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.
On return to Japan after the war, after many had spent time in Siberian POW camps and Chinese prisons, no one was interested in getting them to retell their war experiences. Only in the recent years did they start to go public with their accounts. As one of the veterans says, “I am eighty, I will spend the rest of my days talking about it, bearing witness to the younger generations. That is all I can do to pay for my sins.”
You will certainly never forget these terrors after 160 minutes of intense bombardment. 160 minutes is a long time (there is also a 58-minute version), but one story after the other reveals what you never would have thought possible. All of the interviewees are very good speakers, good at detailing and visualising their accounts. Riben Guizi is also remarkable in the sense that it presents testimony from the aggressors, not the victims, a rarity in documentaries. All of this makes it a unique document that compensates for the low production quality owing to the unavailability of funds for the film. It was impossible to raise any funds in Japan due to the film’s controversial theme, which the Japanese authorities and media are still reluctant to talk about.
The producer of Riben Guizi, Ken’ichi Oguri, tells DOX about the rejections he encountered: “At an early stage in the production, we asked TV stations to consider broadcasting the film. NHK, Japan’s public service broadcaster, backed out saying, ‘The controversial nature of the subject prevents us from making any kind of commitment.’ The private television stations told us, ‘We have to worry about our ratings. Your documentary is out of the question for us.’ So we realized that our film was destined to find supporters and appreciation at film festivals abroad, which can in turn slowly heighten a domestic awareness of the film.”
Not only television was afraid of dealing with the topic. Other media have also completely ignored the film. Ken’ichi Oguri says: “We were taken aback that the Japanese media never even covered the fact that the film was invited to the Berlin Film Festival.”
Riben Guizi will enjoy a two-week cinema release at the Image Forum theatre in Shibuya in downtown Tokyo, starting in December 2001. Ken’ichi Oguri is optimistic about the screening: “We remain hopeful that after the release, an awareness of the film will gradually spread throughout Japan.”