The Ants (Ari no Heitai) is a documentary about Japanese troops left in China after the Second World War and -- not by chance -- a heart-rending anti-war document.
The film follows Waichai Okumura, an elderly former Imperial soldier who fought against the communists in China's civil war. The men followed orders and fought like worker ants, "for the resurgence of Japanese imperialism."
When he was finally able to return to Japan nine years after WW II had ended, Okumura was stunned to find his government had disowned these soldiers. The men were described as mercenaries and denied their pensions; Okumura and a handful of the other soldiers (most are now dead) went after the Japanese government to tell the truth about why the men had been fighting.
In The Ants, Okumura travels back to China to try to find out for himself what happened. He is searching for proof of corruption in high places, hoping to prove that there was some sort of shady deal between his commander, General Raishiro Sumita, and Nationalist Army General Yan Xishan to have Sumita leave Japanese troops in China to fight Mao.
Okumura, with his spinal brace and his metal cane, goes to Shanxi Province to revisit his own post-war experience in China. It's an astounding trip for a man his age to take; it's an astounding journey for any man who has never before been able to bring himself to even talk about his war experiences with his own family.
In Ningwu County, where he was a recruit, Okumura talks about being trained to kill with a bayonet and about killing a local as part of that training. It was like a school of killing, he explains, and this was their final exam.
"This is where I became a demon," he says of the experience. He wants to find others who were there at the time, other witnesses: "I'd like to talk to someone who saw how horrible it all was ... to understand what war is."
In the course of his journey, Okumura finds out other things he might have been happier not knowing, like the brutal war deeds of a life-long friend, and he speaks to a Chinese woman who was beaten and raped by Japanese troops. Here is just about everything, in one documentary, that the Japanese people would like to forget about this whole chapter in their history.
You needn't know much about the specifics of Okumura's quest or the historical background of this story to appreciate The Ants and the message it delivers. The film (which must be hugely controversial in Japan, given the subject matter), is an account of one man's attempt to make sense of his own past and his participation in events that may be outside comprehension.
Okumura's search for the truth about certain events has a larger goal -- as he says to some teenagers at the start of the movie, "You didn't learn history? What if you have kids one day and they have to fight and die?" What indeed? The Ants, which is carried by sheer force of Okumura's character and courage, is in Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles. It plays at the Carlton.
(This film is rated PG)