MacArthur's Children

(Setouchi shonen yakyudan)

1984

How did director Shinoda reconstruct the past in this film? What did he see/remember about the days of his youth? How does he blend several plotlines to come up with a coherent narrative but the early occupation years? Can people look back in 1984 and see some kind of innocence and irrepressible energy that is lost by the mid-1980s? Was this a moment when the world was open and replete with possibilities, opportunities?

One of the first things we notice about this film is how all the classic tropes associated with the end of the war and the occupation cascade over us in the opening moments: the Glen Miller Band's music ("In the Mood") heralding the arrival of the US occupying forces, the sound of the emperor's voice, as he announces surrender over the radio, MacArthur's arrival, the USS Missouri signing of the surrender document, the censorship exercises in the schools, etc.--it's all there. Kids like Ryuta and his friend Saburo saying things like:

"Japan lost the war. We don't have a country anymore."

"I can't grow up to be an admiral anymore so I'll have to become a gangster!"

 

Some of the main characters:

The kids:

Ryuta

Saburo

Ninjin (Carrot)

Fatty

 

Nakai Komako-sensei--The Teacher

Nakai Tetsuo--her brother-in-law played by a young Watanabe Ken in his film debut!

Nakai Masao--her husband, the returned soldier who was presumed dead; played by pop star, singer and idol back in the day, Hiromi Go.

Hatano Mume--daughter of a naval captain who is waiting to be indicted as a class-B war criminal

Capt. Hatano, played exquisitely by actor/director Itami Juzo

Ryuta's Grandfather, the policeman, a gentleman of the "old school"

Barbershop Lady (Tome) and Theater Guy (Shintaro)

Saburo's brother Masaki and his Sister (Girlfriend?) both prospering and dressed in flashy, garish, Osaka clothing

 

Below is a brief synopsis of the plot:

Synopsis:
The title of MacArthur's Children refers to the generation growing up in Japan since the end of World War II. A tiny Japanese island serves as a microcosm for the events in the mainland during the time of VE Day. Young Takaya Yamauchi is a war orphan whose best friend, Yoshikuri Omori, refuses to acknowledge the defeat of the Rising Sun. Another friend, Shiori Sakura, is the [daughter] of a Japanese admiral (played by famed director Itami Juzo) who has "lost face" by exhibiting mercy towards the hated British. Confused by the loss of the only world that they know, and resentful of the government's attempts to impose revisionism on all they've ever learned, the kids in the film plan to vent their wrath on the incoming American occupying forces. Once the Americans have arrived, the children are in for yet another culture shock: far from being the murderous monsters they've been conditioned to expect, the troops intend to honor General Douglas MacArthur's edict that the defeated Japanese be treated with dignity and compassion. MacArthur's Children was written and directed by two of those titular children, Takeshi Tamura (writer) and Masahiro Shinoda (director); the film was adapted from the Japanese best-seller by Yu Aku.
~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

As Roger Ebert notes:

"MacArthur's Children" begins with the voice of Emperor Hirohito, announcing that Japan has surrendered to the United States, and the war is over. His voice emerges from an old wooden console radio. There is a cut to a long shot, and we see a group of grade school children standing at attention on a playground, facing the radio, which is on a table. The movie will tell the story of these children during the next year or so, as peace comes to Japan and the nation begins a love-hate relationship with America.

The kids are fifth-graders. They did not cry when surrender was announced, although their teacher did. It is a little hard to tell exactly what they felt. There is great excitement at the news that the American conquerors are about to arrive on their little island - although the conquerors in person are a little disappointing, a couple of jeep loads of soldiers. The school's principal comes around and instructs the children to blot out certain warlike passages in their schoolbooks. Life begins to return to normal.

But there is still a lot of unfinished business. The father of one of the students is tried as a war criminal. The fiance of the schoolteacher returns, but she is ashamed to see him, because she has "dishonored herself" by having sex with another man. In fact, she has been raped, but Japanese women had not then become liberated enough for her to see it that way. The stories of several different characters unfold randomly, in bits and pieces, as the film collects the ways in which these Japanese from a small island react to the aftermath of war. Their feelings are ambiguous. The director of the film, Mosahiro Shinoda, confesses that after making it he was still not sure exactly what his characters were feeling. That uncertainty is reflected in the relationship the children have with the game of American baseball. They start a team. Their grandmothers try to sew baseball gloves for them. They practice after studying pictures out of books. They name themselves the "Tigers," after rejecting the "Senators." They are not very good, but in playing at all, they are reflecting an ambiguous fascination with America.

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/macarthurs-children-1985

 

We are exposed to such a panoply of images and events, Mr. Ebert feels there is a lack of focus and perhaps there is. Fifth graders are not reknown for their focus. It is like a collage. There seem to be some images and some character types that stand out:

First we open with the Emperor's Radio Address announcing acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, August 15, 1945.

This is followed by clips of MacArthur's arrival, the surrender ceremonies aboard the Missouri, other GIs landing, scenes of returning, repatriated soldiers.

Of course, the school is a special "site," a kind of touchstone or "home base" throughout the film--note that recurring shot through the doors out into the schoolyard that is repeated numerous times in the film, including the final scene where the is a moment of silence before "In the Mood," kicks in and the credits begion to roll..

It is the site where we see some of the Occupation reforms are enacted:

Censorship

Democracy

Equality between the sexes

The importance of a strong moral base that the Sensei (Teacher) provides

A powerful scene occurs when the Teacher, Komako, is in class, presumably the morning after Tetsuo has forced himseself on her, and she is telling the students how they must face the future with courage and morals, She is clearly very emotional and the children sense something is wrong. She speaks about Occupation Reforms and how they must not take away people's spirit or soul; Japanese must still learn to hold their heads up and be proud. She is talking TO the kids and about Japan's future but also about herself and what Tetsuo (and the prewar family system) DID to her. She, too, wants to be able to hold her head up high and not feel that her life must be defined by what happened to her.

Shrines also recur as an image, espcially the Kompira Shrine on the island of Shikoku. There is a traditional festival at the end, too.

We see the GIs land and do their thing at the battery. In a bit of comic relief, the children speculate openly about what they have overheard the elders say: Americans have large penises. We also see how they interact with Japanese culture a little.

We see old-style theater performances updated to incorporate contemporay events and issues.

We see the modern bar and "panpan" scene (mizu-shobai). We could recall Dower's description in the early chapters of the kasutori culture, etc.

We also have the "good things" and the "bad things" going on in the film:

Komako-sensei, an anchor, a moral compass, embodies what is good and strong;

The spirit, the future

 

Tetsuo, a young man with no moral compass, no vision for Japan's future; he just wants to have a good time; cannot be serious and take on responsibility of family business

Nature, the environment, the beauty of Awajijima and the Inland Sea

 

The gangster or hoodlum crowd; the lure of the fast life, the demimonde, with gaudy shirts, the women dressed like "panpan" girls, a life of pure"sleaze."

Quick money, sesnuality, and material gain captures the dreams of people;

also, this is pure hedomism: alcohol, drugs, sex--escaping the disappointment of defeat, and the destruction of the war

Masao, returning soldier, thought dead but here he is, an amputee and he was once a college baseball star from Keio University;

and he is also associated with the Kompira Shrine on Shikoku;

Moreover, Masao will go to work for the Agricultural Cooperative growing flowers

nurturing the Dafffodil fields, and going about it scientifically,

bringing in progress to rebuild Japan; Masao understands that the traditional fishing occupation is not sustainable; he is making a New Plan, an ecologically sound, sustainable plan.

Themes: Hope, Rebirth, Growth

 


"Kasutori Culture," a cult of "degeneracy and nihilism," the Black Market, Prostitution, Drugs, Alcohol, Gambling;

a response to "liberation from authority and dogma;"

a sense of seize the moment for who knows what tomorrow may bring;

**Kasutori shochu was made by using the left overs from sake brewing, the dregs, and fermenting them again. It's kind of rotgut like moonshine or white lightning.

Youth--this film is seen through the eyes of 5th graders. It's all about their naivete, their "spirit," their fears, their misunderstandings, and their learning experiences;

and of course Baseball, which in Japan captures the spirit of Youth,

it involves a respect for effort even if the result is not wonderful!

people need a spirit and a will to triumph over their circumstances

 

Unhealthy Relationships, "Mizu-shobai," the night life, prostitution, cheating

Love, both young love and mature love--Masao and Komako must overcome a great deal

 

Selfishness, greed, materialism, nihilism

Of course, most of all, we see humor and warmth at a time when the world is being turned upside down. We find "traditonal" Japanese things--shrines, festivals, theatre performances, singing dancing...juxtaposed against the more crass versions of the modern, the contemporary, the soulless, materialistic, directionless, hedonistic culture, the sleazy world of bars, drugs, prostitution, the Black Market and the ill-gotten gains it brings.

 

See the Internet Movie Database (IMBd) review at: http://uk.imdb.com/Title?0088093

And TV Guide Movie Database: http://www.tvguide.com/movies/database/ShowMovie.asp?MI=5539


Following its surrender to America, Japan had a number of adjustments to go through. This film shows how its kids coped with just this. Focusing on a fifth grade class in a small fishing village, subjects such as censorship and vengeance are addressed. Yet, the main question is "Can the group of preteens maintain its identity as the U.S.A. 'invasion' attempts to alter its concept of what it means to be Japanese?" A significant subplot involves the fifth grade teacher; believing her husband killed in the war, the woman's brother in-law desires to do more than just court her, which is against the widow's wishes. Seen mostly through the eyes of one of the boys (Takaya Yamauchi), we also watch a touching story unfold that includes the detrimental rebellion of one of the lead's friends and the tragedy of his first love affair with a female peer (Shiori Sakura). Both funny and sad; highly praised. Based on the book by Yu Aku as well as director Masahiro Shinoda's childhood memories.

from: http://www.cvmc.net/movie.jsp?movie_id=2048

See an interview with Shinoda and his wife :

http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/conversations/Shinoda_Iwashita/shinoda_iwashita2.html

 

A few years ago, at the Portland International Film festival, I saw the film reviewed below. It was, in a way, MacArthur's Children revisisted. Very different, of course, but sharing a carnivalesque, baroque kind of spirit. Come to find out that he also made a film about Ozaki Hotsumi about whom Dower had a lot to say (pp. 192-195) because of the immense popularity of his prison letters to his wife. Incarcertated for his part in the Sorge Spy ring, here is a recent note I found about Shinoda's "trilogy" plus one that he completed on the postwar epoch. I quote from the Yale University website http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/ceas/shinoda.html:

But starting with MacArthur’s Children, continuing with Childhood Days and Setouchi Moonlight Serenade, and culminating with Spy Sorge, Shinoda has increasingly turned to representing Japan’s wartime and immediate postwar experience.  He has stated that Spy Sorge is the culmination of his ideas on this modern history, and that it will be his last film.

I find this interesting. I have never seen Childhood Days (Shonen jidai) but I saw the obvious links between the two films that have Setouchi (Inland Sea) in their title: Setouchi shonen yakyuu dan and Setouchi Munraito Serenade. Notice also what the writer has to say about Ozaki possibly being some kind of inspiration for the Noge character in No Regrets:

SPY SORGE
In Spy Sorge, director Shinoda Masahiro takes on one of Japan’s most infamous spy incidents.  During World War II, a spy ring organized by Richard Sorge, a handsome and debonair employee of the German embassy in Tokyo, passed on crucial Japanese government and military secrets to the Soviets, ones that would have profound impact on the outcome of the war.  He was caught and executed in November 1944, but only at a point when he could brazenly declare, “There are no more secrets in Japan left to steal!”  His main Japanese collaborator, Ozaki Hotsumi, became material for movies, in particular Kurosawa Akira’s postwar masterpiece No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kui nashi, 1946).  Ten years in the planning, Spy Sorge wields a multi-national cast featuring Ian Glen and Motoki Masahiro, locations in Berlin and Shangai, as well as expert computer graphics to recreate the historical context and convey the immense scope of the incident. Spy Sorge is Shinoda Masahiro’s epic interpretation of modern international history.

Anyway, here is the review of Setouchi Moonlight Serenade, Shinoda's "sequel" to MacArthur's Children:

 

from: http://www.filmfestivals.com/berlin97/bfilmc3.htm


No Japanese director has focused more attention on the period immediately after Japan's defeat in the Pacific War than Masahiro Shinoda. The 'MacArthur' years, when the US tried to steer Japan down a path of democracy, saw enormous changes in everything from the country's social cohesion and long-held notions of cultural uniqueness to the crime statistics; this did mark the birth of a 'new' Japan, if not entirely in the way America expected. Shinoda (who was 15 when the war ended) brought an adult eye to his childhood memories of the period in MacArthur's Children and [and in the youthful character,]Takeshi — Childhood Days [Shonen jidai, a 1990 film directed by Shinoda]. Now, in Moonlight Serenade, he offers his most searching analysis yet of those crucible years.


Framed by images of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which triggers memories in the mind of the writer Keita Onda, the film chronicles a sea-journey from Kobe to Kyushu. The Onda family travels to bury the remains of its eldest son (a war casualty) in the family temple in Miyazaki; the father Kokichi, a stern, tradition-minded cop, sees the journey as a moral imperative, since he was the one who sent his underage son into the army. The cancellation of trains forces them to take an overcrowded ferry, and Kokichi's unbending principles preclude bribing the crew for a cabin. Along the way, Kokichi faces a series of challenges to his uptight view of the world: resistance from his long-suffering wife; rebellion from his second son Koji, who wants to run away; and friendly assistance from a 'criminal' black-marketeer. All of this is seen through the eyes of the 10-year-old Keita, who believes mistakenly that the family is on its way to a group suicide. By centering his film on the softening of an authoritarian, Shinoda provides a warm, humorous and deeply humane key to the formation of modern Japan.

Tony Rayns


(Dir): Masahiro Shinoda
(Scr): Katsuo Naruse
(Cast): Kyozo Nagatsuka, Junji Takada, Shima Iwashita
(Running time): 110 Minutes

Many of you might not recall the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 but to see those fires in the opening moments of this film and then to follow this with a grown man's recollection of his pilgrimage to the family burial spot on the island of Kyushu by ferryboat in the early postwar years--it is very compelling. A truly wonderful film!

Another NYT Review: Review Summary

Continuing the Setouchi trilogy -- which began with 1984's MacArthur's Children -- this film looks at Japan just after World War II. The film opens with documentary footage of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake that flattened Kobe. The devastation reminds an elderly Keita Onda of the ruined landscape of Kobe just after the Allied bombing raids, which he witnessed from his home on nearby Awajishima Island. Cut to 1945, when Keita's father, Kokichi (Kyozo Nagatsuka), receives the ashes of his eldest son who died on the battlefield. A rigid traditionalist, Kokichi decides to follow custom and return the ashes to his son's birthplace in Kyushu. He hires out a car -- a lavish expense that has the neighbors' tongues wagging about a possible mass suicide. Instead, the family -- consisting of the father, the mother Fuji (played by Shinoda's wife, Shima Iwashita), Keita (Hideyuki Kasahara), daughter Hideko (Sayuri Kawachi), and teenaged son Koji (Jun Toba) -- end up on a ferry bound for the south of Japan. Koji and his father are locked in a battle of wills. While dad preaches the value of tradition, Koji is much more interested in all things American. As the film progresses, Koji falls for a beautiful war-orphan named Yukiko (Hinano Yoshikawa). Also featured in this film are side stories about other passengers on the boat, including a sweet-talking black marketer who enlightens Kokichi on the joys of foreign liquor, a drug-addled soldier who falls in love with an impoverished woman about to turn tricks just to eat, and a dapper middle-aged man who jumps from the boat. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi