Thursday, February 21, 2008

REVIEW: The Ants - Kaoru Ikeya (2006)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

On August 15th, 1945 Emperor Hirohito gave a radio address to the Japanese people informing them of Japan’s surrender and counseled his nation to “bear the unbearable”. The Japanese agreed to the Potsdam Declaration which outlined the elimination of those in power who “deceived and misled” the Japanese people into pursuing a path of world conquest, that Japanese sovereignty would be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, and that all troops once having been completely disarmed were to be allowed to return home… end of story. That is the official line of history, but the construct of history is only that: a construct. It only takes one man like war veteran Waichi Okumura to challenge the official account of these events and in Kaoru Ikeya’s 2006 documentary “The Ants” we see him and his fellow veterans try and have their own version of what occurred after August 15th, 1945 acknowledged by the Japanese government.

Okumura, only 20 years old at the end of WW2, was one of 2,600 Japanese soldiers from the 1st Imperial Army who were ordered to remain in the Chinese province of Shanxi and fight alongside The Chinese Nationalist Forces against Mao Zedong. From 1945 to 1948 550 of these young men were killed in combat while more than 700, including Okumura, were captured and imprisoned by Communist forces. Upon his return to Japan in 1954 he was met with silence and derision, in fact Okumura discovered that he’d been discharged from the Japanese army while he was still in active duty in China. To this day the Japanese government has held the official view that these soldiers were mercenaries, that they remained in China of their own free will and that they weren’t the responsibility of the Japanese military. Ikeya follows the veterans of Shanxi, now a group of stooped old men in their 80’s and 90’s, as they appeal to the Tokyo High Court for recognition that they were ordered to stay on and fight and Okumura, still spry at 80 years of age, as he travels back to China to uncover the details of the back room dealings between Japanese General Raishiro Sumida and Chinese General Yan Xishan that would have Okumura and his fellow 1st army troops help in staving off the Communist threat in exchange for the protection of Sumida who was classified as a Class A war criminal.

While Germany has been more than contrite for its role in the horrors of WW2 Japan has always had a contradictory track record when it comes to its crimes (former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, apologizing for the damage inflicted by Imperial aggression while members of his ruling LDP party made annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine where the bodies of Class A war criminals are enshrined), so while I found the revelation of Japanese troops fighting on in mainland China after the war surprising rather than shocking it didn’t blunt the sadness and outrage I felt listening to the stories told to Okumura by Chinese who continued to suffer under the tyrannical rule of his remaining Japanese comrades, nor did it prevent my heart going out to Okumura who shows genuine remorse as he admits to the grisly training that he underwent that turned him into a “devil”. By maintaining his objectivity and empathy throughout “The Ants” Ikeya makes scenes like Okumura finally uncovering documents that clearly state soldiers were ordered to stay in Shanxi to promote the Imperial agenda moments of triumph not only for Okumura himself, but for us in the audience as well.

The bravery of both Okumura and Ikeya in producing this documentary is laudable, but one has to question if they even had a choice. As Okumura states near the end of the film he’s “in a race against time” to have what happened in Shanxi acknowledged. I would think that Okumura can rest a bit knowing that his truth has been captured on film to challenge what’s written in the history books.

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