The Making of ‘Best Wishes for Tomorrow’
New movie looks for honor amid the recriminations of war
W ar crimes constitute one of the leading issues of our time. But what exactly is a war crime, who should be held responsible, and how should perpetrators be brought to justice?
Whether we are talking about World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other conflict, the principles and execution of justice should be the same for all sides.
Let me cite one example.
Bombers are on a mission to drop high-explosive incendiary devices on a city. There are no military bases in or around the city, nor are there factories manufacturing goods of military significance. The purpose of the mission is to terrorize the local population and, it is hoped, cause them to abandon the will to fight.
The bombers successfully destroy civilian targets in the city, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 people and injuring many times that number. However, 38 fliers parachute out of their planes and are captured by the enemy. These fliers assume that they will be treated as prisoners of war and dealt with according to the rules set out in the Geneva Conventions. But their captors consider them not prisoners of war, but war criminals. They are given a summary trial before a military tribunal, sentenced to death and executed.
Massive and indiscriminate aerial bombardment, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties and leaving millions destitute and homeless, occurred across Japan during World War II. But it was in the Tokai area, centering on Aichi and Mie prefectures, that the above incidents took place. And it was in Nagoya and its vicinity that the 38 American fliers were decapitated, cremated and buried, the last of them on July 17, 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the war on Aug. 15.
After the war, the commander of the Tokai Army and 19 of his subordinates who had participated in the trial and execution of the Americans were arrested. They themselves were put on trial in Yokohama in 1948. The commander was Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada. The trial of Okada and his 19 subordinates forms the core of the story of the film “Ashita e no Yuigon (Best Wishes for Tomorrow)” that completed its shoot in the first week of July. I was fortunate to be able to write the script for this film, together with the director, Takashi Koizumi. We based the film both on the record of the trial itself, running to many thousands of pages, and on an account of it written by Shohei Ooka in his book “Nagai Tabi (A Long Journey)”.
In this film, we address the three questions at the opening of this article. Although the story of the trial is nearly 60 years old, I feel that the message coming out of it is totally relevant to our times. In an era of constant war crimes – be they caused by indiscriminate killing, torture under interrogation or any other gross infringement of human rights during a conflict – when the buck is passed as far down as it can be and leaders are not held to account for their heinous decisions, the story of Okada may show us another way of coming to terms with the aftermath of tragedy.
A MILITARY HISTORY
Tasuku Okada graduated from the Tottori Military School in 1909. He went on to study at the Military Staff College in Tokyo, from which he graduated in 1922. During the war Okada became commander of the 13th Area Army and subsequently commander of the Tokai Army, which was formed in early 1945.
After the war, Okada was arrested by the U.S. Eighth Army in Yokohama on Sept. 21, 1946, and arraigned on March 8, 1948. His trial began on March 8 and ended on May 19.
Okada was charged with ordering and causing his subordinates to prepare a plan of procedure, which he subsequently approved, to put to death captured American aircrew without the benefit of a proper trial.
American bombing of Japanese cities had been relentless during the last months of the war. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay was spearheading a policy of fire raids across Japan using incendiary clusters, white phosphorous bombs and napalm. On March 10, 1945, 334 B-29s attacked Tokyo, causing a firestorm that killed up to 100,000 people and led to thousands of subsequent deaths. LeMay is remembered for his bon mot that “there are no innocent civilians.” Over 60 Japanese towns and cities were carpet bombed.
Nagoya was bombed 38 times, with the heaviest loss of life occurring on May 14 when 486 B-29s released a total of 2,563 tons of bombs. Eighty percent of the city’s northern area was destroyed by fire.
The Commission for the Regulation of Aerial Warfare, held in The Hague in 1923, had stated: “Aerial bombardment is legitimate only when directed at a military objective. Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, or destroying or damaging private property not of military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited.”
Needless to say, countries did not respect this agreement. Britain was one of the first nations to flout it. Under Arthur (later, “Bomber”) Harris, Britain’s Royal Air Force bombed civilians in Iraq in the 1920s. On April 26, 1937, the German Luftwaffe, having adopted the then-novel tactic of carpet bombing, destroyed the town of Guernica in one of the Spanish Civil War’s most infamous incidents. As for the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally abhorred this practice. “It is my earnest hope,” he said in a speech on Sept. 18, 1939, not long after World War II had begun in Europe, “that the governments of the belligerent countries will renew their orders prohibiting the practice of bombing civilians in unfortified centers of population.” But this was before the U.S. had itself become a belligerent.
Okada’s defense was straightforward. He had judged the actions of the American fliers’ indiscriminate bombing to be an infringement of international law. He and his chief subordinates had created three categories by which to distinguish such enemy action.
Those who bombed military targets were deemed not to have violated international law and were held as prisoners of war. Those suspected of committing atrocities were tried by formal military tribunal. Those who clearly committed high crimes were stood before military tribunals where abridged procedures were followed. It was under this last category that the 38 captured aircrew were disposed of (shodan sareta).
Represented by Chief Counsel for the Defense Joseph Featherstone, Okada claimed that he had no choice but to deal with the fliers under this category. Every night had brought further destruction to his region, and his soldiers had had to protect the Americans from being lynched by an angry populace. After questioning the fliers as to the type of bombing that they undertook, he and his chief subordinates came to the conclusion that the bombing was indiscriminate. The interrogation report showed that the Americans had divided the city of Kobe, for instance, into six or eight sections and then carpet bombed each section in order to cover the entire city. The daylight raid on Kobe of June 5 alone produced 9,000 casualties, destroyed 55,000 homes and affected some 213,000 people.
Nagoya itself received many indiscriminate bombing attacks in 1945, though American intelligence had learned that by December 1944 all targets of major military significance had been destroyed. There were also no so-called “home industries” manufacturing military goods in the region.
The trial of the American aircrew by Okada’s subordinates was brief, lasting only about three hours, though many days had gone into the preparation of documents, which totaled some 150 to 200 pages in length. The Americans were afforded no counsel. Their personal defense, that they thought they were bombing military targets and, even so, could hardly be held responsible for following combat orders, held no sway. Okada approved the tribunal’s findings and the Americans were executed.
In the Yokohama trial of Okada and his 19 subordinates held under the auspices of the American Military Commission, Chief Prosecutor Richard Burnett pointed out the illegality of the summary tribunal by which the Americans were judged. In his final argument, he said that all of the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army could have been avoided if they had followed one rule: “Don’t bomb Pearl Harbor.”
After reading thousands of pages of transcripts of the trial, I came away with a firm impression of its fairness. The commission allowed the defense to indict the American bombardment of Japan as a war crime, and even went so far as to let references to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as possible war crimes be entered into the record.
Even Okada himself was impressed with his trial. Both in his testimony before the commission and in his private diary written in Sugamo Prison after sentencing, he praised the justice that he was dealt. For him, the trial was a legal battle to establish that the United States had violated international law. He was certainly not proud of his decision to execute the American aircrew and he actually fought against his own defense counsel by continually admitting his responsibility for what had happened to them at his hands.
I would like to quote from Okada’s final statement, given before sentencing. He said the following to the commission:
“When we think of our activities during wartime with a cool mind today, even we believe that what we did may well be criticized from the standpoint of jurisprudence.
“We have been coming to this court daily with a feeling of satisfaction and with the added feeling of gratitude to this court. [These feelings] are as clear as the blue sky without a single cloud in it. … I am sure that we – the people all over Japan – will be able to feel and hear the fair and generous attitude of the court…. I firmly believe that such a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction, with the United States being the elder brother and Japan the younger brother, will be the basis of the unification of spirit between the two countries.”
Okada’s only words to his wife, Haruko, who sat in the courtroom throughout the trial, were: “I am content.” This was as he was being led out of the Yokohama courtroom, after he was handed the sentence of death.
A FILMING HISTORY
The question now comes up: How do you make a film about these events? I do not believe in that allegedly antiwar type of film that purports to depict “war as hell.” So often these films, with their horrendous violence and gore, end up being seen as part of the genre of the horror film. Even more often, ardent patriots, in whatever country, root for their own side and wallow self-righteously in their victory. Having said that, it is no easy task to make a truly antiwar war film, one that people, after having seen it, will say, “I never want that to happen again, not to my people and not to anyone else’s.”
Films about war also seem to require heroes.
“Best Wishes for Tomorrow” has no heroes, unless we can consider the men who ran the military commission in Yokohama as such. Looking at the actual trial in 1948, I admire the passion of the defense counsel, the persistence of the prosecution and, above all, the impartiality of the members of the commission who, by secret ballot, judged and sentenced “Okada et 19.” This alone shows that there was once a balanced, humane and just America, one that was able to give its enemies, real or perceived, a fair hearing.
This story, and our film that depicts it, also shows, I would hope, that there is true virtue in assuming full responsibility for one’s actions. Okada’s trial and execution of the American aircrew were in no way praiseworthy. In addition, his defense of his subordinates, that they were only carrying out his orders, while genuinely compassionate, is at odds with his treatment of the American fliers, who themselves had no choice of action. Was a radio operator who got into a B-29 in Saipan and flew a mission over Nagoya responsible for the decision to destroy civilian life there? Of course he wasn’t. But Okada and his men judged him to be.
Such a double standard, which we are seeing today in conflicts all over the world, should never be upheld in a court of law. The people responsible for war crimes are primarily those who fashion the strategy and give the orders. The people who get tried for war crimes, however, are always those either way down the chain of command on the winning side or whoever can be captured, detained and arraigned on the losing side.
“Best Wishes for Tomorrow” is not my first experience with films about war. In 1982, I was assistant director on Nagisa Oshima’s film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” We filmed Senmeri, as it is called in Japan, at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. It struck me then with an immense poignancy that, in that tranquil and beautiful setting, we were re-enacting the most horrifying racial and national violence. Yet every morning the hotel dining room was bustling with Japanese actor-soldiers in uniform and emaciated western POWs (a lot of skinny extras flown in from New Zealand), all lined up at the fresh fruit buffet holding their trays, smiling and chatting together amiably.
After we do our utmost to rip each other apart during a war, a few solemn bows, some tentative shaking of hands, and all is gradually re-interpreted in light of our concert of interests in the present. Maybe some hard feelings and a few scores to settle…but, “so sorry,” “Merry Christmas” and let’s get down to business. The aftermath of war teaches us that there is no such thing as natural enemies among nations, only convenient friends. As we watch people today wallowing in hatred and the cut-throat acrimony of war, we can be pretty sure of one thing: that some years later we are all going to be together as friends again, swapping old stories and bent photographs. And making movies.
The set of “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” was an especially harmonious one. The tone of the encounters was established chiefly by two wonderful actors: Makoto Fujita, playing Okada, and Robert Lesser as defense counsel Featherstone. Lesser, as Featherstone, accessed an enormous fund of empathy for the general and what he was going through. I can think of very few American actors who could have handled this part with more depth and subdued passion.
Having been a child before and during the war, Fujita knew well the conditions and ethical values that shaped Okada’s mentality. “My elder brother,” he said, “volunteered for the Special Forces when he was 16 and was shot down over Okinawa a year later. After the filming is over, I plan to go to Kumejima in Okinawa where my brother lies somewhere on the seabed and tell him that he can now rest in peace.”
Military Commission President Louis Rapp was played masterfully by Richard Neil. When Richard read out the sentence, I felt that he was sharing in Rapp’s own admiration for Okada’s integrity. (Rapp and his commission recommended clemency for Okada after the trial, but Douglas MacArthur rejected the recommendation. Okada was hanged in September 1949.)
Fred McQueen as prosecutor Burnett exposed the weaknesses in Okada’s testimony, particularly as it related to abridged procedures taken in the trial of the American aircrew. Sumiko Fuji plays Haruko Okada. Haruko and her husband do not speak to each other during the entire film; yet, the silent stares and nods, given meaning by voice-over narration, tell of a profound love between them.
Koizumi has made three films to date, and all of them are distinguished by a quiet, lyrical style. His last film, “Hakase no Aishita Sushiki (The Professor and His Beloved Equation)” was particularly moving in its story about a mathematician who has lost his memory. When we were in early discussions about the script for “Best Wishes for Tomorrow,” he specifically told me not to make the story “dramatic.” What this meant is that we did not put in episodes portraying violence, and we hopefully avoided the kind of melodrama that often seeps into a film about war and its aftermath.
In other words, this film will be a kind of document in itself. There are some fictional episodes in it, of course. But it is essentially the true-to-life story of a man, told against the background of his times with a theme that is contemporary to ours. The opening shot of the film is Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Countries that are on the losing side of a war are not, as a rule, allowed to celebrate heroes. But that does not mean that they cannot reflect on what may have been heroic behavior.
Okada’s actions during the war as they related to the trial and execution of American aircrew were, in a word, reprehensible, though given the desperate circumstances in which he found himself and his people, equally comprehensible. These actions should never be held in high regard.
But a person who respects his former enemy’s judgment and takes upon himself the full responsibility for what he did in wartime, to the extent that he considers his own final sentence fair and proper, stands as an example, not only in 1948, but also in 2007.
There is no cause for self-righteousness after a war. There is only the unending pity that we must all feel if we are to stop ourselves from starting yet another one.
A film that brings this theme to light is an antiwar film
It is my hope that “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” will demonstrate that we are all victims in a war, whatever side we are on. There is nothing at all to be gained from the form of murder we commit with one hand over our heart. ❶