Everyone knows that at the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allies put the leaders of Nazi Germany on trial for various war crimes — indeed, not only the traditional violations of the laws of war, but for crimes committed by the regime against its own people and for starting the war in the first place. In Japan, too, the Allies put the leaders of the defeated nation on trial, but the trial is much less well-known outside Japan. Now we have Tokyo Trial, a four-part English-language miniseries created by Japanese broadcaster NHK in cooperation with various Canadian and Dutch bodies.
So what’s it like?
Well, the drama is primarily about the behind-the-scenes deliberation of the justices in the trial, viewed through the eyes of Bert Röling, the Dutch judge on the tribunal (Marcel Hensema). Some parts of it are bits of documentary, presenting actual testimony from the trial. There are personal subplots relating to the experience of postwar Tokyo, but most of it takes place in a conference chamber or courtroom.
Hoo boy, it is worthy. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. One of the problems of approaching really grim, serious subjects of massive historical importance — a huge, multinational war-crimes trial, for instance — is that any hint of action or excitement might be seen as disrespectful, and the historical characters are so important that introducing personal drama into their narratives might not be appropriate. That means that some historical films descend into a certain confining stateliness — slow, with grandiose music and lush cinematography, but fundamentally history lessons. Most historical movies that get away with this are war movies, because battles are dramatic, spectacular events no matter how serious you’re being about them.
But Tokyo Trial has a further challenge, which is both one of the most interesting and the most challenging things about it. It is a totally international production, with cast members from all over the world, and a presumed audience likewise. Which is good, great, but it does mean that the English you are listening to isn’t quite the English you speak, if it’s English that you speak. If you watch a lot of Indian or Chinese films, think about the way you hear English in them. It’s English, of course, and presented for an audience that can sometimes be quite fluent, but who still don’t have the intuitive familiarity that a native speaker would. So it’s a little slower, with longer pauses, and things are explained very clearly. Again, that’s a good thing — it makes it accessible to a wide range of English ability levels — but it doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama.
It’s also very specifically educational — like, there’s a scene in the first episode where the Chinese justice (David Tse) explains to Röling why the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies, like he wouldn’t already know. I expected them to go “I know that.” “I know you do, Justice Röling — but the audience doesn’t.”
I also don’t think there’s a character in this thing who is a genuine character rather than a mouthpiece for a particular viewpoint. Occasionally we do get little moments that humanise characters, or bits where a performance gives life to a set of stock phrases (Irrfan Khan is strong as Radhabinod Pal, for instance). But most of the dialogue is just the various arguments of the trial, which is not … not ideally suited to being expressed in the form of a television drama, shall we say?
Which is a shame, because it does try to be thorough in its exploration of the issues: the division between civilian and military leadership, tensions between the different Allied powers, the implications of the judgement for colonialism, the lack of an existing body of international law, the thorny issue of the Emperor’s culpability. I was interested to see where those would go. In my limited understanding of the popular view of this period in Japan, these are all tricky issues. MacArthur (Michael Ironside) even talks about the role of the emperor in the post-war reform program, which I started but never finished an undergraduate dissertation on back in 1998.
It also does a pretty good job of portraying a group of justices who are on pretty shaky legal ground and under intense political pressure while also trying to find some kind of just outcome. International law is a dicey proposition at the best of times, and much more so back then than now. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that sound technical legal arguments were overruled by the argument of might, but that nonetheless there were sincere attempts to reach a decision that furthered the interests of justice and world peace.
I mentioned Radhabinod Pal earlier, for instance. Pal is an interesting and complex figure, whose objection to the trial verdict seems to have rested partly on procedural questions about the tribunal’s legal validity and partly on an anticolonialist interpretation of the 30s that viewed Japan’s response to American economic pressure as not that unreasonable. He believed that war crimes had been committed, but that they could be addressed under existing war crimes statutes. Pal definitely gets the hero treatment here, which is in line with how he’s viewed in Japan today — he’s very popular in particular with Japanese nationalists. I made the “hrm” face, although the show doesn’t suggest that Pal’s position was all that simple. Author Michio Takeyama (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is given the role of being critical of Japan’s wartime response to militarism.
Some of the events are really rushed — for instance, the American judge, Higgins, leaves partway through — which really happened — but his reasons are given very short shrift. He says “I have made proposals and they have been rejected,” but we see him sort of disagreeing with the group once for about thirty seconds. Perhaps that’s symptomatic of a general issue: things are explained much more than they’re shown.
It does give you some sense of the scale of the trial, especially toward the end: years of work, huge teams of assistants writing thousands of pages of opinion. The ending of the story goes on and on about sentencing, particularly the sentencing of Togo. The result is that it’s a bit long.
It has the unfortunate quality of some historical shows in that it gets better as it goes on, which means that the first episode doesn’t give a fantastic impression. But still, it’s long, talky, self-important and a little undramatic. It’s clearly intended to be educational, so maybe it’s for people who want to know more about Japanese history but don’t know much about it? It seems like the kind of thing you might watch in class? But it’s nearly four hours long, so maybe not.