THE ANTS (ARI NO HEITAL) Directed by Kaoru Ikeya. 101 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 15) at the Carleton. Rating: NNN
There’s lots of potential in the story of 80-year-old vet Waichi Okumura’s tenacious struggle to win a lawsuit against the Japanese government, but the film fails to draw us in due to uneven sound mixing and a structure that lacks a climax.
Okumura is part of a dwindling group of aging vets who claim they were ordered to fight on in China as “ant soldiers” for three years after World War II ended. The Japanese government claims they remained there as volunteers.
When Okumura travels to China seeking evidence to prove his case, he confronts painful memories of the carnage he and fellow soldiers inflicted on Chinese civilians.
A powerful, direct cinema sequence captures his recollections of repeatedly stabbing a civilian with a bayonet as part of his training. His face fills with pain as an elderly Chinese woman recounts being raped by seven soldiers.
The film opens and closes at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the 2 million soldiers who died in service to the emperor. At the beginning, Okumura chastises a group of teens for not knowing the history of Japan’s role in the war. At the end he confronts a war vet with opposing views.
These bookend scenes provide the film’s only structure and convey its main message: while the grand mem-orial site will live on no matter how people choose to see it, the story of the ant soldiers will die with the vets who took part in it.