This is the first part of “Films of 1949” series.
My father was only seven or eight years old when this incident took place. It was the year 1946, several months after the surrender of Japan. The nation was in shambles, people were scared of “invaders”, brutal enemies they had learned to hate. They didn’t know what to expect, or rather what to fear, but, little by little, they started to see the reality of unconditional surrender. Almost everyday, military planes flew over the town to somewhere north. They were not B-29s anymore. They were cargo planes. Over the strangely quiet landscape, leaving deafening noise behind, they flew low as if to survey the population of the losers. There was a railway station near the river, and long trains carrying American soldiers passed through the town once or twice a day. The railroad was along the river bank, until it hit the bend where it crossed the river. Soldiers were only visible from afar, because the trains never stopped at the station or anywhere near the town, just passing through. People were afraid of looking at Americans anyway.
One afternoon, the gunshot echoed in this sleepy town, and the train stopped near the station for the first time. Townspeople, fearing something amiss, slowly approached the train, but keeping the distance of at least 200 meters or so. The train stopped at the point where it could look down the riverbank. There was a old farmer standing near the track, crying, and some town officials and police constables were also present. They seemed all bewildered. American officers, with a translator, got off the train hurriedly, approached them, and tried to communicate for the first time. It turned out, one of the soldiers shot a cow on the riverbank from the deck of the running train. The cow belonged to the crying farmer, who had only two or three cows for his farming work. He let cows loose on the riverbank from time to time to let them munch on grass and have some rest. The soldier on the train saw it, thought it fun to do some hunting, took out his rifle and shot it.
Of course a gunshot echo alerted the officers on board, who ordered the train to stop. It took some time for all, including Japanese, to understand what had happened. The farmer was simply in despair, kneeling near the dead cow. This soldier must have been a good marksman, because it was a clean single shot through its head that killed it. Japanese was at loss, because they might ‘get hurt’, if they protest or complain. Victors could do anything they want, after all. But, then, something totally unexpected happened. American officers apologized. They were sincerely sorry for what happened and even tried to console the farmer. Townspeople were flabbergasted. Americans apologized for shooting a cow.
The train took off slowly after a while, leaving puzzled people and a dead cow behind.
Seeing off the leaving train, one of old men of the town, probably in his sixties, murmured to my father; “If this were a train of Japanese soldiers in China, the farmer would be dead by now.”
I always thought this story illustrates the state of mind of Japanese at the time of Occupation. I don’t know, but I really cannot tell if the murmur really meant to be admission of guilt or accusation against his fellow country men. Or, considering the fact that some Japanese did not consider abuse of power as an issue, was it meant to be some twisted display of slight chauvinism? How come did he even mention it anyway? All townspeople were so afraid. Is it because they knew exactly what happened to Chinese, Koreans and other Asians if they protest against Japanese soldiers?
It took considerable months and years for Japan to recompose itself after the surrender. As for cinema, havoc in censorship caused the industry to readjust, but sometime around 1949, it started to regain the momentum it once had in thirties.
At the same time, it could not be the same as it used to. There were layers of silent whirl of mixed states of minds. Guilty conscience, displaced anger, uncomfortable self denial, ambivalent relief and indignant regret.
In coming weeks, I will examine a group of Japanese films released in 1949.
The films to be examined are:
Here’s to the Girls/Ojosan Kanpai, (March 9, 1949, お嬢さん乾杯, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
The Quiet Duel (March 13, 1948, 静かなる決闘, Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Beni Imada Kiezu (April 20, 1949, 朱唇いまだ消えず, Dir. Minoru Shibuya)
Ningen Moyo (June 14, 1949, 人間模様, Dir. Kon Ichikawa)
The Green Mountains (July 19 1949, 青い山脈, Dir. Tadashi Imai)
Ginza Kankan Girl (August 16 1949, 銀座カンカン娘, Dir. Kouji Shima)
Late Spring (September 13 1949, 晩春 DIr. Yasujiro Ozu)
Stray Dog (October 17 1949, 野良犬, Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
A Broken Drum (December 1, 1949, 破れ太鼓, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
Good Bye (June 29, 1949, グッドバイ, Dir. Koji Shima)