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Senso Daughters (Senjo no Onnatachi)

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1989. 54 minutes

Reviewed by David Desser

Senso Daughters is an ambitious, deceptively complex video that participates in an on-going contro­versy revolving around Japa­nese behavior during the Second World War. While it deals with the so-called “For­gotten War,” Japan’s brutal and dehumanizing conquest of New Guinea beginning in 1942, it finds its controversial heart in the vexing issue of the “comfort women” used by the Japanese Army to satisfy the sexual needs of its soldiers.

Until 1992, the Japanese government refused even to publicly acknowledge that the military, from as early as 1932, forced women into sexual slavery to serve the Army over­seas. Figures vary as to the number of so-called “comfort women”—as Sensb Daughters indicates, record keeping on comfort women was virtually nonexistent, not so much out of a sense of trying to keep crimi­nal activity secret, but rather stemming from a refusal to acknowledge the basic human­ity of these women. However, it appears that no less than 80,000 and perhaps as many as 200,000 women were bru­talized in this manner. The majority of these comfort women were not Japanese, but instead were primarily Korean or Chinese.

“Comfort Houses” were set up throughout much of the region of the Pacific that the Japanese conquered: China, Hong Kong, Indochina, Burma, Thailand, Borneo, and New Guinea, among others. That the army, with the government’s tacit cooperation and even encouragement, had convinced itself of the neces­sity to set up these comfort houses, which forced women into sexual slavery, is one of the most horrifying aspects of the whole issue. Embarrassed by the reaction to the “Rape of Nanking,” (not the horrors committed by the soldiers, but the world-wide reaction to it) and concerned about the spread of venereal disease among the soldiers or the possibility of espionage occurring in unregu­lated houses of prostitution, the military made the sexual ser­vicing of its soldiers a high pri­ority. The Japanese govern­ment today has so far refused to make reparations to the sur­viving women.

While public discussion of this issue in Japan has been minor until recently, the Japa­nese have dealt in film with the issue of war-time prostitution. But these films, such as Nikutai no mon (Gate of Flesh), Sandakan hachiban shokan (Sandakan No. 8), or Imamura Shohei’s powerful documen­tary, Karayuki-san, focused on Japanese women whose forced prostitution differs in sub­stance, if not in essence, from the non-Japanese women forced into sexual slavery out of racist and misogynistic at­titudes.

There is a calm, presenta­tional style to Sensb Daugh­ters, thus removing any notion of sensationalism or exploita­tion of its powerful subject. In accented English, the film­maker narrates some of the factual material the audience needs to know (though, if any­thing, factual background and information are relatively lacking here), and we occa­sionally hear her questions to her New Guinean subjects. More significantly, the voices of the women who lived through the Japanese occupa­tion of their nation provide much of the drama here. Their memories of deprivation and hardship, of the fate of their husbands, of their occasional sexual servitude, is played in sharp counterpoint to the Japanese subjects inter­viewed. Scenes of an army gynecologist dispassionately discussing the “regulations” surrounding sexual relations between soldiers and comfort women, and displaying pho­tographs of his war-time of­fice; the casual racism of Japa­nese veterans who still seem to refuse to understand the moral crime of using comfort women; and the images of aging Japanese women outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo mourning the death of the Shbwa Emperor, bring some understanding of how such crimes came to be committed in the first place, and how refusal to acknowledge these crimes publicly contributes to on-going racism and xenopho­bia. One of the most telling revelations concerns a New Guinea mother who is embar­rassed by her affair with a Japanese officer, which re­sulted in a daughter, a true “sensO” (war) daughter whose patrimony was kept a secret from her until the production of this documentary enabled the mother to finally reveal her shame.

Image of one man and woman sitting in front of crowd
Scene from Sensa Daughters by Noriko Sekiguchi. Photo Courtesy of First Run Icarus Films

This video production attains its most subtle brilliance pre­cisely by allowing the New Guineans to speak for them­selves. The pidgin English spo­ken by the women as they re­late their tales of Japanese oppression serves to highlight the nature of imperialism, whether militaristic or cultural, in a par­ticularly acute manner. The Japanese deprived them of their land, food, sexual desires, their very freedom, but Ameri­can domination of much of the former Japanese territories has served no less to deprive them of a strong sense of identity and self. Thus, the bilingual title has a real symbolic force. That the women also relate to the narrator, almost in passing, the cruelty of the Australians who helped liberate them from the Japanese, serves to remind us that guilt is not exclusive to the Japanese when it comes to dealing with third-world peoples.

Finally, however, the most telling and chilling character we meet is not a “senso daugh­ter” at all, but a New Guinean man who proudly reveals to the video makers his total recall of Japanese songs he learned dur­ing the war. On two separate occasions, he sings in quite passable Japanese the war songs he heard the soldiers sing. Their lamentations for home or their paeans to sol­dierly camaraderie are eerily displaced when sung by a middle-aged New Guinea man. That he should remember these songs is not only a tribute to his intelligence, but also that he should try to impress a Japa­nese video maker in the 1990s with these memories is testi­mony to the powerful effects of imperialism on the mind as well as the body. Most disturb­ing of all, however, is the moment when he sings not a militarist lament, but a song of haunting sadness sung by women, Japanese women, forced prostitutes, brought to the island by the Japanese mili­tary. It is the song of these oppressed Japanese women sung by a New Guinean man fifty years later that ends the video on a truly haunting note.

Recommended for advanced high school classes and above.