Wednesday 30 April 2003

Missing Persons

Scene from Naruse's Meshi (Repast)Earlier this evening I slipped over the Harbor Bridge to see Naruse’s Meshi (Repast, 1951) at the Japan Foundation. Audie Bock, in Japanese Film Directors, describes Meshi as:

Superb psychological description with a minimum of plot and a maximum of nuance, the kind of woman’s film Ozu tried to make in his 1952 Flavor of Green Tea over Rice but could not surpass Naruse. A childless couple living in the Osaka suburbs are drifting apart. The woman dreams of escape from the dreary life of a low-salaried white-collar worker’s wife, and returns to her family in Tokyo, where she hopes to find a job. In a trapped ending Naruse added to Hayashi Fumiko’s unfinished novel, the woman resigns herself to going back to her husband.

Naruse and Mizoguchi are known in Japan as feminisuto (feminist) directors—meaning not so much that they are committed to equality for women as that they made films sympathetic to the female point of view. (The Japanese have this endearing—or, depending on your point of view, irritating—habit of reinterpreting foreign loan words in ways that bear little resemblance to their original meanings. Accordingly, my Japanese-English dictionary defines feminisuto primarily as “a man who is polite and attentive to women”, adding almost as an afterthought “a person involved with the struggle for women’s rights”).

Despite the fact that Naruse handles the wife’s decision to return to her husband more convincingly than Ozu, I prefer Flavor of Green Tea over Rice—even though it is generally regarded as one of Ozu’s lesser films.

Still, a few lines of dialog in Naruse’s Meshi touched me deeply. In Tokyo, the unhappy wife, Michiyo (played by Ozu’s favorite actress, Hara Setsuko), is talking to her mother who tells her bluntly that she should return to her husband. If she’s not careful, her mother says, he may find another woman.

“Who’d be interested in him?” asks Michiyo scornfully.

“There are lots of women,” her mother replies.

And it suddenly struck me—as it no doubt did Michiyo—that there were lots of women, eager to have a man, in Japan in 1951, since so many Japanese men were dead or missing. Michiyo has already encountered an old school friend who, six years after the end of the war, still doesn’t know what has happened to her husband. Later she sees the woman again, selling newspapers in the street to support herself and her young child.

In Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II, John Dower describes the efforts individuals made to locate missing loved ones:

Throughout the country, makeshift notice boards carried handwritten notes asking for information about missing family members or providing information about the writer’s own whereabouts. This was not just a phenomenon of the months immediately following surrender. Beginning in January 1946, a radio program called Returnee News provided ongoing information concerning the names of incoming repatriates as well as their vessels and ports of entry. When this proved inadequate, a program called Missing Persons was introduced in June 1946. Almost immediately, the station was inundated with four to five hundred written inquiries a day in addition to dozens of phone calls. By August, broadcast time had been increased to twice daily, five days a week. For a while the program included a special segment—“Who Am I?”—devoted to inquiries from disoriented returned veterans. Missing Persons had considerable success in accomplishing its mission. Initially, some 40 to 50 percent of the inquiries it broadcast were answered, and until 1950 the program continued to clear up the whereabouts or announce the deaths of significant numbers of individuals. Missing Persons continued on the air until March 31,1962.

Between 1.6 and 1.7 million Japanese soldiers surrendered to Soviet forces in Manchuria and northern Korea, of whom 300,000 remain unaccounted for. Dower recounts how, in 1950 (the year before Meshi was made):

General MacArthur received a remarkable appeal from some 120,000 individuals living in Shiga Prefecture, all of them relatives of still-missing soldiers. It was accompanied by an unusual gift, laboriously made over an eight-month period: an embroidered portrait of MacArthur, to which all 120,000 petitioners had each contributed a stitch. The inspiration for this striking present lay in one of the more intimate symbolic acts of the war years—the practice of sending soldiers cloth stomach warmers sewn with a thousand stitches, each by a different person. Both making and wearing the sennin-bari haramaki (“thousand-stitch belly bands”) were affirmations of the closeness between men fighting abroad and their communities, especially their womenfolk, back home. A short letter accompanying the gift thanked the supreme commander for his “immeasurable compassion” in ensuring the repatriation of millions of Japanese, and pleaded for his continued endeavors on behalf of those who still remained abroad. Four and a half years after the surrender, great numbers of people still wrestled with grief and uncertainty, and cherished the hope that their shattered lives might be made whole again.

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I'm trying to imagine a portrait with each tiny stitch made my one single person. How that must have impacted on MacArthur, who was, if nothing else, a man enamored of the symbolic.

The uncertainty of the missing is more traumatic than the certainty of the dead.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour