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Thursday, March 6, 2008
Japan's wartime past offers lessons for today
Following the Japanese surrender in 1945 that ended World War II, the Allies held war-crimes trials. "A Class" criminal suspects — including those who were accused of instigating the war, such as former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo — were tried in Tokyo, while "B Class" suspects, who were accused of carrying out specific war crimes, were tried in Yokohama and elsewhere.
One "B Class" suspect was Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada, who was in charge of the army in the Tokai region surrounding Nagoya. He and 19 subordinates were accused of the summary execution of 38 captured American airmen. The Americans had participated in bombing raids that resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, and rather than hold them as prisoners of war, Okada decided they were war criminals and had them beheaded.
During his trial, Okada took full responsibility for the execution order. His defense centered on his conviction that the bombing was indiscriminate and thus a violation of international law, and while the prosecutor and the judge came to understand his position, Okada testified that the executions were not carried out as a justifiable retaliation against a military action, which American military law allowed for. He insisted that the executions were judicial punishments, which in the case of POWs are not permitted under American military law, as the current controversy over "Unlawful enemy combatants" in the "war on terror" illustrates. Okada was made aware of this distinction and yet he didn't change his testimony. He was thus found guilty and sentenced to hang. Because he took sole responsibility for the executions, all his subordinates were spared the death sentence.
Inspired by "Nagai Tabi (The Long Journey)," a 1982 nonfiction account of Okada's ordeal by Shohei Ooka, director Takashi Koizumi's new film "Ashita e no Yuigon (Best Wishes for Tomorrow)," released last Saturday, is a dramatic re-creation of the trial featuring Makoto Fujita as Okada. The dialogue was taken almost verbatim from more than 2,000 pages of trial transcripts.
The Japan Times asked three contributors and one staff writer to discuss the film and its ramifications.
• Roger Pulvers is an author, playwright and theater director. He cowrote the screenplay for "Ashita e no Yuigon."
• Mark Schilling is a Japan Times film critic and the Japan correspondent for Variety.
• Reiji Yoshida is a staff reporter for The Japan Times.
• Philip Brasor is a freelance critic and entertainment writer. He moderated the following discussion, which took place at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo.
Brasor (P.B.): Maybe we should first talk about the filmmakers' purposes.
Pulvers (R.P.): Koizumi-san wanted to make this movie a long time ago, but the producer, Masato Hara, was reluctant to tackle a subject that was controversial. So after Koizumi's (critical and commercial) success with "Hakase no Aishita Sushiki (The Professor and his Beloved Equation)" (2006), Hara-san felt it was time. I've known Hara-san for many years and he's seriously committed to the young people of Japan. He wanted them to know about this man, the only Japanese general to take full responsibility for his actions, for crimes committed on Japanese soil during the war.
Yoshida (R.Y.): So the main audience for this movie is Japanese? Not Americans?
R.P.: When one makes a film, one doesn't really think about foreign audiences. We hope that this movie will be seen by people overseas, but it's a film about Japanese people for Japanese people.
Schilling (M.S.): There have been many Japanese films (such as "Ore wa, Kimi no Tame Koso Shi ni Iku [For Those We Love]" , about tokkotai [special attack force] suicide pilots) with the same aim of conveying a message to future generations. Usually, it's something like, "We made these sacrifices and so we shouldn't forget that."
R.P.: I would like to think this film did not try to show how much the Japanese sacrificed. We're trying to tell young people to take responsibility for their actions. You don't shunt it off on someone else. Isn't that different?
M.S.: But there is still that common purpose in Japanese war films of conveying something. In American movies about Vietnam it was basically one generation telling their story.
P.B.: What I think Mark is saying is that these Japanese movies are didactic on purpose. They start out with the idea that they're going to teach you something. That intention comes through strongly in this movie.
R.Y.: Young Japanese don't have much knowledge about the war, and now many people are reviewing the war, trying to find justifications for it. They say that the Tokyo war-crimes trials were unfair. I think the message this film has for Americans is good. They have to realize that the war had many aspects, that some actions were wrong and cannot be justified. That's a message that could be conveyed to Americans, but young Japanese may take away the wrong message, that the Japanese Army could be justified for what it did. A lot of Japanese officers in China committed war crimes. Okada did most of his service in Japan.
M.S.: What I see in this film is not rightism or straight nationalism, but rather soft nationalism. Here is this admirable character who stood up for his beliefs. He did some bad things and then admitted to doing them.
P.B.: The movie does teach you some things you probably didn't know before, but Okada is such a figure of overwhelming integrity that you sort of forget about the war.
R.P.: We left out all scenes of violence. It was very important to me and Koizumi-san. It would have been very easy if we had a flashback in which a Japanese soldier came out and you've got some poor American lying down, and then off goes the head. But that takes it out of the realm of the antiwar film and puts it into the realm of the horror film. What it says to everyone who watches it is that the guy who did that is a devil. He's got to die. I've got to get retribution. Any film that engenders that in an audience is not an antiwar film.
P.B.: I wanted to know more about Okada. The focus on his dignity and honor is so intense that it's difficult to get a sense of the man.
M.S.: He represents an ideal.
P.B.: Until Yoshida-san pointed it out, I didn't realize he'd never been to the front lines. I wanted to see what he did, because I needed that context to understand why I should accept what he did in the courtroom as being worthy of admiration.
M.S.: I wondered about the absence of violence. I thought you could have shown scenes of someone getting their head chopped off. But then you'd also have to show children getting burned alive. Someone once said it's difficult to make a war film that doesn't glamorize war, because no matter how bad it was you have guys doing heroic things. And Okada in this film is an admirable figure.
P.B.: But in order to find him truly admirable we have to see what he's gone through and what he's overcome. Maybe it's more of a dramatic question than an ethical one.
R.P.: I agree, it would have been clearer. But I don't like the feeling that those sort of scenes bring out in an audience. You have to present it as a cruel act, and it was cruel. Maybe that would have made it more understandable, but to me it would have taken away from the antiwar message. I didn't want to show any violence.
R.Y.: If you include some dramatic action it might be seen as fiction. In that case, it could cause controversy and the message wouldn't be delivered. I think making the film plain in this way is important.
R.P.: Do you think Japanese people and non-Japanese people will look at this with different eyes?
R.Y.: At the time, Japanese people had little knowledge about international law, which is one of the reasons so many war crimes were committed in China. It's easy to feel sympathy for the victims of the bombing and for Okada, but the fact that the air raids were a violation of international law (because they deliberately targeted civilians) may be news to the audience.
M.S.: I interviewed Akira Kurosawa after he made "Hachi-gatsu no Kyoshikyoku (Rhapsody in August)" (1991). He had a press conference with a lot of American reporters and they asked him the same thing: "You're talking about the atomic bombings in the film, but what about Pearl Harbor?" And he just blew up. When I went to the interview, the PR guy said, "Don't ask him about that." But I had to get it out of the way, so I said, "I know you had this experience at the foreign press club. How did you feel about it?" And he went on for about 15 minutes: "My whole intention was to make an antiwar film." And it was. They seemed to be criticizing him for not showing American victims.
R.P.: But this is a film about America as well. And it's about America in the good old days, because the real hero of the film is the trial.
M.S.: You showed this film here at the press club, right? What was the reaction?
R.P.: Mixed! (Laughs.) There were two journalists who seemed very sensitive.