Reconfiguring History I

War and Reaction in Contemporary Japanese Cinema

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 8, Issue 3 (Film review 2 in 2008). First published in ejcjs on 15 November 2008.

Warai no daigaku (2004) and Bokutachi no sensō (2005)
Warai no daigaku (University of Laughs), Hoshi Mamoru, Fuji Television Network
Bokutachi no sensō (Our War), Kaneko Fumiki, Tokyo Broadcasting System

The extent to which any nation may be said fully to account for its past is a variable quantity but always a contentious one, especially when the measure attempts to include or exclude marginalised, victimised, or oppressed points of view. That Japan has not fully accounted for its recent past is of course a matter of controversy, but this process of accounting is an ongoing one regardless of from whose perspective the measure is taken. The process includes high school textbooks which attract attention from Japan's neighbours, as well as numbers of other publications both denying or analysing Japan's role in the first half of the 20th century as either a benevolent leader in Asia or a colonial power bent on territorial expansion for purely selfish ends. And, of course, cinema plays a role in this process, as well, with several recent films addressing aspects of Japan's wartime and pre-war history from a variety of genres, budgets, and political viewpoints.

Hoshi Mamoru's Warai no daigaku (University of Laughs, 2004) is set in Tokyo's Asakusa theatre district in the early-war years and presents the story of a comedic playwright, Tsubaki (SMAP member Inagaki Goro), hoping to have a script approved by a police censor, Sakisaka (Yakusho Kōji). The film is a comedy, and a very well presented one at that, despite the oft-repeated references to the current 'crisis' of Japan's increasingly difficult war-time reality. The censor is an emotionless man who tells the playwright on their first meeting that he believes censorship to be completely unnecessary—'everything,' he says, 'should be banned outright!'

The film is quite simple in its structure—presented as a series of meetings on succeeding days between Sakisaka and Tsubaki, it is essentially a filmed play with these characters bearing the burden of 'entertaining' the audience, thus mimicking the notion of the plays under censorship review in the film itself—and yet, despite the staged nature of this work, Hoshi and his cinematographer, Takase Hiroshi, and editor, Yamamoto Masaaki, have effectively avoided the static quality so prone to overrun other filmed plays. The camera work is vibrant and energetic, bringing us into intimate close-ups with the characters but also with the scripts the censor reads, infusing each with life and potential. Street scenes of Tsubaki on his way to each meeting are lively and capture the air of excitement that still hangs over parts of Tokyo's Asakusa even today. But it is the interplay between the tough-as-nails Sakisaka and the green though remarkably optimistic Tsubaki that drives this film forward, allowing it to become a complex allegory for opposing political opinions about nationalism, sacrifice, and the validity of art, entertainment, and the human spirit's potential to transcend temporary crises; thus to maintain sight of the enduring fundamentals of the human community.

The governmental apparatus of regulation, as represented by Sakisaka's stoney-faced insistence on his inability to 'comprehend humour', here becomes a component of the absurdity of a totalitarian system impervious to compassion and insensitive to the simple needs of its citizenry—and yet the film presents this undeniably apt critique in a disarmingly off-hand way that makes its own politics seem perfectly natural, precisely by having Tsubaki innocently co-opt Sakisaka into the process of rewriting the play perpetually on the verge of being banned. It is the very seriousness with which Yakusho has Sakisaka respond to every new draft and his righteous moral outrage at the young playwright's light-hearted treatment of his characters, even as he undergoes the inevitable transformation into a willing and supportive lover of theatre itself, that provide so much of the humour here, and give the historical critique such a biting edge. And make no mistake, there is indeed considerable historical critique beneath the otherwise 'naïve' surface of this sophisticated film. Without a doubt, Warai no daigaku is fully aware of the true seriousness of war-time censorship and the devastating effects it had on the lives and work of so many playwrights and theatre troupes in the twenty years before the end of the war. It is precisely this awareness that allows its humour to reach its target so efficiently, skewering the bureaucratic imperative to self-importance so accurately.

In contrast to the light though ultimately profound Warai no daigaku, the made-for-television Bokutachi no sensō (Our War, 2005, Kaneko Fumiki) presents a surprisingly effective drama about a young surfer, Ojima Kenta, (Moriyama Mirai) who, through an electrical storm in 2005, switches places with a young soldier, Ishiwa Goichi (also played by Moriyama), plucked from the early summer of 1945. The two are identical, and identically confused by their sudden transformations. As they struggle with the strange and frightening times in which they each find themselves, they grow as men and human beings, coming to realise much about the situations that had created them, and their roles in their own lives and history. Here it is history that emerges as larger than life and more important than the lives which create it; this is the fundamental message of this film, that each individual life is important in so far as it contributes something to the greater social processes that contain it. This is the lesson which Ojima and Ishiwa both learn, and which allows them to make sense of the fates which the film's ending brings to them.

This ending may be ambiguous in terms of the fates of each character (one dies, one returns to his proper time, but which is which is purposely left vague), but it is absolutely unambiguous in terms of the acceptance of those fates which each character manifests, and unambiguous in terms of its stance vis à vis the events and sacrifices of 1945—the present has not lived up to them, the film-makers resolutely proclaim, in having become seduced and obsessed by wealth, comfort, and convenience. This point is abundantly clear in the explicit reactions of Ishiwa, upon awakening in modern-day Tsukuba, and seeing the various English-language shop signs from his hospital window: 'Is this America?' he asks in bewilderment. Later on, seeing a group of youths callously and casually knock over an elderly woman, his indignation is palpable, as he declares that it was to build 'this world!' that so many had sacrificed and died so long before. The Ojima-character, too, comes to realise the necessity of self-sacrifice in order to permit the future birth of his girlfriend, Minami (Ueno Sari), and so discovers his place in history, transforming himself in the process from a self-serving, ungrateful youth, into a man capable of living for others even as he willingly accepts his own destruction. But this is the aim of the film—to reinforce in its viewers the validity, indeed, even the necessity, of self-sacrifice, to instil in those viewers a desire to live up to the sacrifices of previous generations who, the filmmakers believe they have demonstrated, have given everything to make the present possible.

But it is the rationale behind this reinforcement of the validity of self-sacrifice that is most questionable here, coming as it apparently does to impress upon the viewers that through their daily lives, they may still find many and adequate opportunity to prove themselves. And where, then, do these opportunities arise? This the film does not answer explicitly—but the early and repeated listing of the film's sponsors (including Kao, Toyota, Asahi Beer, and DoCoMo, whose slogans all appear before, more frequently, and even more prominently than even the names of the performers, producers, or director) certainly makes clear the role of corporate Japan in setting the political agenda for the work.

While Warai no daigaku is implicitly anti-war in demonstrating the absolute waste of talent and human potential it entails—and the absurdity of governmental restrictions it necessitates—Bokutachi no sensō is far more insidious in its acceptance of war as an inevitable component of development, social, historical, and personal, and sacrifice as a requisite for maturity and responsibility. The film's highlighting of the training of kamikaze fighters and their presentation as idealistic, dedicated, and willing to give their lives for even the slightest possibility of benefit for their nation foregrounds the film's politics as conservative and indeed manipulative—the film is very successful at placing the 'blame' for the necessity of suicide fighters onto the marauding presence of enemy vessels in Japanese coastal waters, thus shifting responsibility for Japan's war-time situation onto factors extrinsic to Japanese actions. That is, this film partakes of a perpetuation of the conception of Japan-as-victim during the Pacific War, even while it demonstrates the fanatical devotion of war-time youth for the national cause.

Of course Bokutachi no sensō is certainly not alone in its presentation of a 'victim Japan', and this presentation is far from new. Isao Takahata's Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), for example, demonstrates the tremendous pathos inherent in Japan's wartime experiences, while also demonstrating a politically motivated attitude in their representation. Hotaru, while one of the most heartbreaking films ever made, is also one of the most historically revisionist, presenting, as does Bokutachi no sensō, Japan as purely a 'victim nation' in the Pacific War. A generation of Japanese youth have grown to maturity with this film and its attitude. That it is anti-war is undeniable, but so too is the notion that together with Japan's hesitation fully to account for war-time events in historically accurate ways, this film works to reinforce a type of historical blindness exploitable by politically astute members of Japan's re-emerging 'right wing'. The films under review here react or play into this re-emergence in different ways, but both are aware of it. This awareness is inevitable, of course, because after all history—even for those who may seek to deny it—remains effective as a shadow, obstacle, or monument for the present. It is with the construction of the present that these films deal, and the reconfiguration of the past as a component of that construction. That both are able, coherently and persuasively, to present diametrically opposite attitudes to that past, is testament to the skill of the film-makers, but also to the complexity of the ongoing evolution of Japan's stance in relation to its past.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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