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As World War II slips from living memory, the question of how to preserve its legacy grows all the more vexing.

“There’s no old story that isn’t subjective somehow,” muses Akio Shimizu (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the beleaguered protagonist of Ken Kawai’s “Headless Girl.” He’s the popular, not-quite-honest mayor of a provincial city, and all he wants to do is build a peace memorial.

Everyone loves peace, right? Yet this most unobjectionable idea sparks conflict with a local family that has found itself on the wrong side of history.

Headless Girl (Nanno-chan no Dai Ni-ji Sekai Taisen)
Rating
Run Time 112 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Now Showing

Cantankerous tombstone maker Kazuko Minamino (Hisako Okata) and her all-female clan particularly object to the way that Akio has been using his own grandfather, Shoichi, as a superannuated poster boy for the project. Now nearing his 105th birthday, the retired teacher is celebrated in the community for having been a vocal opponent of the war.

But Kazuko, who was one of his students, claims that Shoichi’s pacifist credentials are a sham, and accuses him of betraying her militarist father, who was executed as a war criminal. Her family underline the point by sending a letter demanding that the proposed memorial be scrapped, accompanied by the severed head of a statue.

That’s just the opening gambit in Kawai’s chaotic assault on complacency. “Headless Girl” raises awkward questions about the slippery nature of historical truth, and anyone expecting easy answers should take heed from Kazuko’s response to some visitors from city hall: “You idiots wouldn’t get it.”

Kawai finds parallels between debates over history and contemporary politics. No stranger to tinkering with the public record, Akio is first seen cutting up photos in order to doctor an unflattering image of himself. He’s also constantly battling with a prefectural governor who’s loath to miss a good photo opportunity.

In a scene that’s typical of the film’s freewheeling energy, one of Kazuko’s granddaughters, Sae (Maki Nishiyama), asks to join the peace memorial committee and share her experiences of volunteering in conflict zones. But after criticizing their planned museum for being a bit fuzzy, she gets carried away: Why not devote the whole thing to the conflict in South Sudan instead?

This is all delivered in a jaunty tone that makes a welcome change from the solemnity of many war-themed dramas, but can come dangerously close to flippancy. Kawai doesn’t always show the clarity of purpose that would allow him to get away with being so irreverent about such serious subject matter.

There are some weak spots in his narrative, including the pivotal role played by Kazuko’s other granddaughter, Hikari (Kana Kita). The film’s technical credentials are also patchy, with several scenes that are so poorly lit, you can barely see who’s speaking.

“Headless Girl” was shot on location on Awaji Island in western Japan, and the cast comprises mainly locals. These include newcomer Megumi Nishi as Sae’s daughter, Mari, who seems to have inherited some of Kazuko’s combative spirit. She’s the coolest thing in the whole film.

Fukikoshi, who’s best known for his work with Sion Sono, provides “Headless Girl” with a much-needed center of gravity as it threatens to spin out of control. He’s a joy to watch as the fallible man trying to do the right thing, only to discover that it’s all relative. The truth, like this film, is ticklish.

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