Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Yoji Yamada's Kabei (Our Mother) explores repression and militarization during wartime Japan

Since the Koizumi administration (2001-2006), LDP-run Japanese governments have enthusiastically moved towards increasing political repression (especially freedom of expression), concomitantly with remilitarization (yesterday the Japanese government discarded a half-century ban on the export of weapons). These shifts, reminiscent  of 1930's and early 1940's Japan, have not only triggered concerns in other Asian countries, but has also in Japan: bringing to the surface memories of the build-up to Japan's last war.

This illuminating interview,"YOJI YAMADA: Voice of dissent revives forgotten war memories," by Mark Schilling with an antiwar filmmaker  (published at JT in 2008) reflects these concerns.  (Yamada is renowned in Japan for his 1969-96 film series Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (Tora-san) that follows the romantic ups and downs of a goodhearted peddler;  at a deeper level, the series is an exploration of postwar Japanese society from the perspective of ordinary people living on the economic margins.)  Kabei takes a similar perspective at an earlier time period: exploring how prewar repression and militarization affected the lives of ordinary Japanese individuals and their families.

(Yoji Yamada.Photo: Yoshiaki Miura)

...Based on a memoir by Teruyo Nogami, a script supervisor for Akira Kurosawa for more than four decades, "Kaabee" is a family drama set in Tokyo in 1940-41, when war clouds were darkening and freedom of expression was vanishing.

In the opening scene the father, a scholar of German literature, is arrested on the charge of shisohan (a"thought" crime).

The mother, played by Sayuri Yoshinaga, then has to raise her two young daughters, Teruyo and Hatsuko, on her own, though her art-student sister (Reiko Dan) and her husband's bumbling-but-dedicated former student (Tadanobu Asano) rally to her side.

"Kaabee" is set in the early 1940s, but its themes, including the suppression of dissent, still have relevance today. Was that your main reason for wanting to make this film?

What attracted me first was the childhood memoir by Teruyo Nogami. Her father was actually arrested under the Peace Preservation Law (which had the goal of clamping down on communists, labor activists and opponents of Japan's militarism) and spent time in jail. That's what Japan was like in 1940 and 1941, but Japanese today don't know this. I wanted to rekindle their memories. Those were frightening times, when Japan started the Pacific War with an unstoppable wave.

Can we say the same frightening, out-of-control forces that started that war are absent from Japan today? In 1945 we made what was supposed to be a strong commitment to peace. But now (certain forces) are trying to change the "peace Constitution."

Japan should have remained the one country in the world with no military and a prohibition against war (in the Constitution). Now Japan is going along with America and the Bush administration. I have doubts about whether that's right.

I imagine that the audience in Berlin will understand this theme.

Yes, in the 1930s and 1940s Germany went through similar experiences. We were both fascist countries. It must have been scary to oppose Hitler at that time, so I think the German audience will understand that aspect.

I've seen a lot of Japanese movies about the war, but yours is something different — you focus on one family instead of combatants.

There aren't many films about that specific time. The movies made in the 1940s had to pass military censors, so they don't express any reality. The movies made after 1945 are also lacking in that they don't portray the lives of ordinary people during wartime...

What message would you like people to take away from the film?

When the war ended in 1945, Japan was the loser and there was an international trial. Then (former Prime Minister Hideki) Tojo and other Class-A war criminals were hanged. But in Japan the police had been rounding up people who were opposed to the war and killing them without trial. About 60,000 people were arrested.

In Germany, those who cooperated with the Nazis were tried in German courts, separately from the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In Japan we didn't have that. The husband in "Kaabee" is basically killed by the police, but the killers weren't put on trial. They brazenly returned to the police force.

Japan made a wonderful postwar Constitution, but no amends have been made for past wrongs. In Germany, the Nazi collaborators were made to pay for what they did; in Japan, a war criminal could became prime minister, such as Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of our recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe. There's something strange about that...
The rest of this important interview at the above link.

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