For more than 20 years Masahiro Shinoda has been one of Japan’s leading directors, but he is little known abroad except among admirers of Japanese films. That may be beginning to change, for Orion has picked up his “MacArthur’s Children,” now at the Cineplex.
“MacArthur’s Children” represents a marked departure for Shinoda, whose most famous film is the striking period piece “Double Suicide.” Unlike his previous works, which tend to be austere, highly stylized and even bizarre, his new film is a straightforward, highly accessible, heart-tugging account of the impact of the end of World War II on the inhabitants, especially the children, of a small island community on Japan’s Inland Sea. Last year “MacArthur’s Children” became Japan’s top grosser--and the most successful film of Shinoda’s career.
“But when I announced that I was going to make it, everybody said nobody’s going to come,” Shinoda said through his interpreter as he sat in a West Hollywood hotel room the other day. At 54, his hair now steel gray, Shinoda has a streak of mischievous, often unquotable humor that surfaces in his conversation as it does in his films.
“They said, ‘Nobody will go to a movie with children playing baseball, because baseball is more exciting on TV.’ Or they said, ‘Nobody wants to see how we lost the war,’ or ‘Who’s interested in a story set on a small island?’ So you see we didn’t have any of the usual successful ingredients.
“But most of the public liked it, because it showed exactly how Japan was 40 years ago, and they loved the children. All the critics couldn’t believe I had made a picture that appealed to the general audience.”
In Yu Aku’s novel, upon which the film is based, Shinoda saw a chance to recapture what he calls “the pure Japanese spirit, which we are now losing in these prosperous times. It was the perfect time for me to make the film. If I had waited another 10 years, maybe I would be too old. In making this film, I now realize that it has taken me 40 years to accept the fact that Japan lost the war.”
At war’s end, Shinoda was 14 and living in the city of Gifu in central Japan, where his family had lived for 400 years and where he was born, one of nine children of a precision auto machinery manufacturer. As V-J Day drew closer, Shinoda was taken out of junior high school and put to work maintaining planes at an air corps field. “Since it was a job for grown-ups, for professional mechanics, I really began to feel for the first time that the situation was critical for Japan. Then one day 300 B-29s started bombing us, and I thought, ‘My God, this is the end of the world!’ Then they told us to start digging foxholes--I felt like an insect, sitting in mine. Up till then I really did believe that our Japanese god would destroy all our enemies as he had done in the past.”
Shinoda’s father’s factory was taken over by the army, which paid him, but he lost all his profits after the war because he had not invested the soon-worthless currency. Shinoda’s mother died soon after the war; he attributes the death of three of his sisters from lung disease to the effects of malnutrition. An elder brother, reported as lost in Manchuria, returned unharmed. “I will never forget the expression on my mother’s face when we learned that he had been found,” Shinoda said. “Until then I had been the eldest son for a long time, but when he returned, all the love was shifted to him. That was when I learned what it was to be lonesome.”
“MacArthur’s Children” has wonderfully telling details, some from Shinoda’s own experience. “For example,” he said, “there’s the scene in which one boy, upon learning of Japan’s defeat, destroys all his paintings of warships. I didn’t paint any warships, but I did do a lot of writing about how I wanted to die for our emperor, and at the moment of our surrender I felt compelled to tear up all my writings. And, when I staged a scene in which an American jeep drives up some stairs, the shock of seeing that 40 years ago came back to me.”
Making the film was a learning experience for both Shinoda and the children, who were all non-professionals. He found himself coming to terms with the past while he was explaining it to them. “When I talked to the children, I found they believed that we had declared war on Russia, not America. Because the U.S. and Japan are so close, they could not believe we made war against America. It was only after the film was finished that the children finally realized what the war had been like.”
Shinoda had never before worked with children and was surprised to discover what natural actors they are (“but I had to pull it out of them,” he admitted). One 12-year-old girl, Shiori Sakura, is especially remarkable as the brave, stoic daughter of an admiral who faces charges as a war criminal, a virtual death sentence. “Oh, she was very shy and never talked to adults, only to other kids,” recalled Shinoda. “But she had a strong intellect.
“If I had made this film a few years after the war, it would have been very tragic, very sad. I would never have been able to have had a sense of humor about anything in it. But I have learned that the truth lies between the happiness of the small children, who adapted so easily when we lost the war, and the tragedy that I, as a 14-year-old, felt. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film.”