collect stories of Japanese war orphans. After communicating and living with war orphans in Japan for eight months, he decided to use their life experiences to reflect the other side of war trauma.

During the war, many Japanese went to China to colonize the northeastern part of China, and many children were abandoned in China when Japan was defeated in 1945. Most of those kids were adopted by Chinese families and they began to return to Japan after the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in 1972.

However, they were bullied in both China and Japan. When they lived in China, they were labeled “son of bastards” because there was great hatred toward the Japanese in China at that time; when they returned to Japan, they were regarded as “foreigners” because they did not speak the language or behave like Japanese. Therefore, under such cultural differences and conflicts, the life of war orphans became tragic.

In the movie, all of the returned Japanese war orphans tried to accommodate Japanese culture while keeping their Chinese identities. For example, there was a war-orphan elderly couple who lived in the mountain with their granddaughter.

Although the old couple was fluent in Japanese, they were not accustomed to modern Japanese life and could not live in the city. So, they chose to live in the mountains, watch Chinese TV shows at home and perform Peking Opera to the Chinese guests to connect with their lives to the place where they grew up.

Another returned war orphan worked in a rural garage. When he first met Xiaoze, he acted like a Japanese by greeting in Japanese with a bow. However, after he knew that Xiaoze could speak Chinese and Grandma Chen is Chinese, he started to talk in Chinese with a noticeable accent in Northeastern China. Moreover, he said that his Japanese was not good and he would hang up the phone call as soon as he heard “もしもし” (“Hello” in Japanese), as he actively refuses to talk in Japanese to others for a long time.

The final scene from “Tracing Her Shadow.”

Not only did the first-generation war orphans encountered cultural problems in Japan, but also second-generation Xiaoze was trying to find her identity in modern Japanese society.

Xiaoze’s father was adopted by Grandma Chen’s friend and was fed by Chen when he was little. Her father chose to stay in China since he did not speak Japanese, but Xiaoze decided to go to Japan to live alone and prove to society that she is Japanese.

Although Xiaoze was fluent in Japanese, her accent often encouraged people to ask where she was from; she had to break up with her boyfriend because his parents did not accept Chinese in their family. Thus, Xiaoze is not a Chinese or a Japanese, but a person without a home. Therefore, Xiaoze chose to help Grandma Chen because she felt the connection with Lihua that she believed Lihua might experience the same thing with her in this society.

Besides reflecting the cultural hardships Japanese war orphans dealt with, the director also tried to address Japan’s aging population issues. Although the aging and Japanese war orphan issues may seem irrelevant, Pengfei found the common point of those two problems is the loneliness and tried to connect those in an ingenious way for his audiences.

The retired police officer who joined the search is the typical lonely elder in Japan. He first met Xiaoze in a restaurant, saying that she looked like his daughter. Moreover, he noted that he had met Lihua before as an excuse to join Grandma Chen and Xiaoze’s searching team. Although the police officer’s daughter did not look like Xiaoze and he had not met Lihua before, Xiaoze and Grandma Chen never doubted his motivation to join the search because they knew how lonely he was after his daughter left home for marriage.

Furthermore, Pengfei also used many small details to let the audiences feel the police officer’s loneliness: he drank a lot and there was no one at home to take care of him; he went to the mailbox every day, but there was always nothing there; he loved to listen to Xiaoze reading the letters Lihua wrote to Grandma Chen. All of those tiny details create an image of a typical senior who lives alone in Japan.

Although this touching story will make people cry easily, Pengfei chose to use a light-hearted and entertaining narrative to avoid the tearing. So, there are lots of comic elements in the movie. For example, at the beginning of the movie, the film presents the historical background of Japanese war orphans and the personal history of Lihua with caricatures to set the base of the humorous tone.

Moreover, Grandma Chen, with no knowledge of Japanese, communicated with the butcher by mimicking animals’ sounds to indicate what she wants to buy in a meat shop and she accidentally put back a sea-water crab into a lake. These cold humor jokes with Nara’s beautiful and tranquil scenes make the audiences feel a buoyant and cheerful atmosphere.

Spoiler AlertAs the movie gets close to the end, Lihua’s tragic life story starts to be unveiled. Lihua failed in the DNA test with her Japanese relatives and was kicked out by the homeowner. Fortunately, she recovered her Japanese identity with the help of a lawyer. She then named herself Akiko Uemura because Uemura is the lawyer’s last name, and Akiko is the first name of Grandma Chen. Four years ago, Lihua was found at home died alone. And those were told by the police officer’s friend by a phone call when the searching team was driving back home.

The movie is supposed to reach its emotional peak at this point, but Pengfei wrote another intriguing turnto elevate this emotion. Grandma Chen’s incapable to understand the Japanese made her unaware of her daughter’s death and both Xiaoze and the police officer do not tell her about it.

At this time, they received another phone call saying there was a woman who might be Lihua. They went to a place with a vast cultural ceremony going on and hundreds of people. Grandma Chen was going through the crowd, examining each person’s face and hoping Lihua would appear.

Already knowing about Lihua’s death, audiences will be more heartbroken when they see Grandma Chen do this. Suddenly, Teresa Teng’s song “Goodbye My Love” sounds with a long shot of those three people walking along the street in Nara and the movie closes with this scene.

In short, “Tracing Her Shadow” is a story without fierce conflicts but it reflects a harsh reality and important Asian life stories. The director’s humorous narrative for such a heartbreaking story is surprisingly more thought-provoking and audiences can also feel the warmth between people besides the harsh reality.

  • “Tracing Her Shadow”
  • Release Date: March 19
  • Director: Pengfei Song
  • Writer: Pengfei Song
  • Cast: Yanshu Wu, Ze Ying, Jun Kunimura
  • Running time: 97 minutes
  • Genre: Drama
  • Available: Chinese movie theaters
  • Language: Mandarin/Russian/Japanese with English subtitles