When I first moved to Japan in 2004, I spent a lot of time at the movies. I was working for Nova, living in Toyohashi (a city near Hamamatsu, but smaller) and I'd ride my bike to AMC, the giant multi-story movie/entertainment complex there- which is still one of the nice features of Toyohashi.
Since I've been back, movie-going hasn't been a huge priority. But today I went downtown to have some film developed and on a whim decided to see Flags of Our Fathers, the Clint Eastwood war movie about the raisin of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima.
And I was the only whitey in the theater. You may not know this, but Flags of Our Fathers has been a pretty big hit here in Japan, even if it features a lot of 1940s style language about "little bastards" and "Japs." Plus the few images of Japanese soldiers consist mostly of them charging marine foxholes and getting bayoneted for their troubles.
Especially cringeworthy for me was a scene just before the invasion where Ira Hayes (the film's emotional center and conscience, movingly played by Adam Beach) produces some photos of Japanese soldiers beheading their American prisoners with katana.
I know such things- and worse- happened. That could've been an uncle or great-uncle of mine in that picture, and one of my student's grandfather doing the chopping.
Fortunately, neither is true, but you never know. And a lot of audience members there with me must've lost family, must know stories of those days. There were a lot of people there. The theater was packed, which came as a complete surprise to me.
So I wonder what all those people were feeling. I had virtually no emotional response to the violence... I guess I'm a bit jaded now after having seen so many war movies. But what about everyone else, watching a movie where they're depicted as an anonymous enemy. Did they feel regret? Shame? A prideful stirring deep inside? Outrage? Mild interest? Boredom? Annoyance at how many times I let out gas?
I have no idea what was going through the audience's minds. When I saw Saving Private Ryan, a girl behind me started bawling 5 minutes into the movie and never stopped. I know exactly what she was thinking.
Everyone was quiet throughout Flags. Never a sound.
Still, Flags isn't a rah-rah, pro-America kind of film. It deals with issues of heroism and the manipulation of ideals like patriotism. Cynical exploitation of three live men and at least that many dead ones involved in the raising of the flags on Iwo (the famous photograph actually depicts the second raising, but it was billed as the only flag raising), even if the goal of getting the war over with was honorable.
There's one super-disgusting scene where the marines investigate muffled explosions from caves on Suribachi and find that Japanese soldiers have been using their grenades to commit suicide. And later one of the Americans turns out to have been captured by the Japanese and killed in such a horrific way we don't get to see even his corpse... a true incident that was so shocking no one told the guy's mother the true story. Ever.
What it boils down to, though is you don't expect to be in Japan as the lone American in a movie theater, watching a movie where a lot of American soldiers get killed by Japanese soldiers, who are in turn wiped out by said Americans. Life sweeps you along into strange situations sometimes, giving you the chance to step outside yourself if you take the opportunity.
I'd definitely love to talk to someone here about what they think about it. I've met people who have memories of the war, which is usually called either the Second World War or the Pacific War here. One of my students had an older brother who was a pilot instructor for the Imperial Japanese Air Force... I believe he survived the war. Another student showed me faded scars on his arm from burns he sustained as a toddler during a bombing raid. And another told me her experiences of having candy tossed to her by huge, bewildering American soldiers in the war's aftermath.
The movie's coda was a preview of Letters from Iwo Jima, starring Watanabe Ken.
Leave it to an intelligent and thoughtful guy like Clint Eastwood to bring balance to the story by also shooting it from the Japanese viewpoint. Clint is that kind of guy. I'm sure he'd also tell me I'm wrong about Flags being a war picture- it's really a picture about the relationship of fathers and sons.
Letters should be a fascinating film... other than some brief sequences in blockbuster epics like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Midway, where we see some generals and admirals, we haven't had a war movie told from the Japanese side.
That's still a huge mystery for us, I think. I'm a WWII buff and I know next to nothing about Japanese soldiers. Stuff on Germans is much easier to find, even sympathetic stuff.
Watanabe Ken is a damn fine actor, by the way. He's very popular here, where his success in Hollywood films is a source of pride. And also his English skills. But this one I'll probably see on DVD where I can read the subtitles. There won't be any here in Japan where the audience can actually understand Japanese!