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Japanese films about the war, both fiction and nonfiction, rarely focus on the fighting between Japanese and American forces in the Pacific, though Clint Eastwood’s 2006 hit “Letters from Iwo Jima” proved the subject can make for critically acclaimed and commercially successful drama.

Kenichi Oguri’s quietly devastating documentary “Memories,” the opening film at last year’s Kyoto International Film and Art Festival, suggests why. Its focus: the ferocious battle from September to November 1944 on the island of Peleliu, then a Japanese possession, now part of the nation of Palau. Only 19 Japanese soldiers were captured alive, while 10,695 died in the fighting. Meanwhile, of the 47,561 American forces engaged in the battle, 2,336 were killed and 8,450 were wounded.

Given this near annihilation of the Japanese side, as well as the island’s relative unimportance in the grander strategic scheme, Peleliu has been mostly absent in local accounts of Japan’s war, cinematic and otherwise.

Memories (Tsuioku)
Rating
Run Time 76 mins
Language Japanese
Opens NOV. 5

This is not quite the case in the United States, where the 1981 publication of former U.S. Marine Eugene Sledge’s acclaimed memoir “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” has helped make Peleliu known as among the most bitter and costly battles ever fought by U.S. forces. Expected by U.S. commanders to take two or three days, the struggle for Peleliu stretched out to nearly two months.

As “Memories” make clear from both period documents and interviews with survivors, the slow U.S. advance was due more to Japanese planning and tactics than reliance on that old standby, yamato damashii (Japanese spirit). Col. Kunio Nakagawa, who was in charge of the island’s defense, rejected the so-called banzai charge that had been a suicidal expression of that “spirit.” Instead he covered Peleliu with a network of caves, tunnels and gun emplacements that would force the enemy to fight for every centimeter of ground, beginning at the landing beach.

Similar to Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the resolute Iwo Jima commandant played by Ken Watanabe in Eastwood’s film, Nakagawa is presented as an appealing human figure, with two of his now elderly children emotionally reading the last, gently reassuring letter he sent to their mother. But on the battle’s 70th and last day, Nakagawa followed the era’s warrior code by cutting his own stomach and dying before the advancing Americans could take him prisoner.

Working from a biography of Nakagawa by veteran film producer Nobutoshi Matsumoto, Oguri strives for balance, but given his own inclinations and his target audience, he understandably views the battle mainly from the Japanese perspective. As his camera explores the island jungle — strewn with ghostly caves, rusting tanks and moldering military gear — with octogenarian singer/actor/personality Akihiro Miwa narrating in a crackly but compelling voice, Peleliu becomes a silent witness to a tragedy softened by time, if still haunting.

But Oguri’s witnesses, now all in their 90s, vividly relate the events of seven decades ago, beginning with the evacuation of the island’s residents, native and Japanese, prior to the fighting. Speaking in rusty Japanese, 96-year-old Palauan Rose Telloi Siles recalls her sadness when, after the war, her Japanese neighbors did not return. “We were friends,” she says.

There is also Kiyokazu Tsuchida, a spry former navy man who lived through the Peleliu fight and, at age 95, visits Nakagawa’s grave on the island.

“It’s natural for people to never kill anyone,” he says. “When you’re a soldier on a battlefield, you have to fool yourself. If you don’t, death is going to come for you.”

Former U.S. Marine Braswell Dean and Bill Cumbaa also recall the hell of Peleliu, illustrated by U.S. archived films of flamethrowers torching caves, dazed Japanese survivors stumbling into the daylight and bodies strewn everywhere. Yes, the footage is grainy with age, but the battle’s horror still comes through loud and clear. Where is the Japanese Eastwood to film it?

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