Shohei Imamura’s brilliant, devastating television documentary In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (Mikikan-hei o otte: Tai-hen) concludes a pair of works begun the previous year with In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia. (Another documentary, Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home, 1973, functions as a coda to the two films.) The second film consists of the unscripted conversation of three middle-aged men, two of them doctors and the other a farm worker, as they drink and provide personal background, discuss their entrance into the Second World War and their own experience of war and the Japanese military, and explain why they did not return to Japan once the war was over. The setting is the riverfront home of one of them. Imamura, himself, intermittently contributes (for our ears only) his sparse voiceover. He interferes, then, as little as possible.
The most bracing part of the conversation is the laborer’s—Fujita’s—blind allegiance to Japan’s emperor and his rationalization for obedience to horrific military orders. Without a twinge of regret Fujita recounts igniting a hole he had forced 30,000 Chinese children to dig and enter before dousing it with gasoline. Fujita thus burned alive these people. He now explains he had to do this because if he had disobeyed the order to do so he, himself, would have been shot.
On the other hand, one of the other men, Toshida, an unlicensed doctor who serves the poor, lambasts the Japanese emperor, military and war effort. He adds that his participation in the war ruined his life.
The third man, Dr. Nakayama, greedy and selfish, holds himself aloof from humanity. He is the only one wearing a starched white shirt; he alone smokes cigarettes.
This is a stinging, fascinating 45 minutes.
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