* IN A MOVIE, ANYWAY
Ever feel like you've been thrust into a '60s revisionist version of WW2?
Not so much Catch-22. I'm thinking instead of 1965's The Battle of the Bulge, helmed by regular Disney director Ken Annakin, starring journeymen soldier actors Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw.
Far be it for me to tart up the battle itself, but I'd like to draw your attention to a subplot in that movie. It was one that related to the real-life, dueling-scar bearing German Waffen-SS commando, Otto Skorzeny, who assembled a unit of English-speaking German soldiers, dressed them up in American and British uniforms and dog tags snatched from corpses and POWs, and operated behind ememy lines (here read our side) to misdirect traffic and generally cause disruptions aplenty.
Operation Greif was nicknamed the Trojan Horse Brigade, as the Allies mistakenly believed Skorzeny & Co. were planning to kidnap or kill their commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The general was subsequently assigned a look-alike in Paris, while thousands of American MPs were waylaid from more important chores, and put to work instead trying to hunt down Skorzeny’s men.
The American MP bit is vaguely ironic, because this February, I got tapped on the shoulder to play an extra in a Japanese movie set just after WW2—as an American MP.
And I'm Australian.
None of the other 12 gaijin roped into the movie to play American MPs were from the USA, either. Russian, sure. French, German, Brazilian, British, another Australian. The closest we got was one Canadian.
Which brings me to the Battle of the Bulge reference.
Weird as it may have been to see so many people wearing WW2-era American GI and MP uniforms, more surreal was the fact that the majority of these "soldiers" didn't speak English without a heavy accent, and they preferred rattling on in Russian, French and—yes—German between takes.
It was like those phony enemy infiltrators from the Bulge all over again.
Oh yeah, but we each had tags to prove our international flavor. These read "Gaikokujin", which is basically another reference to gaijin, or foreigners—as if it wasn’t already obvious that we (collectively) stood out on the set like sore thumbs or dismembered left feet, with our white helmets, wooden truncheons, faux M1 Carbines, and menacing scowls.
One of the reasons for these scowls was the cold weather; another the god-awful coffee on offer. A third was the title of the movie itself. It's one that a lot of people here seem to have trouble translating into English: 私は貝になりたい Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai. The title has been variously interpreted, but seems to shape up best as I Want to be a Shellfish, and is listed on imdb.com under this moniker.
The preview is up on YouTube here: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=pFvpPv4mcqQ
Due for a theatrical release on November 22nd here in Japan, the movie stars actress Yukie Nakama (Trick, Shinobi, and one of the hottest faces in Japanese advertising right now), alongside Masahiro Nakai—a member of domestically über-famous J-pop band, SMAP.
Unfortunately, in my first two days on set doing the MP rounds, I didn't get to see either of these people (I later did get to meet Nakai-san at Toho), but it was February, a particularly cold winter, and the shoot was outdoors. No doubt they were somewhere cushy and warm with their feet up, laughing at the outtakes.
Instead I got to push and pull heavy prison gates, and wandered dusty streets with an actress dolled-up as a particularly unattractive prostitute. Going by this movie, all post-war hookers in Japan were hideous creatures, and American MPs six decades ago must've had remarkably open taste.
My only aspiration in this wasteland of extras was to ride about in the white on-set military jeep, which the Brazilian and the Canadian MPs got to do on both days. Lucky bastards.
They were the escorts for the military bus, on which rode Nakai's character, Toyomatsu Shimizu, who's been abruptly arrested as a war criminal following the cessation of hostilities in World War 2, and is now being tried for murder even though he believes he's not guilty of any wrong doing.
This story was also made as a TV drama last year, for NTV (ntv.co.jp/watakai/), starring Shido Nakamura from Letters from Iwo Jima and Death Note.
It's based on autobiographical notes by Tetsutaro Kato—during the war years, reputed to be one of the more brutal commandants of Niigata 5B POW camp, located 160 miles northwest of Tokyo—under the pen-name Ikuo Shimura.
During the subsequent occupation, Kato was tried and found guilty of an array of sordid activities, including beatings which left some POWs permanently disabled, and was sentenced to death by hanging for the bayonet execution of an American prison escapee named Frank Spears.
In 1959, Kato's yarn was adapted into a screenplay, dramatized, and directed by Shinobu Hashimoto—a man better known as the co-writer, with Akira Kurosawa, of Seven Samurai (1954)—and the movie starred Frankie Sakai, of Ghost Story of Funny Act in Front of Train Station (1964), and this blog's fave, Mothra (1961).
The ending was also vamped up to tweak the tragic.
Whereas Kato's sentence was conveniently commuted by Douglas MacArthur, thanks to family connections, and he left Tokyo's Sugamo Prison on good behavior in 1952, the fictional Toyomatsu Shimizu goes all the way to the noose.
Prior to his execution, Shimizu writes a long-winded farewell letter to his wife and son, the gist of which says that if ever he were to be reincarnated, he would hate to come back as a human being, and would prefer instead to be a shellfish living on the bottom of the sea.
Hence the strange title of this affair.
While Kato no doubt had a lot of time on his hands during his initial interment for war crimes, Sugamo Prison was an interesting place for the conjuring up of the original tale.
Built in the '20s to a European blueprint, the prison was located in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, on the site that the 60-storey Sunshine 60 building now stands, erected in the '70s as part of the Sunshine City shopping metropolis.
It's confided that the ghost of wartime Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo—himself an executed Class A war crim—haunts the retailers there, but in amenably Japanese style: after closing time.
So it came as some surprise to find myself dressed in that American MP uniform, standing beneath a huge sign that read "Sugamo Prison", with a big blue back-screen that'll no doubt be used to superimpose the CG ring-in for the prison complex itself.
My VIP job in this all-encompassing human drama?
Ceremonial gatekeeper. Sure, I got the helmet, the gun, and the girl. But I also had to drag two huge prison gates open and closed again, open and closed again, ad infinitum, as the director and his extensive crew shot and re-shot that white jeep (with the Brazilian and the Canadian) and a military bus driving through, for about eight hours all up.
Even more interesting, it seemed, was that the other gate-keeping sentry doing this manual labor was also an Aussie.
60 years on, Americans are, it seems, too busy for such mundane chores in Japan—as are the British, French, Brazilians, Germans and Russians.
Give the job instead to the newer kids on the block. It's a job that may in fact suit our talents, if you take into account that 220 years ago Australia started out as a penal colony.