Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Japanese Soldiers and Internees

I saw three films at Viz Cinemas in August.

The Burmese Harp directed by Kon Ichikawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity; documentary; directed by Junichi Suzuki; (2010) - Official Website
Toyo’s Camera; documentary; directed by Junichi Suzuki; (2008) - Official Website


The Burmese Harp won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It should not be confused with the 1985 remake also directed by Ichikawa. The Burmese Harp established Ichikawa reputation as a master of Japanese cinema.

Diagram of Burmese Harp or SaungThe plot involves a company of Japanese soldiers in Burma during the final days of WWII. PFC Mizushima is the scout for the company. He has a natural skill at playing the Burmese harp or saung which is an unusual shaped instrument. Mizushima, dressed in local clothing, plays certain tunes on the harp depending on what he encounters while scouting as a warning to his company.

Eventually Mizushima is separated from his company and presumed dead. As the soldiers are interned and await repatriation, they repeatedly encounter a Buddhist monk who strongly resembles Mizushima. I won't give away the rest of the plot - partly out of laziness, partly because I could not do it justice.

This is a textbook film of what I would call "gentle, Japanese film making." "Gentle" and "Japanese" conjure a certain unique style of pacing and plot devices. The film has a number of scenes which stand out in my memory. The first is when the Japanese are in a village and realize they are being watched and surrounded by enemy soldiers. In fact, the war is over and the Allied soldiers are trying to make contact with the Japanese soldiers without starting a firefight. The Japanese soldiers sing to bolster their confidence and as a diversionary tactic. The Allies respond with a slower paced song to sooth the Japanese fears.

Another memorable scene occurs towards the end of the film when the Japanese soldiers stand behind the fence of the POW camp while the monk is on the other side of the fence playing his harp.

The overall effect of the film is humanizing the feared and hated Japanese soldier of WWII. As portrayed in The Burmese Harp, the soldiers are young men with gentle natures and strong sense of camaraderie. The monk makes a supreme sacrifice to honor the war dead which affected me emotionally.


Boys at Manzanar during WWII (Photo by Toyo MiyakaeToyo’s Camera was a documentary about Toyo Miyatake and his work at Manzanar Internment Camp. Miyatake was a commercial photographer in Los Angeles who relocated to the camp during WWII. He smuggled in a camera to document camp life. Later, he took photos under the auspices of the camp commander who was sympathetic. Miyatake was a skilled photographer who was friends with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

The film didn't teach me too much new stuff about Manzanar or the Japanese American experiences during WWII. The photos were evocative and Miyatake's life was interesting. However, the documentary seemed to lose its focus as it delved into the No No Boys, 442nd and the subsequent Manzanar Pilgrimages. I think I would have enjoyed the film more if it had stayed more on Miyatake and his photos during the internment period. As it was, the film was engaging enough to merit a tepid recommendation; more for the subject matter than the film itself.


In some ways, it seems a if director Junichi Suzuki was already preoccupried with 442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity when he made Toyo’s Camera. 442 seemed to stir his soul while Toyo’s Camera evoked a sense of sadness. 442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity is a rousing and tear inducing film. More than once, I had to wipe some moisture from my eyes. For those unaware, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated regiment in the history of the US Army. The unit was composed of Japanese American soldiers (many of whom had been at Manzanar and other internment camps) and operated in the European Theater. Time and again, the unit was given the most difficult assignment. It's implied that initially, the unit was considered expendable but later in the war, the unit was the most elite regiment in the Army & hence the only one that could accomplish the impossible missions given to it.

I was struck by how the Japanese American soldiers invoked traditions and attitudes that the Imperial Japanese Army also held. In both cases they resulted in horrendous casualties. Not to be an apologist for the Imperial Japanese Army, but in one case the men are held up as heroes and on the other, they are war criminals and fanatics. Indeed, I wondered if the 442nd "Go For Broke" attitude caused needless deaths. It's a moot point though. The film had a clip of Harry S. Truman congratulating the unit after war. HST said, words to the effect, "You have not only battled the enemy and won but you have battled prejudice." I think he could have added that they battled their own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. The boys of the 442 weren't "American enough" so they were going to prove it by killing as many Nazis as possible...no matter how many of them died in the process.

I was repeatedly moved by the stories of combat bravery and how the men of the 442 coped with the wounds (physical and emotional) after the war.

442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity is one of the best films I've seen in 2010.

No comments: