A Woman and War (Senso No Hitori No Onna), the debut film from director Junichi Inoue is a bold political statement. As I noted in my review, it criticises the crimes Japan committed overseas during the second world war by following the lives of three damaged people in a struggling Tokyo during the final stages of the war.
Noriko Eguchi, who has worked on many independent feature films and is a regular on Japanese television screens, plays a former prostitute who is unable to experience pleasure while making love. Masatoshi Nagase has been acting for 30 years and has worked with Jim Jarmusch on Mystery Train and with director Yoji Yamada on My Sons and The Hidden Blade. Here he plays a disenchanted writer sure of his country's imminent defeat and resigned to death.
After a recent press screening of the film, the director and stars talked about the origin themes, the film, and their roles in its production. While Nagase was amusingly curt with his answers, the director was forthright and blunt, clearly a man who believes in his work and is passionate about its message. The last question put to the director by a Japanese woman was perfect in its timing as it was exactly the kind of notion that the film was rallying against and the director firmly, and admirably, countered that opinion.
Q. Do you expect to face any criticism from right wing groups in Japan over what you have shown in this film?
Junichi Inoue (JI): If the right wing conservative sector in Japan learn about this film, there are undoubtedly some who will be critical of it, but at this stage the film has not been widely enough advertised for it to raise the attention of the right wing in Japan. I'm hoping that it will at some point.
Q. Following up on the previous question, what are your plans to take this film international in terms of festivals, as I think its a film the rest of the world also needs to see.
JI: As I said, I hope that this film will be seen widely overseas. At this point the only international festival it's scheduled to be at is the Chengdu Film Festival, but I'm hoping it will be screened elsewhere, if you have international connections, please introduce this film on our behalf.
Q. I would like to ask the actors how did they board this very interesting and challenging project, did you have any consideration about your future career, as this could be quite controversial regarding the traditions in the Japanese film industry.
Noriko Eguchi (NE): That thought never crossed my mind.
(round of applause)
Masatoshi Nagase (MN): The same!
KS: You don't want to expand a little on that?
NE: No matter what film an actor is involved in, if the acting is not good, if there is a failure on the part of the actor, it will affect his or her future employment. If things are good, then things will go well in the future. That's true of all films.
JI: Up until now in all the press interviews we've done, that question has never arisen, so it's rather surprising to hear that question tonight, and it makes me aware once again how the Japanese context these days is perceived as being very tense and difficult to deal with these kinds of issues in these kinds of films.
Q: This is for the director, can you explain your decision with the rape scenes to show all the scene instead of just skipping to the end?
JI: The main character in this film says that she likes the war and she finds the bombings and the air raids to be beautiful, but in actual fact the war that she finds to be beautiful is causing death around her, people are burning to death in the air raids that she finds beautiful.
This film had a very low budget, so we were unable to shoot scenes of bombs bursting and people being killed by the air-raids. So in that context, to portray in detail the kind of rapes and violence that occurred in China that were perpetrated by the Japanese Army, it's one way of showing the reality of the violence of the war.
In the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some 300,000 people died, some 300,000 people perhaps died in the rape of Nanking, tens of thousands of people have died recently in the conflict in Syria, so when we think about war we tend to think about these large numbers, but in fact in wars people die one at a time, and it's important to understand wars to depict those deaths one at a time. Each person who dies, dies with hopes and dreams and with despair and with families and loved ones and each one is a human being that is alone.
Another way to look it is that the main character finally feels sexual satisfaction after being raped at the end of the film, this is a very emotional and psychological aspect of this film, but it was important in making this film to depict those rape scenes and the sexual violence with realism.
Q. How did Inoue san choose these actors for the roles, all three are perfectly cast and did a wonderful job.
JI: I've been watching Japanese films for a long time and I selected three actors that I'm a big fan of. It's as simple as that.
Eguchi san is beautiful like a Japanese doll, often with an expressionless look on her face, but within that (she) sometimes smiles with a very endearing smile; she was perfect for the role because of these aspects of her character. The dangers in casting for this role was in casting somebody who was too beautiful or too sexually attractive that it could move in the direction of becoming too sordid as a film.
With regard to Nagase's role, the nature of this story, the one armed rapist is the character who draws more attention because of the extremeness of his behaviour and actions, so in order for the writer to not be overwhelmed as a character, we needed somebody who was strong and would maintain that role in balance, so I was very pleased that Nagase agreed to be in this very low budget, low profile film, I was very pleased that he agreed to act in it.
KS: I just want to mention for those of you who don't know, the budget of this film was just 12,000,000 yen, it's impossible if you think about it, and they shot it in 10 days.
Q. Usually in Japanese films dealing with the war, they end up with a 'Banzai' scene at the end of the film. This film depicted much more the extreme terror that was involved with the war, so the question is, were you drawn to this film as a war film or as a story kind of film?
JI: We were looking for an idea to make a film about the war when we encountered this book.
As you mentioned, for the last 30 years or so, most of the films in Japan about the war have been heroic young men who go off to war and die for their country. But the fact is that during war time as well, people still have hunger, they still have sexual desire, they still lead their daily lives. So our feeling was that we wanted to make this film as my generation's contribution to the history of war films and pass on these memories and these observations to the next generation. Again, the aspect of World War II that has been neglected over the last 30 years, along with the war responsibility of the Emperor, are the crimes committed by the Japanese military overseas, so it was important to address those questions.
Q. The storyline of the rapes and the rapist being arrested and tried for those rapes, was that in the original story?
JI: They did not appear in the original story, the rapist and those incidents are based on actual cases that took place at that time, but they were not in the original book.
Q. What were the most difficult things you felt you had to deal with during the making of this movie, what was most difficult about these roles?
NE: The most difficult scene for me was when I made eggs for the author and when I was making those eggs I break down and begin to cry. That was a difficult scene for me to do.
MN: She did a very good job with that seen. It was very endearing. In reading the script and in the original book as well, each line, each scene involved a great number of changes in emotional carriage, and it was difficult to thing to figure out how to manage that, how to carry it off.
Q. I'd like to ask the actors how much research they did in preparing for these roles and whether they relied on the screenplay and also whether when they were growing up they heard from their families any experiences about the war.
NE: I've never experienced war and I've also obviously never experienced life as a prostitute, so for both of those reasons I needed to research and find out what that life was like, so I read quite a few books in preparing for the role.
MN: I likewise started with Takeguchi's books and novels. I read those and also about drug addiction, as my character dies from drugs, so I researched that too.
NE: Growing up, I never heard stories about wartime.
MN: My mother's father, my grandfather, fought in the war, he didn't like to talk about it much.
JI: My father lived through the bombing raids but there was never anytime we sat down as a family and talked about it, I didn't hear any of those stories from my Grandfather either.
Q. I want to ask you about this 30 year history of Japanese war films you were talking about, because one of the films this does look a lot like and has a similar production context to is Wakamatsu's CATERPILLAR, and thematically there are similarities or resonances there too. So if you are seeing this as a political filmmaking project, I want to ask you about the cut off of those 30 years and your desires to make a kind of political film like Wakamatsu made in the 60s, and if thats the case, is rape the only way you can resuscitate political filmmaking in Japan?
JI: Of course there are other ways of depicting war and the reality of war, it's just the choice we made with this film to make rape as the subject. The rape was not just a scene that was taking place in the movie but it was also referring to the rapes that occurred in China and in Korea as well, in a sense those rapes as a metaphor for the war of aggression that was being fought on the Asian mainland.
Q. Why did the screenwriters and director go out of their way to incorporate scenes of rape that were not in the original story? There are certain people who will say that Japan's behaviour during the war was not as bad as the kinds of sexual violence perpetrated by the Western army during the war, so why did you make that choice to incorporate things that were not in the original story?
JI: The opinion expressed by the questioner is the kind of opinion that is becoming more and more commonly encountered in Japan, becoming more prevalent in Japan than ever before, and its the very reason that we incorporated those scenes in the film.
There are people who argue that what Japan did, the kinds of crimes that Japan perpetrated during the war are also the same kinds of things that Western armies perpetrated, that they're happening in Iraq and elsewhere today, and Japan also did good things and some people had good experiences with the Japanese army occupation of China and Korea.
All those opinions could never serve to justify the war of aggression that Japan perpetrated during World War II, and that idea is itself a self-persecution complex that's being played in Japan, that idea is a pernicious idea that should not be allowed to go unchallenged.