A friend of mine here in Taiwan lent me what is probably the best historical documentary I have seen in a long time: 緣的海平線 SHONENKO 臺灣少年工的故事.
Whenever I come across a beautiful work like this, I am reminded of how horrible the vast majority of historical visual material I have seen in the way of television documentaries and other programs on the history of wartime or colonial East Asia. While the rich texture, narrative style, historical research, and quality of the content in this documentary are of the kind we have come to expect in, say, a US Civil War documentary, I wish I could say the same for much of what I have seen in our own field. I can only hope that this documentary can serve as a model to future content creators.
This documentary focuses on the lives of a group of children who were recruited to work in Japanese wartime industry in Japan and tells the story of their hopes, dreams, and the reality of their wartime and postwar suffering. It is mostly in the Taiwanese and occasionally Japanese languages but there are Japanese and English subtitles available.
I was really impressed with the amazing combination of materials they brought together for this high quality production: wartime films, plentiful pictures, primary documents, and interviews of the now elderly Taiwanese and some of the Japanese who interacted with the children (a teacher responsible for recruiting the children, and someone responsible for them in the factory).
The other thing which impressed me with this work was that the message of the program, unlike so many other documentaries on Japan’s war and colonial rule, wasn’t simply to beat the viewer in the head with how evil the Japanese empire was. The narrative is certainly a tragedy but the experience of the children, the deceptive promises of the initial recruitment (familiar surely to many young workers within Japan as well as in the colonies), their disappointment with what met them in Japan, the barbaric conditions of their work, their suffering at the hands of US bombing, and the fate that met them after the war was over all make for, surprise, surprise, a more complex experience that doesn’t lend itself well to a dedicated sermon against anyone or thing in particular. Instead we get a sensitive look at those who lived in and experienced total war, who worked around the clock in factories, repeated daily the exhortations to ever greater wartime production (e.g. 勝つために一機でも一艦でも多く前線へ送れ), who heard the sounds of falling bombs overhead, and then faced the horrors of a chaotic early postwar period in Japan or back to Taiwan or mainland China (as in the fascinating but tragic case of one of the children interviewed).