Wednesday, October 21, 2009

JAPAN AND KOREA – WORLD WAR II STILL RUNS DEEP

Last night’s films, depending on who you are, was perhaps a step forward for one country and a step backwards for the other. It is hard to say without truly knowing what the filmmakers were saying beneath the surface of their personal angst or above the surface of their cinematic message.

Directed by Yoji Yamada, KABEI: OUR MOTHER, follows the trials and tribulations of a mother and her family, during World War II. The peaceful life of the Nogami family spirals out of control when the patriarch of the family Shigeru is arrested and imprisoned for voicing his opinion against government policy in which Japan’s invasion and subsequent plan to destroy China is not as the government says an “Incident” but to the educated Shigeru a “War.”

As the country plummets into war…I mean an incidence with China, policing of the Japanese people becomes more invasive, groups of citizens label anyone that chooses not to donate their jewelry to the government, stop wearing fancy clothing or essentially stop having fun in their lives, were labeled as traitors.

The attitude is similar to what happened during the Tokugawa period of Japan when after the death of shogun Ienari, whose reign of power was considered an era of pleasure and excess, the new Chief Counselor Mizuno Tadakuni (1793—1851) initiated the Tempo Reforms.

These reforms were aimed at tightening moral standards and eliminating frivolous and wasteful activities like festivals, kabuki and noh theaters, fireworks, private prostitution, pictures, actors and all other evil luxuries. Mizuno’s plans were rejected by the country’s daimyos and Soshun was exiled until death.

Based on the film, the pervasive attitude of the Japanese population during 1940 was the belief that Japan would essentially take over the world, starting with China then proceeding to take out the United States, Europe and then take down Japan’s ally Germany.

The film then follows the Nogamis as their lives need to adjust with each major event (bombing of Pearl Harbor, bombing of Hiroshima) that pushed Japan almost to the brink of world domination but in reality led to their utter defeat.

Yet one gets the sense that director Yamada agrees with Nogami as wife/mother Kayo (Sayuri Yoshinaga), her two children and Shigeru’s ex-student Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano) struggle to deal with Shigeru wasting away in prison, the shortages of food and Kayo's father disowning her for refusing to denounce Shigeru as her husband.

I was a bit confused about the ending. Maybe it was in the translation (as I noticed several translations seemed a bit off) or a nuance in Japanese culture. But the last line of dialogue in reference to Kayo’s last words to her daughter was rather unclear to me.

The daughter tells her mother that when the mother dies she can finally be with her husband Shigeru. However, the mother says that she does not want to be with him and that she would rather have Shigeru stay near home (i.e. be close to the family on Earth).

If someone could post a comment and let me know what this really means, or if the translation was wrong, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

During the hey day of Korean cinema, and even in many South Korean martial arts films of the 1970s, stories evolved around the Japanese occupation of Korea prior to the Korean War and the struggles of Korean freedom fighters taking on Japanese soldiers.

Kim Doo-han was one of those memorable real life heroes who bravely opposed then fought the Japanese during the time period. He also went on to help the Americans fight the N. Koreans and Communist Chinese during the Korean War.

Set in 1937, during Japan-occupied Korea, MODERN BOY is about a young wealthy, handsome and envied Korean “Modern Boy” Hae-Myung (Park Hai-il) who works for the Japanese. His life is turned upside down after he falls in love with mysterious nightclub singer Laura (Kim Hye-su), a Korean independence fighter that tries to blow him up with a lunchbox meal.

Angered by her pseudo-love, yet transfixed with her beauty, Mae-Hyung begins a love-hate obsessed pursuit and search to find this women and get some answers.

However, sometimes it is best not to know all the answers but to try understand the questions.

It all comes down the mysterious “freedom fighter” Terror Lee, a man Hae-Myung needs to find as he is the only link he knows to finding Laura. The only link to finding the unknown Terror Lee is he will be the one that can fit into a certain custom made suit.

So as Hae-Myung questions become increasingly complex, the answers strangely become more clear as he finds himself in some really deep fecal matter that not only stinks but if he is too close to the flame of love he will explode.

At the end of the evening, it seems both films were somewhat similar in that they both did not shed a positive light on Japan between 1937 – 1945. Perhaps with more of these kinds of subtle reminders of what Japan was like during those times, maybe Asia as a whole will become more like brothers than enemies.

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