Thursday, December 4, 2008

I want to be a shellfish

This past weekend the beau and I went to see a real downer of a movie. I should probably qualify that statement, as most Japanese movies are downers, so let's just say we practically had to talk each other back from the ledge once it was over. This won't be a movie I recommend to anyone on a date, or anyone who doesn't want to be sent into a dark spiral of despair for that matter. We went to see 私は貝になりたい (watashi wa kai ni naritai or I want to be a shellfish). I had not heard of the movie before we made the fateful decision to see it, so you can imagine my surprise when I realized by the end that I was getting all welled-up over a Japanese war criminal. It's not quite that simple however, and while I should probably go brush up on my WWII history before embarking on this post, I won't, so bear with me.

To give a brief summary, a kind and slightly disabled man is drafted during the war and following the orders of his superiors (at gunpoint), he kills an American POW. When the war is over he returns to his family only to be arrested and tried in Tokyo during the American occupation. The court rules that he is a B class war criminal and he is sentenced to hang. I was pretty shocked by the end of the movie as I hadn't realized until then that in the post-war era, lowly soldiers had been tried and executed for crimes committed under the orders of commanding officers. I had been under the (mistaken) impression that it was mostly the higher-ups who were held accountable for the atrocities that happened at the hands of the imperial army. In the end, the movie did a commendable job in drawing out indignation and shock from the audience at the fact that blame was also placed on an "innocent" man simply obeying orders, and not just his commanding officers. I'm not so sure that is a job that needed/should be done.

To help lift our spirits we headed to Orange for warmth and champagne. The beau and I talked about his family and mine, in terms of their involvement in the war. His dad had 12 siblings, 3 or 4 who died in the war. 12! Can you believe it? I could imagine it one more generation back but not in the same generation as my parents, whose four-children families seem large to me today. One of my grandfathers was in Pearl Harbour and the other in the merchant marines (I think). I don't know if I would go so far as to say how utterly amazing it is that things have changed so much since then that the beau and I were able to meet, let alone be together, but I think it's pretty fucking cool. Unfortunately none of our grandfathers are around today to talk to, because I would love to hear what they would say about this Canadian-Japanese couple. I'd also like to hear about post-war Japan from the marines grandfather who was there and who brought kimonos back to the States with him, one of which I have today.

Going into the movie, I really had no idea of what it was about or the background behind it and after a little digging the only English information I could find was this article, which was conveniently published just last week. After reading it, a lot of things fell into place for me. Superficially at least, I see the film for what it is: a remake of an older film AND TV series, which has been directed by someone over at TBS and is thus overly dramatic and made-for-TVesque. There are also two members of SMAP in the film, one who I completely missed and the other who left me thinking, why the fuck does this guy pop up EVERYWHERE?! I probably would have taken more notice if it was Kimtaku, who is all hot man, hot hair. Then there is the music, which is at times ridiculously cheesy and what the above article calls "literal-minded". At times it all felt like a really bad daytime soap, something to which the Japanese acting aesthetic lends itself far too well. These thoughts were not in my head however, when I was crying along with the rest of the captivated audience.

There is no mistake that this is an anti-war film but there is always the delicate and ever-sensitive issue of how much Japan will be portrayed as a victim, blameless except for an elite and monstrous military few. I'll readily admit that throughout and maybe even immediately after the film I kept thinking how wrong it was that this man who was clearly forced to kill another in war, be held accountable. I agree with the points the article's author hits on however, especially when he says that "the filmmakers, however, have loaded the moral dice by making an extreme case like Shimizu the protagonist, instead of the more numerous torturers and murderers of POWs who rightly ended up on the war-crimes docket". Maybe I should have walked into the movie with a more critical eye but I think I can safely say that my initial reaction is similar to what most people feel when watching this movie, which is perhaps where the danger lies. It's much easier to feel bad for a disabled barber-turned-soldier than an officer who let men under his command rape women in China. How many average Japanese people equipped with the "national average" amount of knowledge of WWII walked out of that movie and decided to read a few history books to brush up? Or who even thought past feeling that the barber's fate was unjust?

I don't have the answer, I don't know at what point people should be held responsible for their actions in situations such as that laid out in this movie, or if it differs depending on the cultural perspective. Would Japanese people be more inclined to hold the highest person in a chain of command responsible, whereas their American counterparts believe it is the individual who has to step up? If your life was threatened would you harm another to nullify that? Cheesiness aside, this was a truly depressing film where by the end I too, understood the protagonist's longing to become a shellfish.


Kelley Dawne said...

I was going to write in my comment that you should always take Japanese war-themed movies with a grain of salt (remember all the military leaders who claim Japan never committed atrocities during the war?) but you said it yourself at the end. lol.
One of my students also went to see that movie and gave me a 15 minute lecture on how wrong America was to occupy Japan and how ashamed I should be. I had to keep reminding them, "Um, I'm not American and my MOTHER wasn't even born then. Please don't yell at me."

Kira Petersson-Martin said...

I would pay ten million dollars to get to watch a Japanese-made movie about the rape of Nanking. Seriously.

I do believe we should understand that the past is just that, and move on to an extent, but at the same time playing up only one side of the story is ridiculous and dangerous. Not that we don't do it too.

Having said that, I'm a Jew who still hasn't *totally* forgiven Germany. I apologise to any Germans reading this.