Shoichiro Sasaki, 80, never forgets Aug. 1, 1943 — the day he witnessed his father, a free-thinking journalist, die under extraordinary circumstances before his own eyes.
Sasaki, a former NHK TV drama director who has won numerous awards at home and abroad, is convinced that his father was assassinated by the tokko (tokubetsu koto keisatsu, or Special Higher Police), a police force that investigated political groups and ideologies deemed a threat to public order from 1911 to 1945.
More than seven decades later, Sasaki depicts his father’s violent death in his first-ever feature film “Minyon Baion no Hosoku” (“Harmonics Minyoung”). In the 2014 film, whose DVD version was released this summer, Sasaki openly enunciated his anti-war stance.
Born in 1895, Sasaki’s father, Shuichiro, studied at Paris-Sorbonne University, attending a class of Anatole France, a Nobel laureate in literature. He stayed in Paris for about 10 years and regularly contributed articles to the Mainichi Shimbun. He started working at the daily’s headquarters in Osaka in 1928 as a regular employee.
“According to my mother, my father wrote an editorial in 1930 severely criticizing the Japanese military’s high-handed behavior. Without publishing his editorial, the newspaper immediately fired him,” Sasaki said.
This was the year before Japan’s Kwantung Army staged the Manchurian Incident, leading to the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet state, in 1932.
Shuichiro Sasaki began writing magazine articles as a freelancer. Later he moved to Manchukuo, where he started a firm to export Russian chocolate to France. From there, he also contributed articles to French publications.
But because of his critical stance, Shuichiro was constantly monitored by the special police, Sasaki said.
“Once in a while, I received a letter from my father in Manchukuo. Each time his address was different, showing that he tried to shun the special police surveillance,” Sasaki said.
“Special police detectives were hanging around all year round near our house in Daizawa in Setagaya Ward (Tokyo). I often saw one or two of them standing in our garden. According to my mother, special police detectives threatened that if my father continued to write about sensitive matters, it would risk his life.”
The fateful day came two days after Shuichiro returned to Tokyo on July 30, 1943.
“On the morning of Aug. 1, I heard my mother and father quarreling fiercely on the second floor, my father insisting that he take me to his native home in Miyagi Prefecture and my mother opposing, saying it would be too dangerous because ‘the authorities’ will be around,” Sasaki recalled.
His mother, Sueko, eventually gave in. Sasaki headed to Ueno Station with his father the same day, feeling excited to ride on a steam train.
Oddly enough, nobody else was in the coach Sasaki and his father boarded. His father sat in a seat where he had an entire view of the car with his son sitting in front of him. When the train stopped at Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture, a man selling peaches came to his father’s window.
“Because he repeated ‘Peaches! Peaches!’ to my father, he had no other choice but to buy them. Then two men in sailor’s outfits sat behind my father,” Sasaki said.
“Just when the train was pulling into Sukagawa Station in Fukushima Prefecture, my father bit into one of the peaches without peeling it. Blood immediately started streaming from his nostrils and he collapsed. I cried, ‘Papa! Papa!’
“The sailors thrust me aside right away. One of them then held my father by the head and the other by the legs and they hauled him out of the window. Strangely enough, a stretcher was on the platform. A man looking like a deputy station master held me and forced me to give my address. Then another man pushed something like a pill into my mouth. I was taken to a nearby inn to sleep.”
The next day, Sasaki’s mother rushed to Sukagawa after receiving a telegram that read: “Father in critical condition. Come quickly.”
Sasaki and his mother were led to a hospital where Shuichiro’s body lay on a rush mat spread on a concrete floor. A piece of paper that had the word tokyoku (the authorities) on it was placed on the body, Sasaki said.
“Things happened just like a drama before my eyes. The special police were just like yakuza. They were professional assassins. Nobody can tell exactly how many people they killed,” Sasaki said.
Why Shuichiro wanted to take Sasaki to Miyagi is anyone’s guess, but Sasaki said his father may have wanted to show his eldest son his native home and the rice paddies his family owned. He also said he cannot tell why his father took that fateful action — biting into the peach.
“Due to the special police surveillance, my father was always terrified and must have been prepared to die at any time. Others cannot explain the crucial actions taken by a person psychologically cornered,” Sasaki said.
Like father, like son, Sasaki believes that any drama or movie director should be a journalist to begin with. He writes the manuscripts for all his works. He also respects his independent-minded mother.
“Even during the wartime, mother never wore monpe (dull-colored, semicompulsory women’s wartime work pants). She always wore a vivid-colored dress, which she sewed with a Singer sewing machine, and high-heeled shoes — despite being abused by neighbors,” Sasaki said.
“Quoting from my father, my mother used to say that Japan would definitely be defeated and that the Japanese people would never realize their mistakes unless they endured hell,” he said. Even among family members, talking about Japan’s defeat would have been taboo at the time.
Like his earlier works, music is the backbone of Sasaki’s 2014 film. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) and Little Masonic Cantata serve as its score. Another important feature is the singing of several Japanese and American songs by Song Min-young, a South Korean woman who studied at Waseda University and was chosen for the lead role. All those who appear and act in the movie are amateurs.
“I first wanted to depict how Min-young was living with heart and soul, unlike Japanese students. Later, I came to want to have her play the role of my mother,” Sasaki said.
The movie’s main plot evolves around Song’s character, Minyoung, and her quest to unravel the mystery of a wartime photo of the family of her grandmother’s close friend, Sueko Sasaki. But the movie does not proceed linearly. Layers of different stories are embedded in the movie.
“Due to the government education policy, people do not know the real faces of war, including the terror of the special police, sheer discrimination and poverty of Koreans and Chinese and the oppression of ordinary citizens by the military, as manifested in the bullying of recruits,” said Sasaki.
And Sasaki is worried that as memory of the war fades, Japan is once again being steered toward that period of time under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to beef up Japan’s defenses and revise the war-renouncing Constitution.
“Every person should have anger against war. I would like to let viewers use their imagination when they look at various scenes of my movie. Then they will sense the dread and evil of war.”