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Famed filmmaker tracks down former Japanese soldiers in Malaysia
This documentary was shown under the title, IN SEARCH OF THE UNRETURNED SOLDIERS IN MALAYSIA, as part of a series of documentaries by Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura (VENGEANCE IS MINE) that was shown in November 2012 at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. It is 50 minutes long and was followed by a second part, entitled IN SEARCH OF THE UNRETURNED SOLDIERS IN THAILAND. Both deal with the subject of Japanese soldiers who stayed behind in Asia when World War II ended and blended into the landscape, usually changing their names and marrying local women. Part One, about Malaysia and Singapore, takes its title somewhat literally and follows Imamura for much of the film's running time as he does the detective work, actively searching for former Japanese soldiers living under assumed names and following several cold leads and going on wild goose chases. He is assisted by a local man named Mr. Won, who speaks Japanese. Since I desperately wanted to hear what former Japanese soldiers had to say about why they stayed behind, I wondered what the point of all the searching was and why Imamura didn't just cut to the actual interviews. But the process of the search yielded its own dramatic logic as manifested in a scene where Imamura interviews Mr. Won himself about what he had witnessed during the war. We hear Mr. Won's harrowing account, told quite dispassionately and filmed at the actual locale, of a massacre outside the Cathay Hotel in which the Japanese army rounded up 6000 people, including English-speakers and Chinese, and slaughtered them all, beheading many. Mr. Won describes how friends of his were killed in the massacre. I had not heard of this incident before. (I'm assuming it's the Cathay Hotel in Malaysia where the massacre took place, although as I watched the film, I thought they were still in Singapore when Mr. Won begins telling about it.)
One former soldier is located and briefly interviewed, describing how he joined the Malay Communist army after the war and continued to fight in raids on American camps and such, before he eventually rejoined society. He insists many former soldiers continue to live in the mountains with the Communists. He sounds remarkably unrepentant.
Imamura eventually finds a former Japanese soldier living in a rural village in Malaysia under the name A-Lee and working at a steel plant and raising a large family with a local woman whom he has married. Imamura conducts a long interview with A-Lee, who describes his conversion to Islam after being persecuted by the locals (quite justly, if you ask me) and taken in hand by a Muslim minister who showed him kindness. Islam saved his life, he insists, and he spends much of the interview describing the virtues of living one's life by the tenets of the Koran and contrasting those virtues with the rather materialistic nature of the Japanese. He criticizes the lack of religious or spiritual devotion among the Japanese. He does not reveal much about his activities during the war or any atrocities he may have committed personally, saying only how much the Malays hated the Japanese.
The film is shot with a hand-held camera (16mm, I presume) and portable sound recording equipment and shot frequently in dark interiors. It's not easy on the eyes or ears, to say the least, and the digital video presentation I sat through at Anthology didn't do the original film any favors. Still, it was worth it to hear Mr. Won's eyewitness account of the massacre and to hear A-Lee work out his guilt by plunging into Islam with the same fervent devotion he once showed to the Japanese Emperor. One god has clearly displaced the other.
The follow-up film about "unreturned" soldiers in Thailand cuts right to the interviews with a trio of former soldiers and doesn't get distracted by the "search." That film is also reviewed on this site.
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