The most astounding moment in “Flowers and Troops,” a documentary film by Yojyu Matsubayashi, is when the young director leans close to one of his subjects — an 87-year-old former corporal in the Imperial Japanese Army — and says, “I’ve heard that some Japanese soldiers ate human flesh.”
The former corporal, named Yaichiro Nakano, averts his eyes and, after a long pause, replies: “There are some things that I just can’t talk about.”
Nakano is one of six former soldiers interviewed in the film. What makes Matsubayashi’s question so poignant is that Nakano, like the five other interviewees, lives in Thailand — where they stayed at the end of the war to avoid being sent back to Japan after escaping from their defeated units or prisoner-of-war camps.
Matsubayashi’s blunt reference to cannibalism is his way of trying to pinpoint the experience that might have prompted these former soldiers to discard their country for good.
The film works both because, and in spite of, the director’s ignorance of his subject. During filming he was just 27 and 28 years old — now he’s 30.
“Because I was so young, I could honestly say that I didn’t understand what happened in the war. If I had been older, my questions would have angered the old soldiers because they would have thought I should know better,” the director said.
Matsubayashi traces his interest in Japan’s wartime past back to his time in primary school. When Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) died in 1989, his teacher set him the task of interviewing relatives about their experiences in the war.
“I spoke to a friend’s grandfather. He fought in Burma, and I remember he said that things happened he couldn’t tell children. Those words stuck with me.”
Fast forward to 1999, and Matsubayashi was backpacking through Asia.
“I met lots of foreigners and realized they all had many bad impressions of the war. I met people in Singapore and Malaysia who don’t like the Japanese. I realized that when you’re Japanese, people look at you in lots of different ways,” he recalled.
A year later, Matsubayashi enrolled in the Japan Academy of Moving Images and came across director Shohei Imamura’s 1971 documentary, “Mikikanhei wo Otte” (“Pursuing the Soldiers Who Didn’t Return Home”), about a soldier who remained in Thailand after the war.
“I wanted to know what really happened in the war,” Matsubayashi said. But he also felt that the nonreturnees could shed light on broader questions of what it means to be Japanese and the nature of Japanese society today.
“They have spent 60 years essentially without contact with Japan. I thought it would be interesting to hear their thoughts,” he said.
Matsubayashi said that the nonreturnees have generally been regarded as deserters, particularly by those soldiers who did return to Japan — like Matsubayashi’s own great uncle.
“But when I showed my great uncle photos of the former soldiers I met in Thailand, he said they looked like they have enjoyed very peaceful lives,” Matsubayashi recalled.
While their lives in Thailand do seem peaceful — in many cases they are surrounded by Thai wives, children and grandchildren — the soldiers Matsubayashi interviewed are still haunted by their wartime memories.
One of those, Isamu Sakai, recalls vividly his decision to remain in Thailand.
“The information we got was not good. I heard that the Japanese ships (taking soldiers back to Japan) got bombed by a British plane in the Strait of Malacca. I lost all hope,” he said.
Like many others, Sakai was eventually welcomed into a village where he put to use his army-acquired skill as a mechanic.
Other former soldiers give accounts of battle so graphic they make you sit up in your seat.
“We had to kill, kill, kill,” barks 89-year-old Matsuyoshi Fujita through a toothless mouth. “We killed the Chinese children, their mothers, everything. There was an order that we had to kill them all if they were Chinese, good or bad. You understand? We had to kill the children.”
Fujita, who served in Singapore before being transferred to Burma, was the same soldier interviewed in Imamura’s 1971 documentary. He is well known in Japan for having built a memorial tomb and, over a 40-year period, buried the remains of more than 800 of his fellow soldiers.
“I built the memorial because the Japanese government wasn’t doing anything for the fallen,” he said.
He is also unequivocal about where blame lies for the war.
“It was a national operation, an order from the Emperor. We didn’t just go out there by ourselves. It was our Emperor Hirohito’s order. . . . If we didn’t follow an order, we’d get killed ourselves.”
Some former soldiers interviewed by Matsubayashi had been interviewed by Japanese journalists in the past. But he said he thought each had been more open with him than they had been with others.
“I think it’s because they are approaching death, and because I was so young,” Matsubayashi said.
Fujita’s testimony, in particular, is peppered with anxious confirmations that the Matsubayashi, who is in many of the shots, is comprehending what he’s hearing: “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“There is this massive gap between my generation and his,” Matsubayashi said. “He knows we can never bridge that gap, but he still wants us to try to imagine what it was like — to understand why they did what they did.”
For more information about “Flowers and Troops,” and to view a trailer for the film, visit www.hanatoheitai.jp