Seen in Jeonju

Dear Soldier (1944)

10th October 2010

dear soldierNot too long ago, I had written a short review of Military Train (1938) and three years earlier, Angels on the Street (1941).  Both of these films were made expressly to to promote the policies of the Japan and in both of those movies, the points promoting the views of the office of the Governor General were, for the most part, delivered subtly. Both of those films had a typical story with a plot that moved along and a crisis to be solved. There were characters that we could identify and care about. Dear Soldier is not like those other films at all. It was made in 1944. Japanese rule was at its strictest–Korean language was forbidden, resources from Korea, including human resources, were being used to fight the Pacific War. What started out as a volunteer system for gathering soldiers on the peninsula, as seen in the film Volunteer (1941) soon turned to conscription. However, Dear Soldier does not feature a plot that advances. Time passes for the characters but we actually learn remarkably little about them. They are Everymen and are supposed to exemplify how young men and their families should deal with the draft. By 1944, Japan was in desperate straits and the war was not going well. The general in the film announces that these first draftees whom we watch will be the first of untold thousands from the peninsula. There was certainly a desire to make the process of conscription and training seem as pleasant as possible.

The movie pulls out all the stops and makes joining the Japanese military appealing. Vats of rice are shown being prepared for the soldiers. Chicken and meat are prepared on shelves in industrial-sized ovens. The recruits are given more snacks and cookies than they can eat. The importance of food shoul not be under estimated. It was in short supply in the later days of Japanese rule. In fact, the same director who made this film, Bang Han-joon, made another that same year, The Story of Big Whales, which was to convince people that the whalin/fishing industry was not in trouble and their hungry days would soon be over. Seeing so much food supplied to the recruits must have made the idea of being forced to join the army somewhat better for at least a few young men.

The basic training and boot camp, as depicted in this movie, seemed very comfortable, more like a vacation than training. Characters express at several points in the film that the army is more like a family than job. In fact, characters show absolutely no concern for their true families. One recruit’s wife gives birth to his daughter. Does he ask for a leave of absence? No, even when it is suggested he simply says “Don’t make a big deal out of it. Let’s do the laundry.” He has no need to worry. His wife reported that she is fine. The families of the soldiers are equally guilty of a lack of concern. One set of parents go to visit their son, but are content to just meet his sergeant because “Meeting his superior is even better than meeting <their son>.” 

One of the reasons families, in particular mothers, do not worry about their sons and vice-versa is that they have received personalized letters from the Governor General telling them to be proud of their sons as they serve Japan. This is apparently quite an honor and the families all gush on about how they now have a relationship with the top members of of the government. Of course, this would be a useful thing, but my first thought was that this was a form letter that some clerk stamped with an official seal and filled without the Governor General ever seeing them…

The movie focuses on two young men, Jenki Hiramatsu and Eichi Yatsumoto. Wait–those aren’t Korean names? Why are they being drafted from Choseon?  Make no mistake, they are Koreans. One of the changes that had occurred in the three years since Volunteer (where the main character was named Choon-ho) was that Koreans were now being required to take Japanese names. We saw in Angels on the Street that characters were sporting names like Mary and John and even in Radio Dayz, depicting life in Korea during the 1930s,the main characters were called Lloyd and Marie. However, families were required to take Japanese names and even Korean language was discouraged. One fact that I failed to mention about this film is that it was filmed entirely in Japanese. There was no more onscreen Korean and children at this point were being taught exclusively Japanese language in schools.

Dear Soldier cannot be considered an entertaining movie. Nor does it give us a chance to glimpse what life was like in Korea in the last days of Japanese rule. What we know must be inferred by what is not being said. For example, at one point the general tells the new recuits that “In the army, their is no discrimination.”  There was, in fact, discrimination against Koreans in this time period even as they were being exposed to the idea that Korea and Japan was, and always had been, one nation. It was, however, an interesting film and a strangely fascinating example of movies as propaganda.

By this point in time, Japan was fully in control of the film industry and had turned it into a virtual propaganda machine. Director Bang was supportive of this situation and the idea of Korea and Japan being unified. He stated in an interview regarding the control that “It is natural that the film industry in this situation (wartime) be controlled and united (with that of Japan) and it is also most urgent for the technical development of film.” It is true that Japan did develop many areas of society. Unfortunately, it did not benefit the majority of the Korean people until Japan was forced to leave at the end of World War II and left behind what they had built.

Comments are closed.