Opening this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival is Takahisa Zeze’s war drama Fragments of the Last Will, a tragic but hopeful story from a little-known chapter of Russo-Japanese history.
Based on the true story of Hatao Yamamoto (Kazunari Ninomiya), one of more than half a million Japanese soldiers taken to the Soviet Union after World War Two, the film tells of his battle to keep hope alive and keep his promise to his wife (Keiko Kitagawa) waiting for his return.
Taken to labor camps after surrendering to the Soviet Army in China, the soldiers, and some civilians, were put to work for years in Siberia and across Stalin’s empire in contravention of multiple international treaties and conventions. Some were not allowed to return home for more than a decade. Estimates of the number who died range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; comprehensive records are unavailable.
“I was born in 1960, four years after the last groups were repatriated to Japan, so while I was aware that Japanese soldiers had been taken to Siberia, I didn’t know that much about it until I read the book that the film is based on,” explains Zeze, who recalls a hit song from his childhood about a mother longingly waiting for her son’s return at the port where the ships bringing the former captives back home would dock.
Zeze forged his directorial career in Pink Eiga, softcore erotic theatrical features that gave helmers a great deal of artistic freedom. Many of his productions from that time and his later art house films featured immigrants, and alienated people and visitors from elsewhere. The themes in Fragments of the Last Will of people crossing borders to another country, and then being forced to travel still further to strange lands thus resonated with Zeze.
“I visited Okinoshima, the island far off the coast of Shimane where Hatao Yamamoto grew up. It was once where criminals and others were exiled to. It feels like a place at the ends of the earth,” explains Zeze. “His life was somehow like that of an immigrant.”
With memories of the war inevitably fading in Japan, the director believes that films that make people reflect on these events in the nation’s history are more vital than ever.
“Japanese people now only know times of peace, but we should remember that there are conflicts happening in places all around the world, including the one between Russia and Ukraine,” suggests Zeze.
The director adds that having such a film of his selected to open the Tokyo festival is a matter of both joy and pride, and something he could never have imagined as a young director of erotica.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Zeze’s art house films, and even his Pink Eiga, were known for his tackling political themes, something rarely found in mainstream productions in Japan.
“The overarching aim of Japanese films is to be seen by as many people as possible, therefore political topics are difficult because politics divides audiences,” says Zeze. “And most major films in Japan are made by production committees which are made up of people from various companies with differing opinions that have to be accommodated, and so you inevitably end up with kind of vanilla products.”
“But Japan is where we live and make a living in the movie business, so that is the situation we deal with,” adds Zeze with a smile.
His next film, based on a novel, is a boxing tale starring Koji Sato and Ryusei Yokohama as a veteran trainer and his pugilistic protégé.
On the question of whether he’d consider making another Pink Eiga were the opportunity to arise, Zeze points out that almost no such films are now made and there are almost none of the theaters that used to show them left.
“But I would be interested in making another low-budget film where I would have the same kind of freedom we had with Pink Eiga,” he says.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter