Friday, May 22, 2009

Within atrocity, a glimpse of humanity

War movies for those in Gen-X or younger are noted for their harsh realism, if not their moral ambiguity. Das Boot (1981), Platoon (1986), Casualties of War (1989), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) come to mind. I've seen hardened veterans of World War II, the Korean War, or Vietnam — towering men — mush into tears when confronted with a realistically unrelenting war film.

The octogenarian husband of an aunt of mine fought at Iwo Jima, on the American side. Though his memory is addled by Alzheimer's, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers spoke to him, and in a bittersweet way, he enjoyed it immensely.

But he, and other WWII vets I know, had no interest in seeing the film's counterpart, the wholly Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima, a film that can set my mother bawling.

No interest whatsoever. Six and a half decades ago might as well be last week: some have no desire to see or experience anything depicting the human side of the people who once tried so hard to kill them.

War is war, and for some people the intensity of that experience forever hardens their feelings. In December 1991, during the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, some people signed the USS Arizona Memorial guestbook with a question, asking why Japanese were allowed to visit. Half a century later.

But for other people, war is just war. While the experience was harrowing and horrific, the combatants were doing what they were told to do by government's that each thought they were doing the right thing, even if one (or both) were misguided.

I've never been in uniform, much less in war, so I can't even pretend to know what is involved with letting bygones be bygones. I can say that many Koreans are overreacting to right-wing Japanese politicians' glorifications of (or at least nods to) the Imperial past, but I don't really know what it would take to forgive those who broke into your home to grab the last bit of rice with which you were going to feed your family.

Mŏn halmŏni was never able to forgive Japanese soldiers who did that, though she was not just tolerant but downright friendly with Japanese who came to our home. But even if she'd lived another ninety-one years, there is no way in Heaven, on Earth, or in Hell she would ever forgive the North Koreans who killed her father and brothers, for the crime of being clergy.

Who forgives and who can't is what's on my mind as I read the Los Angeles Times report on a new sort-of documentary about the Imperial Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, China, during World War II. While City of Life and Death in no way denies the scope of the massacre — hundreds of thousands raped and/or killed by marauding Imperial soldiers — it does something few other movies on the subject do: It portrays the villains as human.

And that has raised eyebrows among some people:
Friends told her that the images in the Chinese-distributed drama, "City of Life and Death," would be brutal -- mass rapes, point-blank executions, public beheadings and victims buried alive.

But perhaps as disturbing to many filmgoers: Director Lu Chuan portrays Japanese soldiers as real people, with human flaws, some deeply conflicted over the murder and mayhem they inflict.

"My friends said go see it," Chen said. "It tells the same painful story, but from a different point of view."

Since its April release, a public uproar has ensued, with some viewers walking out, a few questioning the theater manager's patriotism.

Distributed by the state-run China Film Group and approved by the Communist Party -- after many of its most violent scenes were excised by censors -- the film has nonetheless drawn the ire of many bloggers. Lu has even received death threats.

Accustomed to Japanese soldiers being demonized as mindless murderers, many were unprepared for a more balanced rendering of human frailty.
Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass what bloggers think. If China is at the mercy of the Commentariat, they need to grow a pair. In Korea it's bad enough that a vocal fringe of "netizens" have policymakers' collective cojones in a virtual vice.

I say kudos to Lu Chuan for having the courage to point out that systematic atrocities are often the acts of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. In fact, that's an important lesson if we wish to curb or prevent future atrocities.

At the same time, it's important to stop seeing entire nationalities as evil. South Korea's then-President Kim Youngsam once invited the family of his "favorite teacher" from Japan to show his gratitude to that man. Though many in Kim Youngsam's generation had their own memories of "good Japanese" and "bad Japanese" and were able to make a distinction, a lot of younger people who had grown up with a black-and-white treatment of Korea's colonial past were honestly shocked. Some even questioned the president's patriotism.

Such a view is never conducive to a brighter future; I dare say it generally hurts the person seething with anger much more severely than it does the target of that person's animosity, or the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren who are now proxies for the feeble or deceased erstwhile enemy.

But Korea's experience, like Taiwan's, contains many more blotches of white than does China's. There were no "favorite teachers" among the Japanese who brutalized Nanjing. Maybe it's impossible to some to forgive, and maybe it's anathema for the tormented to even consider the human thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the tormenters.

I will never know. And maybe that's why I can see the movie.


  1. I like what Chris Rock said about the army in a syand up routinue of his I saw. To paraphase: lets the gays in the miltary, cause I ain't fighting.
    I often regret not joining the military and missing out of the comradery, adventure, and benefits. That being said, I am not really the kind of person who could kill people for the sake of the government's agenda. The poor men and women who died in the War for Oil, I feel so sorry for their souls and their families.
    WWII was a war that needed to be fought. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were none of our damn business. They were internal struggles by one people. How would we have liked it if some European power jumped the pond and helped the Confederacy win the American Civil War or bring it to a stalemate?

  2. nb,

    It was mighty kind of some of those European powers to help out during the Revolution as far as the thirteen colonies were concerned.

    However, take a gander at the mini-series, "John Adams," and you'll find that they weren't so great to deal with in the aftermath.

  3. A mini series on His Rotundity? Where can I find it?

  4. nb,

    It aired on HBO back in the states, but you can find it in numerous places on the web as a torrent. I was never a fan of the man while studying U.S. history, but seeing just how difficult life was back then for the odd man out member of the elite was quite eye-opening. Also, the time he spent away from his family really played havoc with their lives--there was no internet or telephones to reach out and touch someone back then. And while he may have led one son to become president, he did no real favors for another.

    The 7-hour mini-series did take a few historical liberties, but the overall production made up for them. The lead actors all won numerous awards for their work and the cinematography was excellent. Truly, a high point of American television back in 2008.


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