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Wednesday, May 2, 2001
A war movie of guts, glory and heavy gloss
War movies have a hard time telling the truth about one of humankind's most universal acts. Even when filmmakers loudly proclaim their intention to get it right, they nearly always make their films as Americans or Russians or Japanese, with the accompanying social, political and, needless to say, commercial filters. In "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg created some of the most gut-wrenching battle footage in the history of film, but he still waved the flag. Tom Hanks' character had the shakes, but he was still an All-American hero, performing mainly for a paying audience of his countrymen.
Be that as it may, there is still a wide gap between the red-white-and-blue, black-and-white approach of Edward Dmytryk's 1945 "Back to Bataan," with John Wayne as an American officer leading brave Filipino freedom fighters against the evil Japanese invaders, and that of Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line," in which war is stripped of ideology and reduced to its essentials, including its awful beauty.
On that spectrum Yukio Fuji's "Merdeka (Freedom)," which depicts Japanese soldiers fighting for Indonesian independence, is far to the right, deep in John Wayne territory. But the straight-up jingoism present in "Back to Bataan," shot when Americans were still dying in Philippine jungles, is less understandable in a film made at the turn of the new millennium, when Japanese have had half a century to reflect on World War II and presumably distance themselves from wartime propaganda.
There is, however, a streak of revanchism in the attitude of certain Japanese toward the war and its aftermath, with an accompanying desire to not only oppose the victors' interpretation of Japan's war record, but display that record in the best possible light. The result, in "Merdeka," is a revisionism that, in the guise of presenting the reality of a little-known historical episode, luridly distorts it.
"Merdeka" is based on the experiences of the 2,000 Japanese soldiers who remained in Indonesia after the end of World War II -- and never returned home. Nearly 1,000 of those men, we are told, died in combat, by the side of Indonesian freedom fighters battling their Dutch colonial masters. This is a story that deserves to be told, and the filmmakers evidently had the full cooperation of the Indonesian authorities in telling it. They shot on location in Indonesia, using Indonesian actors and crew.
But the film's war is mostly the one imagined by the boys on the sound trucks in front of Shibuya Station -- all guts and glory for the warriors of Dai Nippon. First of all, the hero, Lt. Shimazaki (Junta Yamada), is a red-blooded, pure-spirited samurai in modern dress, who is battling fearlessly and tirelessly to free Indonesia from the corrupt, dissolute Dutch. Bursting into the headquarters of the Dutch commander at Bandung after the Japanese invasion in December 1941, he does not negotiate surrender so much as imperiously order it, with his eyes glaring, his voice thundering and his hand firmly on his sword -- the very embodiment of Japanese manhood.
How are a rabble of mere Westerners and their native puppets to resist such an overpowering display of yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit)? The poor commander can hardly wait to sign the surrender papers.
Soon Shimazaki and his men, including the gentle-spirited, poetically inclined Lt. Miyata (Naoki Hosaka) and the gone-native but doggedly loyal interpreter Yamana (Naomasa Mutaka), are training bright-eyed local youths as an elite fighting force.
"You must struggle for your own independence!" Shimazaki never tires of telling them. The training is harsh -- and some of the young soldiers rebel -- but Shimazaki whips them into shape, while winning their understanding and deathless allegiance. He is later undercut by the Japanese High Command, who want to exploit Indonesians for the greater glory of the Empire, not raise up a potential third column. Even so, Shimazaki perseveres, never losing sight of his ideal.
When the war ends in Japan's defeat, he faces a difficult choice: protect the Emperor's arsenal, as is his soldierly duty, or follow his heart and open it to his Indonesian charges, now turned into guerrilla fighters. He decides to not only turn over the weaponry to his former students, but take up their cause. Many of his men join them -- with a paragon like Shimazaki as their leader, how could they not?
Together they wage a long, desperate struggle against the colonial oppressor. One by one, they die in that struggle, as Shimazaki, with the lovely, fiercely patriotic sister (Laura Amaria) of one of his fallen Indonesian students by his side, sternly presses on to victory.
Playing Shimazaki, Yamada is a war-recruiting poster brought to life -- all clenched jaw and burning patriotism. He comes out of the war with his fighting spirit soaring even higher than when he went into it. No Tom Hanks-like trembling hands for this sterling son of Nippon.
Save for one token Bad Japanese Soldier, a ruffian who treats the local women like whores and the men like servants, Shimazaki's comrades are similarly upright types. Meanwhile, their foes, particularly a flagrantly homosexual Dutch interrogator who tortures Miyata with slithery glee, are cartoon cutouts. The performances of the Caucasian actors are, as might be expected, universally atrocious; no professional with any self-respect would take part in this embarrassment.
And the unpleasant side of the Japanese occupation? The inhumane treatment of Allied prisoners and the pitiless slaughter of Chinese residents? If you expect to see that in "Merdeka," you've come to the wrong movie.