Based on a novel by Tetsutaro Kato, the 1958 TV drama “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” (“I Want to Be a Seashell”) became a paradigm-shifting hit when it was broadcast on KRT Television, the predecessor to the TBS network.

Back then, the still-mighty Japanese film industry looked down on the programs of their small-screen brethren as vastly inferior to their own product. A world-class auteur like Akira Kurosawa would sooner fly to the moon than work in TV. Telling the story of a small-town barber who was tried as a war criminal in Occupation-era Japan, “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” enjoyed a smashing popular and critical success that signaled TV was here to stay — and that the days of the supremacy of movies were numbered.

The drama inspired a 1959 film scripted and directed by Shinobu Hashimoto, who had been Kurosawa’s scriptwriter on “Rashomon,” “Ikiru” and “Shichinin no Samurai” (“The Seven Samurai”). Kurosawa gave Hashimoto his blessing for the film, his first as a director, “but you only have a C-class script,” Kurosawa told him.

Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai
Opens Opens Nov. 22

In 1994, TBS broadcast a new version, with George Tokoro playing the barber, a role originated by Frankie Sakai in the first drama and film.

Now there is a second film, with a revised script by Hashimoto, now 90, and directed by TBS veteran Katsuo Fukuzawa. Why now? TBS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the drama, which in the commemorative-minded local- entertainment world is reason enough to crank up for a remake.

Also, the original’s soft nationalism, with its argument that ordinary Japanese were more the war’s hapless victims than its perpetrators, is gaining popularity again (as is the not-so-soft version advocated by certain Self-Defense Force officers).

As is often the case with Japanese commercial dramas about the war and postwar, “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” is baldly sentimental, with strenuous overacting by all the principals and a loud, literal-minded score by Jo Hisashi.

The worst offender is Masahiro Nakai, a member of the now middle-age boy band SMAP and a frequent presence on TV. Playing Toyomatsu Shimizu, a humble barber in a Kochi Prefecture fishing village, he gives every expression a record-breaking spin — from the smiliest-ever smile to the darkest-ever look of doom. Being “on” every living second, he never gives us time or space to feel — instead he does it all for us. As his long-suffering wife, Fusae, TV drama queen Yukie Nakama plays wide-eyed purity to a fault and looks somewhat thick-headed as a result. With Fusae as his closest ally, doggedly and ineffectually trudging through the snow to collect signatures on a petition for a retrial, I had a bad feeling about Shimizu’s chances.

The film begins in 1944, with Shimizu, a married man with a child and a permanent limp (which Nakai exaggerates), exempt from the military but enthusiastically cheering on a uniformed friend bound for the front. Then he gets his own draft notice and immediately collapses into a black mass of despair. Though assigned to a home-guard unit, he undergoes the often-portrayed hell of the wartime Japanese military, personified by a brutal sergeant who slaps his face to a bloody pulp.

Then, as U.S. bombs rain down hell of a different kind on Japanese cities, Shimizu’s unit is sent to round up a crew of downed American fliers. With their superiors and comrades watching, Shimizu and another unfortunate soldier (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) are ordered to execute the prisoners with their bayonets. They have no choice but to obey.

The war ends and Shimizu is trying to resume his old life when he is arrested by the military police and thrown into Sugamo Prison as a war criminal, with a possible death sentence hanging over his head.

Shimizu, understandably, believes himself blameless. In fact, he and most of his fellow prisoners are decent sorts, including Lt. Col. Yano (Koji Ishizaka), who gave the order for the airmen’s execution and delivers an impassioned condemnation of U.S. carpet bombings prior to his date with the gallows.

The filmmakers, however, have loaded the moral dice by making an extreme case like Shimizu the protagonist, instead of the more numerous torturers and murderers of POWs who rightly ended up on the war-crimes docket.

Also, the film presents the captured fliers as nullities. The one Shimizu stabs utters not a sound, while his face is barely shown. Nonetheless, its portrayal of the Imperial Army as absolutely intolerant of dissent rings true enough. Shimizu would have signed his own death warrant by refusing to obey a direct order.

The film also deserves its antiwar label that has been applied from its first incarnation as a drama. Shimizu becomes thoroughly sick of the military insanity, from both sides, that has destroyed his life. His wish — expressed in the film’s title — is to be reborn as a seashell, deep beneath the waves and far away from war.

But what will the younger generation, who knows little of the war’s reality, take away from the film? That wonderful folks like Shimizu did nothing wrong. That, save for a few bad apples, neither did anyone else in these green and beautiful islands. As for the 30 million Asian dead? Well, there’s a speech on victor’s justice I’d like you to hear.

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