Filmmaker says Japan needs reminders of war's horrors

Veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada told the Berlin film festival Friday he made his new 1940s drama “The Little House” for a generation of compatriots who seem oblivious to the horrors of war.

Yamada, 82 said the picture, his latest release in 60 years of filmmaking and based on a best-selling novel by Kyoko Nakajima, aimed to explain the devastating impact of World War II to younger audiences.

“People from that era are slowly but surely all dying — the last people who really know what it was like during wartime,” he said through an interpreter.

“The sense that the war was a catastrophe, that it was dreadful, that it was cruel, that it was a tragedy — the sense that you have to learn from that and never repeat that again.”

The director said the themes were bitterly relevant at a time of heightened tensions between Japan and China and after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inflammatory visit to a contested Japanese war shrine in December.

“The whole government, the prime minister and so on, they’re all from the post-war era so there’s a real generational divide from those who experienced the war,” Yamada said.

“I think we should be against this kind of official visit,” he added, referring to Abe’s stop at the shrine that honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 war criminals from World War II.

– Bullish about quick victory –

The film tells the story of a university student in today’s Japan whose childless great-aunt Taki has just died.

She had been hand-writing her memoirs in her twilight years about her tumultuous time as a maid and nanny in her youth in the home of a toy company executive, his beautiful wife and their sickly son.

Coming from a lower class and with dismal prospects for marriage, Taki is delighted to arrive at The Little House in Tokyo, a lovely structure which looks like it could have emerged from a Frank Lloyd Wright sketchbook.

But the man of the house, Masaki, quickly becomes distracted by preparations for war, as he and his fellow businessmen appear bullish about Japan’s prospects for a quick victory and the opening of a conquered China to their business.

His wife Tokiko, an elegant woman who reads Western novels such as “Gone With The Wind” in her spare time, meanwhile falls hard for a co-worker of her husband’s, an artistic type whose health problems mean he’s unlikely to be drafted — at least at first.

Yamada portrays the heady optimism of those years as the population was duped by state propaganda that Japan would win the war, a phenomenon he said he vividly remembered from his own childhood.

“All the newspapers were saying ‘Japan will be victorious, Japan will be victorious’ but of course that was not true,” he said.

The director said the illicit love affair as told in the story would have been fraught with risk for all involved, particularly the wife who could have faced criminal charges.

He said he based a final scene when the home is hit in an air raid with incendiary bombs on memories from the war.

“When they fell, they exploded a little like fireworks,” he said.

“Those who experienced it said it might sound peculiar — bang! — but it looked beautiful.”

“The Little House” is one of 20 films in competition for the Berlin festival’s Golden Bear top prize, which will be awarded on Saturday.

Japanese director Yoji Yamada during a photocall for the film “Chiisai Ouchi” (The Little House) presented in the Berlinale competition of the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, on February 14, 2014

Japanese actress Haru Kuroki attends the press conference for the film “Chiisai Ouchi (The Little House)” presented in the Berlinale competition of the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, on February 14, 2014

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