Japan has employed a strategy of forgetting war crimes instead of investigating them. Kazuo Hara’s famous documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On from 1987 is one of few that deals with the subject. The protagonist is a former soldier stationed in Asia in W.W.II, though he is mostly concerned about holding the Emperor responsible for the conditions offered the common Japanese soldier.
Therefore the documentary Riben Guizi by Minoru Matsui is a new and unique documentary. Its declared purpose is to shed light on war crimes committed by the Imperial Army and pass on the knowledge to future generations so that the crimes will never be repeated. Its long version includes 160 minutes of confessions from fourteen former soldiers who fought in China from 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, to 1945 when Japan was defeated. Interrupted only by short voiceover passages of general narration on how the war developed, you watch 160 minutes of confessions of gruesome actions committed against civilian Chinese, inhuman acts you can’t believe have happened. Gory films and violent animations pale beside their stories.
What mechanisms deprive individuals of their normal feelings of empathy and turn them into scrupulous killing machines? How can an otherwise normal person without reason burn a woman alive who has just given birth, or rape, kill, dismember and consume a person, or make lethal and painful medical experiments on healthy innocent individuals? Letting the fourteen former soldiers tell the details of their experiences and their mental transformation draws a picture of collective madness provoked by the terrors of war.
The testimonies are thematically structured so as to provide a gradual explanation of the personal developments experienced by the soldiers. They enrolled in the army either to avoid severe poverty or the shame of rejection. During basic military training, the new recruits were humiliated with the clear intention of nurturing immense hatred and an urge to move up through the ranks. At that time, many believed that the Emperor was descended from God, and they saw the Japanese race as superior and the Chinese as sub-humans. Each of them could recall their first killing in combat as a horrifying experience that crossed a human boundary, but apparently as soon as they had crossed this boundary, they underwent a mental transformation, and it not only became easier, but for some even joyful to kill. This – together with peer pressure (if you couldn’t kill or rape you were considered worthless) – motivated them to continue.
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