How do you make an anti-war film? I don’t mean those gore-driven “war is hell” spectaculars that often seem like a sub-genre of horror movies. I am referring to a work that prompts people in any country to say, “We must never allow this sort of thing to happen again — not to our own people and not to anyone else.”

As I explained in this column on May 20, I have been fortunate to be able to write the script, together with director Takashi Koizumi, for the film “Ashita e no Yuigon (Best Wishes for Tomorrow)” which we are now shooting at the Toho Studios in Tokyo. Our aim is to show the futility of war and the utter misery it visits on all those forced to participate in it.

“Best Wishes for Tomorrow” takes up the real-life story of Maj. Gen. Tasuku Okada of the Tokai Army defending central Honshu. Okada ordered the execution of captured American fliers a few weeks before World War II ended on Aug. 15, 1945. He and his men considered the Americans to be war criminals for the indiscriminate bombing of Japan that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Okada and 19 of his subordinates were brought to trial before a military tribunal, and he was sentenced to death.

Those tribunal proceedings were part of the so-called Yokohama War Crimes Trials, which ended in 1948. Okada was one of the very few Japanese military leaders who took full responsibility for his actions — and perhaps even welcomed the verdict. There is sufficient evidence in the historical record to believe that Okada saw his own death as the beginning of a new era of friendship between Japan and the United States. He hoped there would someday be a world in which the mentality that led to his extreme actions, and those of the U.S. bombers, would cease to exist. Hence, best wishes for tomorrow . . .

A chord of recognition

This film is not the first one in Japan to deal with the issue of responsibility for war crimes, but it may be the first to set a moral precedent. By highlighting the principle that the commanders and leaders responsible for illegal actions — indiscriminate bombings, torture during interrogation, or any such unlawful acts — are the ones who must be held to account for them, “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” may strike a chord of recognition around the world today.

After all, just by calling torture “enhanced interrogation,” and indiscriminate carnage “collateral damage,” you cannot forever hope to avoid justice.

One of the most popular stories capturing the ethos of postwar Japan was titled “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai (I Want to be a Shellfish).” The first depiction of this plaintive tale of an ordinary soldier caught up in an atrocity not of his own making was an eponymous 1958 television drama. The film was made the next year, and another TV version was aired in 1994. Yet another film version is now apparently in production.

This is the story of Shimizu, a simple barber from Shikoku who is called to arms and sent to the front. There he is ordered to bayonet an enemy soldier who is tied to a tree. He clearly does not want to do this, but is given no choice. Unlike in the U.S. armed services, where soldiers have the right to refuse an order they consider unlawful, the Imperial Japanese soldier was permitted no leeway whatsoever. Every order from above was seen as coming from the Emperor himself. Refusal to carry it out could lead to execution on the spot.

In the case of “Best Wishes for Tomorrow,” Okada argued in defense of his men. They had no choice but to obey his orders to execute the American fliers, and therefore should not share in the guilt, which he saw as his alone.

So what happened to Private Shimizu?

After the war he was repatriated and resumed working with his wife at their barber shop. One day, however, he is visited by the prefectural police and arrested. He is put on trial in Yokohama for the crime of murdering a POW and sentenced to death.

During his time on death row, Shimizu cannot accept his fate. Why should he be held responsible for an action that he could not avoid? He becomes convinced that his American captors will come to understand his plight and exonerate him.

But it was not to be. His sentence was upheld and he was hanged. As he walks up the steps of the gallows, he says to himself, “When I am reborn, I want to come back not as a human being but as a cow or a horse. No. They are tormented by people, too. So, I want to be a shellfish.”

Heinous actions against others

I can think of no other single phrase that so succinctly characterized the feelings of most people in postwar Japan. Never again did they want to be the perpetrators of heinous actions against other nationalities. They just wished to be moved about on the shore with the tides and to never hurt anyone.

Much of our film, “Best Wishes for Tomorrow,” is taken up by the trial of Okada, who is played brilliantly by veteran actor Makoto Fujita. His wife, Haruko (Sumiko Fuji), sits in the courtroom during the trial. The two are not allowed to speak to each other. The silent bond between them, as Okada faces a sentence of death by hanging, is strong and poignantly expressed.

The three principals in the trial are President of the Military Commission Rapp, played by Richard Neil; Chief Counsel for the Defense Featherstone (Robert Lesser); and Chief Prosecutor Burnett (Fred McQueen). All three were brought to the production from Los Angeles.

Many years ago — in 1982, to be exact — I was assistant director on a film directed by Nagisa Oshima titled “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Like “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” and “I Want to be a Shellfish,” that film took up the literal horrors that we inflict upon each other in war.

All three films, I would like to think, have a single main theme: That, once a war is over, and whatever the causes that underpinned it, people on all sides become victims.

There is no cause for self-righteousness after a war — only the pity that we must all feel if we are to stop ourselves from starting yet another one.

A film that brings that theme to light is an anti-war film. I hope that “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” will do just that for people who think there is anything at all to be gained from the form of murder we commit with one hand over our heart.

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