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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001

Face to face with Imperial evil



Japanese Devils

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Minoru Matsui
Running time:160 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

For many younger Japanese, the outcry from Asian countries over the Education Ministry's decision in April to approve a revisionist junior high school history textbook may be hard to understand. After all, no one is forcing schools to buy the book, and in fact, few have. Also, the events its writers are accused of distorting, particularly those concerning Japan's war in China, happened very long ago, in a past that grows hazier with every old soldier's death.

News photo
From Minoru Matsui's documentary "Japanese Devils"

Were Japanese atrocities as bad as the Chinese claim they were? The numbers and stories vary so widely. Who can know the truth at this late date? Aren't the Chinese simply bashing Japan for political purposes? After all, the Japanese suffered, too, in that war. Why can't we just get along?

I'm afraid that, in too many cases, Chinese complaints would not even draw this sort of defensive reaction from the Japanese -- just a blank. The only war they know, or care to know, is the one fought against America and its allies, that began with the attack on Pearl Harbor and ended with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However they choose to remember that war -- as a valiant struggle by a small Asian nation against the mighty American military machine, or a catastrophe that resulted in the loss of millions of innocent Japanese lives -- they do not usually think of the Japanese soldiers who fought it as evil.

A few did bad things, they might admit, but the majority, they believe, were decent, upstanding men who, as countless postwar films and dramas have made clear, selflessly sacrificed themselves for their country and laid the groundwork for its current prosperity. The war in China, which lasted 15 years and was more dubious in both its origins and its execution -- the Manchurian Incident, Unit 731, the Nanjing Massacre and all that -- occupies a smaller place in the popular imagination. And the question of responsibility for what happened in China rarely arises.

"Japanese Devils (Riben Guizi)," a new documentary by Minoru Matsui, raises that question in the form of in-depth interviews with 14 former soldiers who served in China. The obvious comparison is with Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," an epic 9 1/2hour documentary that consists of nothing but interviews with Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators.

But there are several important differences between the two: Confronted with the countless images and testimonies that have been drummed into the consciousness of the world, Lanzmann stripped his film to its essentials -- no stills or newsreel films, no voice-over narrative -- while questioning his witnesses in minute, obsessive detail. His aim was to complete, for all time, an already detailed portrait of Nazi horror.

Faced with the rigid code of silence among former Imperial army soldiers, aware of his potential audience's ignorance and misconceptions, Matsui took a different tack. Instead of badgering the witnesses, he gently, patiently drew them out, while providing basic background information, illustrated with period news clippings and images.

It could be argued that Matsui's witnesses, all soldiers captured at the end of the war by the Chinese and subjected to a long, thorough "re-education," are suspect. On camera, however, they give the impression of being, not communist-controlled robots, but elderly men who have little time and nothing to lose. They tell -- with an honesty that, given the past actions of rightists in this society, might well endanger them -- exactly what they saw and did.

The stories they tell, with a matter-of-factness that is more convincing than weepy theatrics, are of evil deeds that, far from being the aberrations of a few, sprung from the essence of Imperial army policy and culture. They bayoneted prisoners tied to stakes, not out of blind fanaticism, but because abstaining would have meant failing a test of manhood, as defined by the group. They vivisected helpless subjects strapped to operating tables, not out of sadistic compulsion but because it was expected and because the Chinese were regarded as subhuman "logs."

Soldiers of all eras and nationalities have raped, murdered and plundered, but in the Japanese army in China, such acts were condoned and even encouraged, as witness after witness makes clear. Assuming that every peasant, old and young, male and female, was a potential spy, soldiers used terror until it became not only second nature but also a kind of drug. A former corporal named Yasuji Kaneko describes how he and his comrades surrounded and wiped out an entire village, not because it represented a threat, but because they wanted a thrill. A former sergeant major named Yoshio Suzuki tells how, finding a mother with her newborn baby, he burned both alive in their hut and listened with satisfaction to the screams.

These men did not become the "devils" of Chinese memory overnight. They describe brutal, relentless training that turned farmers and college boys into automatons who would kill without feeling. Those suspected of being intellectuals were subjected to particularly merciless hazing, designed to crush their "arrogant" individuality. Beaten by their superiors and forced to beat one another, they became sadistic in turn. Witness, for instance, Tsuyoshi Ebato, a schoolteacher with humanistic ideals, who came to use Chinese peasants as human minesweepers.

Looking at the period photos of these soldiers, one sees ordinary Japanese youths, not monsters, who today might be playing baseball at Koshien Stadium or cramming for university entrance exams. The embers of the hell that they endured and created still flicker and glow -- and there are still some who would fan them into flames. Screenings of "Japanese Devils" at one Tokyo theater may not stamp out those embers, but they are nevertheless an act of courage and conscience. If you see only one Japanese film this year, make it this one.

The English-subtitled print of "Japanese Devils" will be screened at Image Forum every Friday. The film will be coming soon to Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Sapporo and other cites. For details, contact Image Forum at (03) 5766-0116 or e-mail info@imageforum.co.jp


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