"Quiet please.... Action!"
So there I was, a prisoner of war headed back to camp after a long, hard day of forced labor. I was hot, tired, sun-burnt. The guard to my right glared -- ready to shoot me if given the slightest provocation. I avoided eye contact. Kept moving. As I walked past the Colonel, I could tell he was looking for a spy among us
Thats Japanese for "CUT!" The director still wasnt happy. It was at least the 17th time wed done that scene. We went back to our positions. The make-up ladies applied more "dirt" make-up to our faces and "sweat" (water out of a spray bottle) on our backs. Both mixed in with the real thing.
I was an extra: One of 100 foreigners selected to play prisoners of war for Imamura Shoheis newest film, Kanzoh Sensei (Dr. Akagi in English). Winning the Palme d Or for Unagi or "Eel" has made him one of the worlds most prestigious filmmakers, so its quite an honor to work with him even in a role as minor as mine.
He had certainly worked his magic on Okayama. Stepping off the bus and onto the set was like a time warp to August 1945. Of course there were cameras, film crews and my fellow foreign extras to remind me that this was fantasy, not fact. Besides, most of us looked more like rejects from Chuck Norris Missing In Action than real POWs. With lots of long hair, goatees (all the rage among soldiers in the Pacific), and tattoos in full view, I could see most of us were going to wind up on the editing room floor.
Like most soldiers, we were working on a strictly "need to know" basis in terms of storyline. That made it very hard for a "serious" method actor like myself to find my "motivation." (Ill have you know that back in high school, the Naked Man was quite the THESBIAN with leading roles in Once Upon A Mattress, Damn Yankees and Wheres Harvey). Anyway, I only know the story as told to me by another extra at the shoot:
Its about a 60-year-old doctor living in a small coastal town in Japan. Hes known as the "Liver Doctor" because his diagnosis is always the same: "Its your liver," he tells his patients. Also in this village is a girl who "likes sex" and gets paid for it. Shes about 20. The doctor likes her and doesnt want to see her selling her body (whether she enjoys it or not!) So he gives her a job as a nurse
and then has sex with her.
"Thats it?" I was promised the film would be more profound, but thats all the info I could get at the time. I had no idea how World War II or myself would be factored in. I am just a lowly extra. As the day passed, more information would come to light: Japans POWs were sent -- against Geneva Convention regulations -- to work in factories, melting down metal for the war effort. The US unknowingly bombed many of these same buildings on their routine raids. The factory that Shohei chose for the film was a huge, gray, Orwellian structure. They allowed us to use the location only on the condition that we use hardhats off camera and that it remain nameless. It seems POWS did actually work and die there during the war. The fact that the Japanese government used POWs in this manner is a lesser known war secret that Shohei wanted expose.
Speaking of exposure, I also heard that the final scene involves our two main characters making love in a small boat at sea, on a hot August morning. Just as they are reaching their climax, a huge black mushroom cloud magically appears on the horizon: Hiroshima.
50 YEARS AGO
During WWII my grandfather was brought over to fight the Japanese. The fact that I came here to teach them has always been hard for him to grasp. While his mission may have been to kill, I dont think he had any opportunities (at least none he told me about). He apparently served the whole time as an MP (Military Police) on a base in the Philippines. He likes to tell the story of how he was patrolling one day and out of the corner of his eye he saw a case of Budweiser somehow floating across a tall, grassy rice field. It was traveling parallel to him so when he reached the next intersection, he turned right to cut the beer off at the pass. Eventually it arrived at the road and from under it appeared a very surprised and scared Filipino boy. He was about to run when my grandfather told him to stop and with a stern look on his face patted the seat beside him. The boy got in the jeep, not knowing what would happen. My grandfather asked him where he lived. The boy pointed the way. Once they got to the boys house built on stilts, the boy jumped out of the jeep and started running for his home. My grandfather yelled to him: "Hey! You forgot your beer!" The boys mother came out to see what was going on and ended up inviting my grandfather into their house for dinner. I dont think hell ever forget sitting on the floor, eating their food and enjoying Budweiser with his newfound friends in the midst of World War II.
I got off on a little tangent. I was reminded of my grandfather by an old Japanese man there with us. He looked like a typical rice farmer, with this dirty white shirt, dark, knee-high pants, and conical hat, only there were no rice fields around. And this "farmer" sure knew how to wield a bayonet. At first I thought he was just some local come to watch us film and may have been -- but then he started to make himself useful by demonstrating to a group of Japanese college guys (also extras playing Japanese soldiers), how to mount their bayonets on their rifles and thrust them into their enemies! Had he been a real Japanese soldier during WWII? Perhaps even a prison guard? I wonder if, like my grandfather, he too felt it difficult to comprehend how so many of us could be here teaching and not fighting. 50 years isnt that long.
SEND IN THE MARINES!
As I said, there were some real US soldiers in our midst. They were lead by a guy with a gravity defying blonde buzz-cut. His men called him "Sergeant Joe." He was a seasoned veteran when it came to G.I. life in Japan. He had mastered the ability, not necessarily to speak Japanese, but to speak a slow, Tonto/Tarzan English that local girls tend to understand. He was a non-commissioned officer with an opportunity to assert his leadership, get a speaking part in the film -- and maybe even a date with the girl in charge of casting! He was working hard for all three. I have to say, he did have some star power potential with his eagle eyes and erect hairdo.
As soon as we arrived, he began barking orders to us over a bull horn that hed commandeered from the wimp who was our designated leader. We were told to line up, break into smaller squads and get our prisoners uniforms (extremely tattered and stained fatigues which didnt really go well with the healthy physique and bright smile of many of the guys present). His men were conditioned to take orders and most of us non- military (anti-military?) types allowed him to lead as well, simply because the "official" guy was clueless.
Sgt. Joe turned out to be a fairly likable or at least entertaining guy. At one point between shots, he tried to play a trick on one of our guards (i.e. university students): He snuck up behind and grabbed him, then tried to take his rifle. "Hey Guys! I got him! Make a break for it!!!" Not quite. Joe never factored in the possibility that his seemingly scrawny opponent might know Judo. A second later, Joe was thrown over the guards own back, landing in the dirt with a hard thud. The guard struck a fierce Bruce Lee pose and then smiled.
As for the other Marines, I wasnt sure I wanted to get to know them. Ive always been pretty anti-military (Naked Mans a "lover" not a "fighter"), mainly because theyve preceded me to a lot of my favorite countries. I cant blame Canadian travelers for ALWAYS having their prized maple leaf in full view on their backpacks.
When I first came to Japan, I was real happy to know that I wouldnt be near any military bases. So I wasnt too excited when I found-out that at the end of filming that day, the thirty-five Marines would be unleashed on my 100% civilian Japanese hometown. I made sure to stay in that night so as not to be associated with the Marines or any damage they might do. All they seemed to talk about off camera on the first day was getting "shit-faced" and "laid." By Sunday, however, they were all hungover and sun-stroked and turned out to be rather amicable fellas. Whether we were real soldiers, English teachers, grad students or even pro rugby players (there were three among us), it was as if we had all bonded a little after having been "prisoners" together. But mainly I bonded with the men in my own squad: the "Kellys Heroes" of the set. We were definitely the biggest group of misfits there and also the most diverse. As for being prisoners, we REALLY didnt look the part, which may have been why we were group #9 out of ten present.
The Frenchman: (Mid 20's) He was our leader because he spoke the best Japanese. He was a very likeable guy who would have actually looked like a prisoner, being pretty skinny and very pale. But he had this tremendous mane of dark Kenny G. hair that he barely concealed under a Japanese infantry hat.
The Sailor: (22?) He gave up 2 days of R&R with his Japanese wife in order to get his big break in film. He serves onboard a US Navy destroyer. He described his job as having "anything and everything to do with guns: Cleaning them, repairing them, and if need be, shooting people with them." The only opportunity hes had to do the latter was when he helped evacuate American civilians out of Somalia. He said he suddenly didnt feel he was getting paid enough when he realized that real bullets were being shot at him. The poor guys salary isnt even half what I make. Originally from Alabama, he spoke English exactly like Forest Gump. He looked more like Martin Short though. In fact, he was very proud of his impression of Martin Short playing the "gay guy" in Steve Martins Father of the Bride, which he performed for us over and over again. All of us except the Tunisian (see below) found it rather annoying. Picture Martin short doing a gay Forest Gump and you get the idea. I really wonder what his Japanese wife sees in him.
The Tunisian: (Early 20's) Like most North Africans, he spoke about five languages pretty well. I have no idea if there were actually any North African POWs in Japan during WWII, but ironically among those of us in Group #9, he looked the most like an authentic soldier. He was a young guy studying at Okayama University (I forget what), and was a bit on the immature side. He and the sailor got along great, wrestling around, doing impressions and talking about their favorite movies. They were both big Stallone and Van Dam fans.
The Colombian: (Early 30's) Like most Latin Americans, he only spoke one language: Spanish. At times, I had to translate orders to him. He was a mild-mannered guy, recently arrived with his wife and two daughters, to study Medicine. Very swarthy. Nice guy.
The 2 Swiss: (Both mid to late 30's) These guys were straight out of Hogans Heroes, except in their case, the good guys had German accents. They were a Swiss Laurel & Hardy: One was extremely tall (about 6'5"), pale and bony, with a goiter, a beak nose and thick, horn-rimmed glasses that he refused to take off during the filming. He was way too anal to survive long in a real prison camp. He was a language instructor. He spent the entire two day shoot pestering his friend, Reinhart, a short, round architect, to march faster, get out of the cameras view, act sad, etc. Reinhart just shrugged and made snide comments back at him. Reinhart looked more like a bad mechanic than a POW.
And then there was me. Given my scrawny build and shaved head haircut, youd think Id make a pretty good POW, but in the snapshots I received I have this big smile on my face that makes me look more like Im "Face" from the A-Team.
Despite being "at war," a good time was had by all. It was a beautiful and at times eerie experience to see Japanese working alongside foreigners to make this film. On camera we were enemies and it seemed quite real, but when the director yelled "cutoh!" we were right back to friendly conversation and posing together for photos. The juxtaposition was almost shocking. Everyone seemed so peaceful off camera as if they simply werent capable of the violence they were exuding when filming. Of course history shows us that they are... and so are we.
Also from NAKED MAN:
Past NAKED MAN memoirs and more!
and LEAVING GROUND ZERO
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