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Japanese Devils shed light on a dark past

Archival photo
Japan and China fought a brutal war from 1931 to 1945  

By Masato Kajimoto

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- When independent filmmaker Minoru Matsui came up with an idea to document Japan's former Imperial Army soldiers some eight years ago, he couldn't find a sponsor.

When he took up his camera with no financial assistance and started filming three years ago, not one TV station or production company showed any interest.

When he put his documentary on the screen at eight community centers across Japan while rolling the film himself, Matsui was drawing small crowds.

But an entry into the Berlin Film Festival turned things around.

Matsui's effort was praised by large festival audiences who saw for themselves the courage of the film's Japanese veterans who gave appalling accounts of the atrocities they personally committed during the 15 years of Sino-Japanese War.

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The film's success in Berlin sparked an interest from the Japanese media and a tiny theater in Tokyo ran the film, Japanese Devils, last December.

Throughout its three-month run, the theater was packed every day with young Japanese who knew little about what their grandparents' generation did during the war.

"I was very happy to see those youngsters in the audience," said Matsui.

"I wanted to record the true nature of war and how it transformed ordinary men into weak, abnormal, and cruel characters. I wanted to record the history from the views of aggressors. We (Japanese) were perpetrators in the war, and I wanted to pass the message to people, especially to the younger generation."

'Kill them all, burn them all, loot them all'

Japanese veteran
The 160-minute documentary presents one confession after another without sentimental music or emotion  

Japanese Devils features 14 ex-servicemen whose backgrounds vary from farming to medicine, whose military ranks range from privates to lieutenants, and whose atrocious deeds extend from rape and torture to bacteriological experiment and vivisection.

"When we saw a house, we burned it. When we saw a person, we shot him. When we saw a crowd, we machine-gunned them. That's what we were doing every day," says one of the former soldiers in the documentary.

Talking to the camera, the veterans casually provide grim details of their individual atrocities that are, to the eyes of the post-war generation, nauseating.

"One might think they haven't atoned for their wrongdoings because they appear to be very frank and open about their dark past. But that perception is totally missing the point," said Matsui.

"We human beings could get used to even such cruelties. That is exactly why those ex-soldiers went on the rampage in China. As they killed one person, then another, then another, and then another, they no longer felt any guilt. That is how our mind functions. It is frightening."

Matsui said he went through a similar psychological process as he was filming the documentary. When he talked with his first interviewee and heard a brutal story about the shooting of an entire family, he felt a chill go down in his spine. But as he went on recording, those feelings subsided.

"They confessed their crimes because they are remorseful. They agreed to be filmed so that the documentary would record the truth. But we shouldn't expect them to be emotional. One can't easily cry or shout over something that happened more than 50 years ago. That's simply how we human beings are."

Best of the year

Minoru Matsui
Minoru Matsui  

Some Japanese critics have hailed Japanese Devils as among the best films of 2001. The documentary was also shown in Canada, Netherlands, the United States and Hong Kong.

"I was a little nervous about how audiences would react to my work in Hong Kong because it is part of China where those atrocities actually took place and many of the audience would be the relatives or descendants of the victimized Chinese," said Matsui.

"But I was really excited to see the City Hall packed with people."

Matsui said there are no plans to commercially run the film in other countries or show it in mainland China.

"This is a kind of film you have to see. You have to hear what they (the veterans) say.

"I think if you see it once, you would know what had happened during the Sino-Japanese War. Then audience should decide themselves what to make of it, rather than me explaining what is there to learn."




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