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In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (1971)
"Mikikan-hei o otte: Tai-hen" (original title)

 |  Documentary  |  1971 (Japan)
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1971 (Japan)  »

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Following the Unreturned Soldier: Thailand  »

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Part 2 of Imamura's quest for Japanese soldiers who stayed behind after the war
20 November 2012 | by (Bronx, NY) – See all my reviews

IN SEARCH OF THE RETURNED SOLDIERS IN THAILAND is the second part of a two-part documentary on the subject of Japanese soldiers who stayed behind after World War II and never returned to Japan. The first part was IN SEARCH OF THE RETURNED SOLDIERS IN MALAYSIA and spent an inordinate amount of time on the "search" portion of it. (I've reviewed both parts on IMDb.) This one cuts to the chase and engages in a lengthy interview with three former soldiers who have been gathered together and interviewed all at once over the course of a long day, in which much alcohol is consumed. Both films were 50 minutes long and were made by noted Japanese director Shohei Imamura (THE EEL) and shown as part of a series of documentaries by him that ran in November 2012 at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

Here we meet the three at the house of one of them, Mr. Toshida, if I recall correctly, who lives on the riverfront and works as an unlicensed doctor serving the poor in this section of Thailand (I'm not sure that the town or region were ever identified). He is joined by Mr. Fujita, whose current occupation may or may not have been given, and Mr. Nakayama, also a doctor, but a licensed one in a white shirt and tie who serves a more affluent clientele. Mr. Toshida came from a humble working class background in Osaka and, if you ask me, shows the most common sense of the three. He is very critical of Japan, the Emperor, and the war effort and calls the whole enterprise "stupid," with scathing criticism of the officers who led them. At one point, he insists the Emperor is just as flawed as they are and Mr. Nakayama leaves the room, clearly uncomfortable at the thought of guilt by association for insulting the Emperor and worried that the film crew from Japan has come to take them away. (Nakayama says very little during the course of the film.)

Mr. Fujita's accounts of the war are the most shocking of the three. He recounts atrocities that he himself committed, including the burning alive of 30,000 people (presumably in Burma where he served) by forcing them to dig a hole and then filling the hole with gasoline, forcing the people into it and then blowing it up. He says he would have been killed if he hadn't done it. (Personally, I'd rather die than live with the guilt of destroying 30,000 innocent lives.) He says he and his men would "gladly have killed women and children if those were our orders" and then relates how he would count to three before splitting women and children in half. But then he describes how stupid his officers were for sending him and his men to certain death in battle and relates how he personally shot officers in the back. If he was so willing to kill his own officers for giving bad orders, why didn't he kill them when they ordered him to burn 30,000 souls alive or when they ordered him to split women and children in half? If Imamura asked this question, it's not in the finished cut. Fujita goes on to say that if Japan called on him to fight again he would. It seems to me that this man was an unrepentant war criminal and his ability to live free in Thailand for 26 years after the end of the war (as of the filming date of this documentary) meant that justice was never done.

Mr. Toshida insists that the Japanese should have been allies with the Chinese and fought together against the Americans and Soviets. Even though he's critical of the Japanese war effort, he still sees my country, the U.S., as the enemy. What I took away from this is how the brutalization of Japanese soldiers by the army's officer class left these men brainwashed, to varying degrees, even 26 years after the war. I can only take comfort in knowing that these men are all, in all likelihood, dead by now and getting their just desserts in the next life. Mr. Toshida, at least, found a way of working through his guilt and helping the people he and his fellow soldiers once so cruelly oppressed. The three men sing a war song at one point about sacrificing their lives for the Emperor. Imamura does appear humbled at times by the horrors of what he's hearing about Japanese behavior during the war, but he says very little.

This makes a good companion film to "Japanese DEVILS" (2001), a two-and-a-half-hour documentary in which 14 Japanese veterans of the war in China were told by the interviewer not to tell what they saw or heard, but only what they themselves did. I don't know of any more incisive or comprehensive filmed record of testimonials of Japanese atrocities in World War II.

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