After the debacle of “Profound Desires of the God” (1968), Imamura Shoei did not make another feature film for eleven years. Since that movie had nearly bankrupted Nikkatsu, I’m not sure whether this choice was voluntary or resulted from the lack of financial backing.
He journeyed to Southeast Asia and made two (1971) tv documentaries about Japanese soldiers who had not returned to Japan after the end of the war. “In Search for the Unreturned Soldiers in Malayasia” (running 45 minutes) was mostly about the search, followed by a lengthy interview of one former soldier who converted to Islam and remained in Malaysia.
Before shooting another documentary, Imamura and company had already found three unreturned Japanese soldiers in Thailand: “In Search for the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand” runs 51 minutes) was He brought them together for a conversation in which he did not participate (though, at the end of the documentary, he commented on what they and a fourth drop-in said) at the house in (I think) Ayutthaya of Toshida, who is an unlicensed physician. Nakayama, in a starched white shirt and wearing a tie, is a licensed physician who is mostly silent. Toshida suggests that Nakayama has forgotten how to speak Japanese, but Fujita denies that, but says he does not want to talk about his past, either his war experiences or growing up in Japan before enlisting.
Mr. Fujita does not say much either, though more than Nakayama. The most voluble one and the one with the most extreme stories to relate is Toshida, who was a factory worker in Osaka before being drafted. I think that it was Fujita who recalled fragging (killing officers whose commands the troops reviled). Toshida maintained that if he had refused orders to slaughter prisoners he would have been killed himself and insisted that the officers, not the soldiers committing atrocities were to blame.
He claims to have slaughtered 36,000 prisoners in pits they had been forced to dig and which were then filled with gasoline. I think this number was exaggerated; indeed, he first says 30,000. My guess is that three zeroes should be lopped off, thoughincinerating 30 people is still horrifying. Toshida also bemoans the mistake of fighting China. He believed that an alliance could have taken on the USA and USSR.
Nakayama is shocked by Toshida’s denunciation of the emperor and goes out of the room for a while. Toshida says he would have slaughtered women and children had he been ordered to do so, and Fujita says that he would return to the army if beckoned. He recalled collecting 800 to a thousand fingers from Japanese corpses to take back and bury in Japanese soil. He said he had been ordered to stay in Thailand after the war, when food and shelter were scarce in Japan, told that he would be reclaimed after thirteen years (double that had passed at the time of the recording). He does not say what happened to the severed fingers.
Fed the words by the filmmakers, the three sing an old song of fealty to (and willingness to die for) the Emperor.
Imamura stayed in touch with Fujita, whose parents and one brother died in the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki (he says they lived close to ground zero, so were probably Chrstians: see Kinoshita’s “Children of Nagasaki”). Imamura filmed Fujita back in Japan for the 1973 “Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home.” Fujita got along very badly with his surviving brother and sister, complains that everyone looks down on him, and expresses the view that Japanese have gone insane with greed, betraying the “Japanese spirit.” He reiterated a willingness (indeed, an eagerness) to fight the English and Chinese again.
Imamura concludes, “What I see are heaps of abandoned people as the super-express train Japan speeds away.” This applies to his earlier movies, including “Profound Desire” in which he avoided taking a position about industrialization at the southern periphery of the country.
All three documentaries were shot with no cinematic frills. The camera was as fixed as in late Ozu movies, though the takes were longer.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
For a veteran not acquiescing too the atrocities the Japanese army committed see “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.” And for complicity with atrocities decades earlier (in Indonesia) , encouraging celebrants of murders, there is Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 “The Act of Killing.”