Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Fine Art of Remembering


Every now and then there are reports in the news about a Japanese prime minister visiting a shrine called Yasukuni that honors - or at least tries to honor - Japanese war dead. What makes visiting the shrine such a sensitive issue for other Asians is that it honors the war dead of World War II, a war in which the Empire of Japan invaded first China, then Korea, Indochina,and a great number of Pacific islands, leading eventually to the surprise attack on American naval forces on Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous attacks on the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore. After three and a half years of tenacious and often suicidal fighting, the Japanese suffered total defeat, the country was occupied and war crimes trials convicted the leaders of Japan's Imperial war machine - with the exception of the man for whom the Japanese fought so tenaciously and in whose name every atrocity of the war had been committed, Emperor Hirohito himself.

The exemption of the Emperor from prosecution for war crimes has since been revealed to have been a condition of Japan's "unconditional" surrender. Wanting the costly and protracted war to be over, the Allied forces agreed that putting the Emperor on trial would keep Japanese nationalism alive and make their pacification more difficult. It was the Emperor who announced to the Japanese people - who had never before heard the voice of their divinity - on the radio that their country had surrendered.

The reconstruction of Japan was miraculous, but it was based on mass amnesia: not only were memories of the war sealed off from the present, but it's roots in feudalism had to be unearthed and eradicated.(1) History books supplied to Japanese schools either glossed over the salient events of the war, like the Rape of Nanjing, in which an estimated three hundred thousand Chinese civilians were slaughtered by a rampaging Japanese army, or eliminated. The surviving "comfort women" - women forced into prostitution for the Japanese army - emerged in the 1990s to tell their stories. When I lived in Japan at the time, I watched an elderly Dutch woman tell her story at a government hearing. She was taken prisoner when the Japanese invaded Malaya, and was singled out because of her youth and beauty and forced to provide sex for battle-weary soldiers. What I remember particularly about her story was that she said that she could easily identify the soldiers who raped her by the permanent marks she gouged in their flesh with her fingernails.

Regardless of how the Japanese have gone about it, they have been utterly meticulous in the mending of their ways, of transforming themselves from a nation prepared for and focused on war to one of the most remarkably peaceful, and peace-worshipping nations in the world. For the sake of their survival as a race, they have turned their backs on their martial past and on the values that both fostered it and that it engendered. Today, the only memorials to the era prior to 1945 that you will find in Japan are peace memorials - monuments and shrines devoted to the values and perpetuation of peace.(2) Unfortunately, this peacenik culture has made it difficult for the Japanese to come to any genuine terms with their war-time past. 

This doesn't mean that all Japanese people forgot the events of the war or tried to evade responsibility. In the 1950s, several books were published that recounted some of the worst moments of the war. If the books had a single prevailing theme, it was defeat. Since the books were best sellers in Japan, prompting film producers to purchase the rights for their adaptation, there must have been plenty of people who wanted to keep some memories of the war fresh in their minds. The films based on three of these books were released in the West to widespread acclaim: The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, and The Human Condition. While two of the three films - both directed by Kon Ichikawa - can be interpreted as powerful statements against war, in keeping with the pervasive cultural revulsion against it, the third film, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is a direct indictment of Japanese militarism, and, released in three parts, is one of the longest and most harrowing films ever made.        

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto, 1956), set in Burma in the closing days of the war, is about a platoon of Japanese soldiers traveling the front lines, entertaining the troops with their singing. Among them is Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), who plays a Japanese harp. The war ends and while the Japanese soldiers wait for their repatriation to Japan, Private Mizushima is asked to help persuade another group of Japanese soldiers, that have barricaded themselves in a cave, to surrender. They shoot at Mizushima as he reaches them in the cave, and he tells them that the Australian soldiers outside have given them a deadline to surrender. The Japanese soldiers decide, despite Mizushima's efforts, to fight to the death and in the ensuing bombardment, Mizushima is nearly buried alive.

Thanks to the help he receives from a Buddhist monk, Mizushima survives, but he steals the monk's robe and decides to devote himself to burying the bodies of the Japanese dead that remain strewn across the country. He doesn't realize the terrible futility of his efforts until he comes to a broad river and discovers a huge pile of Japanese corpses on its banks.

The film has its flaws, which are due to its mawkish sentimentality.(3) The story of the film was derived from a children's novel by Michio Takeyama, which should come as no surprise when you find yourself squirming in the scene in which Mizushima's platoon, surrounded at night in a hut, try to deceive the British soldiers outside by singing. The song they sing, to Mizushima's accompaniment on his harp, is better known to English-speaking audiences as "There's No Place Like Home." The British soldiers recognize the tune and sing it in English along with the Japanese soldiers. There is also the implausible use of a parrot that is "taught" to deliver messages between Mizushima and his comrades held prisoner in a camp. They try to persuade Mizushima to come back to Japan with them, but he tells them he cannot find peace until he buries all the Japanese dead in Burma.     


Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959), based on the autobiographical book by Shohei Ooka, is, as far as possible, an even more relentless despairing depiction of Japanese soldiers in the war. Set on the Philippine island of Leyte just after the enormous American invasion in 1945,(4) it follows one Japanese soldier named Tamura, who, to top things off, has TB as he retreats across the island, a nightmarish trek on which he encounters other Japanese soldiers, all of whom are slowly starving to death. With nowhere to run, Tamura finds himself in the company of a man who has been reduced to eating human flesh - the flesh of his dead comrades. He calls it "monkey meat," but Tamura runs away from him. Ichikawa, three years after The Burmese Harp, doesn't need to explain what's happening, like the Filipino partisans who fire on surrendering Japanese soldiers. Why would they be so bent on revenge?

Ichikawa changes Ooka's ending. The partisans have lighted bonfires (the "fires on the plain") to attract Japanese soldiers and promise them food if they surrender. Ooka survived his ordeal, and was converted to Christianity by his Filipino captors. But Tamura in the film surrenders only to be gunned down by the partisans.


Probably the most overpowering Japanese film about the war era is Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken, 1959-61). Based on the six-volume work of Junpei Gomikawa, Kobayashi adapted it two volumes at a time, with each part of his three-part film lasting more than three hours. Altogether, without credit sequences and intermissions, it is 579 minutes - or 9 hours 39 minutes - long.

Gomikawa was a pacifist and socialist who was sent by the Japanese army to work in Manchuria. It is there that he witnesses the true genocidal face of the Japanese empire. Kobayashi had been a soldier serving in Manchuria. He expressed his resistance to the brutality he witnessed by never seeking advancement to a rank higher than private. The story concerns Kaji, played masterfully by Tatsuya Nakadai, who is sent to Manchuria with his wife during the war to supervise a mining project which uses forced labor. He witnesses acts of brutality against the Chinese laborers that are so routine that he gradually turns against the Japanese army commander, and against the Japanese role in the war.


Kobayashi considered making The Human Condition his life's work. But he didn't stop there. Kobayashi would go on to make more popular films like Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) and Samurai Rerbellion (Joiuchi, 1967), both of which are attacks on Japanese feudalism and the hollow samurai ideal. Then he made a documentary in 1983 on the Tokyo Trials. The war and its legacy, which most Japanese were trying to forget, was his lifelong subject.     


(1) For example, one of Akira Kurosawa's earliest films, They Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, was banned by the American Occupation authorities because of its supposed support of feudalism.
(2) This has led inevitably to distortions of the truth. In Hiroshima, for example, many American visitors have been driven by the horrific evidence on display in the museum of the atomic explosion there to tears and apologies. The overwhelming message that such memorials are sending is that Japan was the great victim of the war, no matter what they may have done to provoke a response as terrible as the dropping of the Bomb.
(3) The version screened in the West, and the one released on DVD by Criterion, is 116 minutes long. The version Ichikawa released in Japan is 143 minutes. Oddly, Ichikawa directed a color remake of his film in 1985 that has none of the raw power of the original.
(4) The site of the landing is just south of the city of Tacloban, which was hit by the most powerful tropical cyclone to make landfall in history on November 8, 2013. I'm now living about a hundred kilometers from there.

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