June 29, 2005

You Never Know

Victorino, one of the Galley Slaves, had the opportunity to attend a screening of The Great Raid, which is a story about American POW's being rescued from a Japanese camp in the Phillipines in 1945 and has a mini-review about it up. (Sorry, kids. Couldn't find a trailer to save me life!)

The Japanese were horrible during WWII. They hadn't signed the Geneva Convention, hence they weren't going to even bother with the little things, let alone the biggies, like food, water, basic sanitation, or even medicine. In particular the Japanese treated the Philippines like it was their own personal violent sandbox. And, yes, we're talking civilians, too. Once the Americans evacuated in 1942, it was like someone had waved a red cloth at the charging bull. They'd already done their worst in Nanking and Shanghai and other parts of China: I don't think anyone thought the Japanese could actually do worse than that, but they were wrong.

(Victorino has his own bit of disclosure about his father, as do I: my next door neighbor when I was growing up---the closest thing I had to a grandfather---was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. And he was a doctor, too, so just try to imagine what he saw and lived through. And, no, I never talked to him about it, so I don't know. After looking it up in the encyclopedia, I couldn't bear to ask, even though my mom encouraged me to.)

I digress as usual, so, anyhoo...

Noting that portraying such baddies might be touchy for Japanese actors, Victorino states:

{...}Credit should also be given to the Japanese actors who no doubt made a courageous decision in accepting the roles of ruthless killers. And who knows if the film will ever be shown in Japan? (Thanks to its distributor, Miramax, the movie should get some good press stateside.) Unlike The Thin Red Line, there are no moral ambiguities here. It is quite clear the occupying power did some really bad things.{...}

This is where the "you never know" bit comes into it. It might be released in Japan, and they might actually like it. A few years back I read a wonderful book: My Spy: The Memoir of a CIA Wife by Bina Cady Kiyonaga, a redheaded Irish-American from Baltimore who married a Japanese-American from Hawaii. In 1946. Yeah, your eyebrows should be up somewhere near your hairline. Her husband, Joe, worked for the CIA and, in between stopovers at Langley, was posted all over the world---along with his wife and five kids. As you might imagine, one of his postings was in Tokyo. Where, one night in 1957, they were invited to see the Japanese premiere of The Bridge on the River Kwai.

You can find the relevant excerpt after the jump.

When Joe and I wanted to be alone, really alone, we'd head off to our favorite spot in Tokyo: the bar at the Imperial Hotel. No contacts, no careful conversations, no talk of the kids. Just us. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the highlight of the hotel was the spare, rustic but inviting bar. (The old Imperial has since been torn down; the new Imperial is an impressive but unimaginative skyscraper. The only part of the original structure that remains is the bar.)

We're always complaining that the Japanese take our ideas and improve upon them. It appeared to me, looking at that bar, that Frank Lloyd Wright had returned the compliment---he'd taken some ideas from Japanese design and done them one better.

Our dinner at the bar was usually as spare as the surroundings: raw oysters and stone-cold martinis. I recall one particular Friday when we cut our meal short to attend a special even at the small, private theater in the basement of the hotel: the Japanese premiere of The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was an invitation from a contact of Joe's, and a real treat. Living abroad, I missed having the occasional night at the movies. And the 1950's had produced some of the best American films, like Twelve Angry Men and Joe's personal favorite, High Noon.

So it was with anticipation---but some trepidation---that Joe and I went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957. We knew little of the movie except that it involved depictions of cruelty by the Japanese toward British prisoners during World War II.

We were entranced from the opening scene---the cheerful heroism of the prisoners whistling the "Colonel Bogey" march---but started to grow uncomfortable with the mounting silence in the theater.

As the movie went on (and on), I glanced around and confirmed my suspicions---I was about the only Caucasian present.

I really started to squirm when it became clear that the British hero, a prisoner of war, was going to make the supreme sacrifice. After months of cruel and tortuous subjugation by his Japanese captors in building the railroad bridge---critical to the Japanese for supplying ammunition---the hero throws himself on the explosive detonator at the last moment. He blows himself up, along with the bridge. The cruel Japanese had been defeated once again! (You could have heard a chopstick drop.)

And then, as the credits started to roll, the entire audience stood, as one, and broke into thunderous applause.

To be fair, Mrs. Kiyonaga isn't exactly accurate in describing the ending of the movie. Alec Guinness' Colonel Nicholson was shot and, having come to his senses, stops protecting the bridge he's used as a morale builder for his troops, says "My God, what have I done!" to no one in particular, is shot and conveniently falls down on the detonator, which causes the bridge to blow up. Neither is The Bridge on the River Kwai hardly very graphic in its portrayal of the Japanese's actions. But the story is instructive in its own right. Particularly given the time period, where the war and the resulting occupation were fresh in everyone's minds. Who knows what might happen, sixty years later?

Curiously enough, the Japanese rape and pillage of Asia in WWII has been under scrutiny lately in China and South Korea, where thousands marched in protest of a lack of apologies coming from Japan. Japanese-made products were destroyed during one march in China. It should be interesting, given these events, to see how wide the release is in Asia and how it's received, particularly in Japan.

Posted by Kathy at June 29, 2005 12:22 AM

Back when I was still in school, my father (a huge history buff) took my sister and I to Hawaii. One of our first stops was Pearl Harbor. The memorial, if you've never seen it, is very moving. It is difficult to stand there, take it all in, and not be moved to tears over the old vets - Survivors - in their satin jackets and hats - crying over the names of their friends on the wall.

What stunned me at the time, though, was the fact that there were so many Japanese at the memorial. Touring. Site-seeing and snapping pictures, all the time being very respectful. They were welcome, but it was weird. I've always wondered how those satin-jacketed vets felt about that.

Posted by: Phoenix at June 29, 2005 09:54 AM

My elementary school art teacher was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, and he also lived through the "Hell Ships" where the Japanese took the surviving prisoners on overcrowded freighters to China or Japan to keep them from falling into American hands when the Phillipines fell. I never really saw him as a war hero, he was just a nice guy; however my opinion changed as I got older when I saw some of the paintings he did of things that happened due to those savages.

Imagine painting a watercolor of one of your buddies getting sliced open with a bayonet because he couldn't keep up due to blisters on his feet. Imagine a charcoal sketch of one prisoner killing another in the dark, overcrowded hell of a freighter's hold when he caught the dead man trying to steal his cup of water.

Read "Hidden Horrors" by Yuki Tanaka to get a handle on the atrocities committed against both POW's and civilians by the Japanese. Some of the stuff that happened to these prisoners is right out of the "Auschwitz Employees Handbook".

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at June 29, 2005 12:17 PM
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