Review: Shusenjo

In the press synopsis for his documentary, American director Miki Dezaki calls the comfort women issue “perhaps Japan’s most contentious present-day diplomatic quandary,” which is true to an extent but misleading in terms of scale. The issue of the comfort women, the euphemism used by the Japanese military to describe women who sexually serviced soldiers at officially sanctioned brothels during World War II, needs to be approached from the standpoint of overall responsibility for the Pacific War, which remains to this day unsettled in Japan while it has been mostly decided elsewhere. Though Japan was not alone in committing atrocities against civilian populations during that conflict, its acknowledgement of Japan’s primary role in instigating the war for purposes of territorial expansion has shifted over the years. The comfort women issue is simply one part of this problem.

Dezaki’s main contribution to a better understanding of the issue is his insistence that it is politically fraught. He sees it, right now anyway, as a no-holds-barred battle between ideologies in Japan, between purist right-wingers who can’t tolerate the thought that their fathers and grandfathers did something so terrible as kidnap young girls, mainly from colonial Korea but also from Japan and other countries, and force them into prostitution, and more cosmopolitan left-wingers who reflexively renounce anything the right wing stands for. Because of his unique position as a filmmaker—a Japanese-American who can gain interviews with both sides—he’s able to delve more deeply into the self-styled logic that each side brings to the argument, and since he himself obviously aligns with the non-revisionist side, he takes special care in allowing the conservative side to state their positions and their grievances.

Dezaki thus avoids many of the polemical traps that others who have tackled the subject tend to fall into. And his thoroughness is admirable, as he looks at not only the history of the “narrative” of the comfort women issue, but its context in the burgeoning conservative movement exemplified by the post-millennial rise of Shinzo Abe and his supporters in the right wing lobbying group Nippon Kaigi. The problem here is that Nippon Kaigi, as put forth in many Western accounts of their significance, is rendered almost monolithic, when in actuality it has had little effect on the public imagination. Interviews with popular right wing celebrities like Kent Gilbert and Yoshiko Sakurai (who figures prominently in the trailer but doesn’t get much screen time) prove that the right wing is obsessed with certain statistics that only bolster their case in isolation. It doesn’t take much pushback from the left wing (or acacemic-with-no-ideological-axes-to-grind) pundits interviewed to tear down their arguments, which, in the end, points up the film’s main drawback.

It’s been the strategy of the revisionists (a term Sakurai, for one, denies, as if the right wing version of the war is the one everyone has accepted) to limit their argument to facts that can be documentarily proven, because they believe, somewhat naively, that people only trust stuff that’s written down. But history is also about experience and human nature and our understanding of how those things work over time. Though there is plenty of documentary evidence showing that the comfort women were coerced and fooled by the authorities at the time, both Japanese and Korean, the main reason most believe the few surviving sex slaves is that there is no reason not to believe them. We understand what men do during war and despite specious claims that the comfort station system was set up by private vendors and all the women were “professional” prostitutes, there was nothing that happened during the war years that was not overseen by the Japanese military authorities. More to the point, even so-called professional prostitutes were essentially enslaved since, like the soldiers they serviced, they had no choice in the matter. The point is that the right wing, constitutionally repulsed by the whole sexual element involved and willfully ignorant of how men feel they can treat women any way they like, especially under extreme circumstances like a war, tries to use circumscribed logic to deny Japan’s responsibilities when, in truth, war creates monsters. This is the aspect of the comfort women issue that was not addressed in Shusenjo, and I don’t think it’s because it’s too nuanced or difficult to understand. It’s just that the reactionary side of the argument has managed to control how that argument is framed.

In English and Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114). Special English and Japanese subtitled version screened Friday evenings.

Shusenjo home page in Japanese and in English.

photo (c) No Man Productions LLC

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