For the Love of Robots

From Guillermo del Toro’s Sketchbook (via.film.com)

Japanese love robots. It is a nation of AIBO (remember the Sony dog robots?), ASIMO and NAO. Japanese literally created thousands of robot animes, starting from ASTRO BOY in 1950s. Now, it was foreseeable that Japanese fans of robots would be captivated by Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. And we are. There is a report of rather disappointing box office results from the opening weekend, but the reactions from its audience are exceptionally better. Twitter is filled with illustrations drawn by the fans of the film, some of which are simply amazing. As I have discussed before, Japanese consumed incredible amount of robot/monster-related action animes, TV shows and films in last fifty years. I am not a particularly into this genre like other hardcore fans, but still, have seen the share of these inspiring (and uninspiring) works. Guillermo del Toro is a self-admitted fan (otaku) of all these works, and his vast knowledge of the genre resonates with Japanese audience (including me). By the way, my personal favorite of del Toro’s work is still CRONOS (1993), a hypnotic horror fantasy film.

Early Wakamatsu’s Work Discovered

Kouji Wakamatsu (CATERPILLAR(2010), UNITED RED ARMY(2008)) died last October by car accident. His unfortunate, premature death has created the huge void in Japanese cinema industry today. One of his earliest works, OSORUBEKI ISAN, HADAKA NO KAGE (恐るべき遺産 裸の影, 1963) was discovered recently and screened at SHINDO KANETO FILM FESTIVAL last week. Its premiere was 50 years ago and it has never been screened since. The film, according to Chunichi Shinbun, is about a girl in Hiroshima, who lost her parents in atomic bomb and herself was exposed to nuclear radiation. The trailer shows the small segment from the film, which indicates the noticeable decay. I hope the film go wider circulation, just not to commemorate the artist, but to bring his immortal message to the younger generations today.

The Hoodlum Soldier (1965)

It’s the year 1943, near the northern border of Manchuria. The infantry division of Japanese Army stationed in the midst of this barren land, quietly waiting for Soviet invasion (which actually took place in August 1945). Arita, a wary 3-year private, was dodging any hint of death as much as possible. He hates Army. He hates Soldiers. He had intentionally franked the promotion exam, so that he wouldn’t have to order something horrible to the other soldiers. All he wanted was to go home. However, he was not a weakling nor an idealist. He was much more experienced, cunning and clever. He knew all the unpleasantness of the life in barracks, violent bullying, bloody punishment and incoherent command structures. He knew how to survive, not in the actual battle field, but in the barracks of abrasive Japanese Army. He knew how to be quiet. He could take unnecessary, sadistic beating from the superior, without flinching. He knew how to avoid troubles. Then, he was assigned to look after the new recruit fresh from Japan. Omiya was a hoodlum, a Yakuza bodyguard with zero tolerance to anything. Now, Arita had to really look after Omiya, otherwise he would be in trouble.

THE HOODLUM SOLDIER (HEITAI YAKUZA, 兵隊やくざ, 1965) was a vehicle for Shintaro Katsu, who had rose to movie stardom with ZATOICHI in the previous years. His small, plump figure, and big eyes with thick brows were not typical star assets, but he reminded us of someone all of us had known, a kid from the next block. You know, a kid you want to hang out with, never good in the school but most dependable after school, a lovable rascal who beats up bullies. In that sense, this film must have been refreshing for those who experienced the grim military life some twenty years earlier. Omiya (Katsu) beats up bullying, sadistic sergeants, breaks every bones of lynching mobs and makes love to a comfort woman reserved for the officers. None of this would have been possible without Arita’s intervention, blackmailing, lying and covering-up. From our ideals of today, these treatments are outrageous, especially patronizing view of comfort women. Yasuzo Masumura was never an idealist. He never even tried to be. As if Masumura were shooting this film with his tongue deeply in cheek, he scraped off every possible details of military, war or Manchuria and shows us the continuous bloody brawls and beatings. We can see snow-covered landscape was not from China but from Hokkaido. There is no artillery in sight, not a single hint of battles in this film. This film is a fantasy to fulfill those men’s long wishes. Beating up those sadistic sergeants and officers they had met in their youth.
In the books and writings by Japanese ex-soldiers, I always encounter their experience of being brutally bullied by superior officers. They were beyond the realm of discipline, but simply the acts of violence. Some young soldiers actually died from such brutal incidents. These strange, yet organized sociopaths were the part of machinery to drive such missions as Kamikaze or the Battles of Iwo-jima. Many of them survived the war and lived peacefully afterwards. Most of the victims wrote, if they ever meet those who did acts of incomprehensible brutalities today, they would beat them up. Some used the harsh words like, “if we find him, we will never let him live”. In EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (1987), many of ex-officers and ex-soldiers who were hunted down by Okuzaki were revealed to have changed their surnames. It is very rare for a Japanese to change his surname. They didn’t want to be found. They didn’t want to be hunted down. It is an admission of guilt by those who did questionable acts in the past. There were thousands of those aggressors living among us, hiding their past, when Masumura’s film was released. However, Masumura was never interested in prosecuting them, let alone making statements about human rights. He was more interested in solidarity, trust and bonds between these two characters in distress. He was more fascinated by physical movement of Shintaro Katsu on screen. In a sense, this is a typical buddy film whose characters are trying to survive impossible situation. That’s probably why the 8 more sequels to this original were produced and most of them were popular. Maybe the pain of the past was better forgotten, as long as they have survived, as this tale of fantasy could soothe the scar of youth. 
THE HOODLUM SOLDIER
(HEITAI YAKUZA, 兵隊やくざ, 1965)
Directed by Yasuzo Masumura
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Written by Yoriyoshi Arima, Ryuzo Kikushima
Starring Takahiro Tamura, Shinichi Katsu, Keiko Awaji
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