To Cannes via Kyoto

Friday, December 8, 2006

Koji Masutani ’05 never took a film class while at Brown, or even in high school. Yet his short documentary “The Japanese Textbook Controver-sy: Through the Eyes of the Next Generation” earned screenings at international film festivals, including the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival in France. The film, which examines the representation of Japanese war atrocities in history textbooks, has already garnered the interest of distribution companies from around the world.

An international relations concentrator, Masutani grew up in Hong Kong before attending boarding school in Massachusetts. “Being Japan-ese in Hong Kong, even as early as third grade, sometimes people wouldn’t play with me,” he recalled. With only a vague understanding of why his Chinese peers excluded him, Masutani took Associate Professor of History Kerry Smith’s Japan’s Pacific War course during his junior year at Brown.

The class inspired him to learn more about the atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians during World War II and the Japanese government’s censorship of texts acknowledging these crimes.

“Textbooks have to be approved (by the government), so they censor data taught to the students,” Masutani explained. As a result, candid accounts of the World War II atrocities were rejected and an entire chapter of history was rewritten in Japanese textbooks as an “incident,” he said. Historians have unsuccessfully sued the government and the controversy remains unresolved.

Masutani’s interest in the subject grew while studying in Kyoto during a year off between his junior and senior years. Toward the end of his time in Japan, Masutani won a $4,000 grant from Stanford University, the sponsor of his study abroad program, to fund the project that would become his film. “Japanese Textbook Controver-sy” is composed of a series of interviews with young adults – from high school students to those in their late 20s – in Kyoto, Tokyo and various universities in the United States and Canada.

These interviews proved one of the more challenging aspects of the project. “A lot of people would circle around the issue,” claiming ignorance of the subject or even outright refusing to discuss it, he said. “I tried to bring (the textbook controversy) up among friends, and I wasn’t sure why there was so much reluctance,” Masutani said.

Masutani said he thinks most of his interviewees are still sensitive about the touchy subject, especially due to Japan’s current government’s conservative policies. The unwillingness to open up frustrated Masutani and thwarted his effort to maintain a balance in the genders of the people appearing in the film’s final cuts – of the 40 subjects, only four are female. Masutani quickly developed interviewing techniques to encourage people to talk. “I’d wait until they brought it up. Of course, outside of Japan, people would open up,” he said, particularly Chinese and Korean students.

Masutani admits that his ethnicity may have eased the process to some extent, although he says, “My Japanese isn’t very good. … It was interesting to go over the footage (because) some of the students would pick up on that. It would have been different if I were totally fluent,” both in terms of asking “better” follow-up questions and because the fluent Japanese students often slipped in extra commentary too quickly for him to notice, he said.

Masutani said some reluctant students might have been wary of the potential backlash of participating in the project. Masutani himself received a death threat via telephone just three days before leaving Japan.

Upon returning to the United States, Masutani took up the textbook controversy subject as an independent study project.

Two final cuts of the film emerged from the editing room: a half-hour version, which went to Cannes, and a 55-minute version, which showed in Germany. Both are in Japanese and English, with subtitles of the other language as appropriate, courtesy of Brown students fully fluent in Japanese.

The documentary consists solely of edited clips from Masutani’s interviews. “I thought the least imposing way to go as a filmmaker was just to listen … (I would be) least biased if I said as little as possible,” he explained. Without any voiceovers or even a soundtrack, “Controversy” allows the students’ opinions full, clear resonance with viewers, he said.

That quality, Masutani suggested, helped the film gain acceptance into film festivals worldwide, including in Italy and Germany. The appearance of “Controversy” at Cannes as a short film, however, has attracted the most attention. Because the project lacks professional studio funding and thus an advertising campaign, Masutani’s work garnered little critical attention, but several distribution companies, including Fox Searchlight, have expressed interest.

Currently, Masutani is working with the Watson Institute for International Studies to shoot a companion documentary to an upcoming book by Research Professor of International Studies James Blight and Adjunct Associate Research Professor of International Relations Janet Lang about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Masutani said he hopes to produce a television series in the future based on the John F. Kennedy tapes, so the extensive research on the Kennedy administration that this current project requires will prove useful.

As for “The Japanese Textbook Controversy: Through the Eyes of the Next Generation,” Masutani said he hopes the film might ultimately make it back to Japan.