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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999


'Bao's' melodrama dulls sharp idea

How much should Japan still apologize for its deeds in World War II? What can the Japanese government and people do to make amends?

Revisionists say that Japan shouldn't be apologizing, period. Japan, they claim, was fighting a war for Asian liberation and those who say otherwise, including the so-called comfort women and the witnesses of the so-called Rape of Nanjing, must either want a handout or have some kind of Japan-bashing agenda. To the revisionists, the ritualistic bows and stiff little speeches of regret, repeated by Japanese diplomats and politicians year after year, are a national disgrace.

But there are other Japanese, call them the wishy-washy liberals if you will, who believe that the real national disgrace is a lack of reflection, an unwillingness to face up to the truth. Everyone knows what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of the war, but too few Japanese, they feel, are willing to recall what really happened in China and other corners of the Japanese empire in the months and years before the final debacle.

Japanese filmmakers have come down on both sides of this divide in recent years, with Shunya Ito portraying Hideki Tojo as a martyred patriot in "Pride," and Hiromichi Horikawa exposing the brutal treatment of Korean slave workers in "Asian Blue." The mass audience has clearly favored the former approach, making "Pride" a box-office hit on wide release.

Shinichi Nakata's "Chen Bao," which depicts a former Japanese soldier's search for his past in wartime China, sides emphatically with the liberals. Based on a novel for children by Chinese war veteran Tsugio Kuroyabu, the film is a Japan-China co-production shot on location in Guilin, a region of southeastern China that, with its verdant rice paddies and fancifully shaped hills rising abruptly out of the earth, looks like a Chinese wall hanging brought to life. Furthermore, unlike many such co-productions, in which the Japanese side supplies the money and script and the Chinese side the locations and labor, "Chen Bao" was a truly cooperative effort, with a Chinese co-scriptwriter and producer.

The film, as might be expected, treads a fine line, neither justifying nor vilifying the actions of Japanese soldiers during the invasion. Also, instead of plunging headfirst into the moral morass of war as Francis Ford Copolla did in "Apocalypse Now," Nakata takes the more conventional approach of portraying his soldier hero as unquestionably good, if undeniably weak, while presenting the two Chinese peasant children the hero befriends as the usual pure-hearted exemplars.

Though the film sincerely attempts to set the historical record straight and advance international understanding -- both commendable aims -- the various compromises involved in bringing it to the screen have blunted its impact. Instead of the Japanese equivalent of "Schindler's List" or "The Thin Red Line" -- films that, whatever their faults, made us see the war with fresh eyes, Nakata has delivered another in a long line of painfully earnest Japanese war melodramas.

Nonetheless, "Chen Bao" deserves credit for taking on a still-sensitive and seldom-filmed subject: the conduct of the Japanese army during its long war in China.

It begins with a framing story, an elderly veteran of that war, Ken Aizawa (Takahiro Tamura), is wondering whether to accept an invitation to return to China with other old soldiers. Still undecided, he visits the grave of one of his fallen comrades, Sergeant Hori, who was, like Aizawa, a native of Kumamoto Prefecture. (One of the challenges of the film, for this reviewer at least, was puzzling out the characters' Kumamoto dialect.)

At the grave site, he encounters Hori's younger sister, who tells him, in sorrow and anger, that none of Hori's remains or effects were ever sent to the family. Now determined to return Hori's bones to his native land, Aizawa journeys to China with his granddaughter (Hiromi Iwasaki), who is visiting a Chinese exchange student she met in Japan. As he begins his search, memories flood over him -- and the film flashes back to 1945.

We meet a younger Aizawa (Ryuichi Ohura), who is a corporal foraging with his unit in a Guilin village. In an abandoned barn, he finds a calf and takes it to his sergeant -- the crude, profane, short-tempered Hori (Kazuhiko Kanayama). There is a problem, however: the calf's owners -- a boy (Xu Ke-Xin) and his younger sister (Yu Tian-Zhi) -- come out of hiding and loudly demand its return.

Despite the attempts of Hori and Aizawa to shoo them away, the children follow the soldiers back to camp and spend the night in a nearby cave. Orphaned when Japanese soldiers killed their parents, the children regard the calf as a reminder of the happier life they have lost. The boy, Chen Bao, will do anything to get it back.

Feeling sorry for the children, the kind-hearted Aizawa becomes their ally, but he must overcome the opposition of not only Hori, but their casually brutal lieutenant, who sees the calf only as meat on the hoof.

There really isn't much more to the story than this: the children's efforts to rescue the calf and Aizawa's ineffectual attempts to help them -- which only get him and the children in trouble with his superiors, starting with his fearsome sergeant. But Hori is not the ogre he looks -- when he discovers the frightened girl alone in the cave, he plays his harmonica for her and remembers his boyhood in a seaside village. Yes, Hori is a human being too, but he is swept up in a war that destroys every human value, as well as the men who cling to them.

For all its overmilking of its basic conflict -- the scene after repetitious scene of the boy bullheadedly trying to reclaim the calf and the soldiers brusquely thwarting him -- the film does graphically convey the harshness of life in an army forced to live off the land, and the fear and hatred they inspired in the people they beggared and abused.

Like the Georgians who nurtured bitter memories of Sherman's March for long decades after the American Civil War, the Chinese are unlikely to soon forget their sufferings from the Japanese invasion. "Chen Bao" helps a younger generation of Japanese understand why.

"Chen Bao" is playing at Shinjuku Cinema Society.

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