Years after the end of WWII, the first literary works appeared in Japan that confronted the moral complexities of that country's wartime experiences. Many of them have been filmed: Taijun Takeda's Luminous Moss; Junpei Gomikawa's The Human Condition; and Shūsaku Endō's The Sea And Poison. This last one confronted (if only at some distance) easily the thorniest and grimmest topic in that category: the unethical medical experimentation performed by Japanese military men on POWs. Kei Kumai's 1986 film only reproduces some of the book's layered fictional structure, but stays resolutely true to its real subject — how politics comes before human lives, and how ordinary people, even people of principle and education, take incremental steps towards committing the greatest of human sins.
First do no harm
Endō wrote Poison in 1958, ten years before his other masterwork Silence (also filmed, most recently, by Martin Scorsese). Reading Poison was one of my first experiences with Japanese literature in translation, and one of my most harrowing overall. It begins years after the war, with an unnamed narrator paying a visit to an insular country doctor, Suguro, running a shabby out-of-the-back-of-the-house clinic. Someone that furtive and troubled must have a history. And across the bulk of the book, in a third-person flashback, we learn that history: how he was a medical student practicing in a wartime hospital, who despite his humanitarianism gradually became involved in the vivisection of a cadre of captured B-29 airmen.
The movie replaces the bigger flashback with a more compact one. Suguro (Eiji Okuda), in the custody of the occupying U.S. forces after the war, tries to explain his complicity in the atrocity. He was low in the ranks at the hospital, and part of a faction attempting to ensure that their own chief surgeon and department head (the "Old Man", as they called him) would rise in the ranks. One way to do that, as Suguro finds out, is to curry favor with the army in whatever way they can. Suguro is too timid and reticent to say anything about this, but then again even the more assertive ones either say nothing, or — in the case of Toda (a young and unsettling Ken Watanabe), Suguro's wolfish partner, they embrace it.
Complicity in this story arrives never all at once, but by slow-boil degrees. Early in the film, a young girl is selected for a lung surgery which the Old Man intends to oversee, the better to demonstrate his continued value as a doctor and a leader. The operation is a botch — the girl dies on the table, strangling on her own blood — and the implication is that it's the Old Man's fault. But no one dares admit it; if his career goes, so does everyone else's. And so they grit their collective teeth and engage in a horrible charade where the operation is a success, but everyone must pretend the girl dies in her sleep that night. By the time the army officers come stalking in, with plans to put downed American airmen on the operating table for "science", everyone except Suguro has an excuse to do it. What remains of Suguro's integrity seems more like an impediment to his survival than any way to preserve his dignity. And before long there he is in the operating theater with the rest of them.
The strongest poison
All that impressed me most about the novel has been translated directly into its film counterpart with almost nothing left behind. The core of the book is how the circumstances in the hospital — the case structure, the politics, the power imbalances between everyone, and their relationship with the war-torn outside world — all conspire against the characters and prevent them from making any genuinely moral decisions. The most Suguro can do is keep from being hypocritical, and by the time the U.S. authorities get their hands on him, it seems he can't even do that. The most blatant act of defiance isn't even his: it's when Toda, under the orders of his squirming superiors, contemptuously presents the army officers with the liver of their first vivisection victim. Presumably to eat.
At first there's some sense, however distant, that the hospital serves as some island of sanity and comfort for those who both work there and are patients there. Little gestures are common, as when Suguro gives some medical-grade sugar to an old woman, so that she might have something sweet on her tongue for a change. Even an air raid is leavened, however slightly, by the way patients and staff huddle side-by-side in the shelter. Then ugly compromises worm their way into everyone's lives. One painful subplot involves a nurse at the hospital pressured into giving opium to a terminal patient on the orders of the Old Man — but because he barked out that command while in the middle of his botched surgery, it becomes all the easier for her to be put on the hook for such a ghastly decision. And never once does anyone say Do this or else; it's always the unspoken and unseen swords of Damocles that hang over everyone's heads, because everyone further up from them also has the same swords waiting.
The best movies about morally grotesque circumstances work to involve the audience as more than just spectators. Every moment in The Sea And Poison with a moral point to it is double-edged. Consider the scene late in the film depicting the first vivisection. If it "succeeds" — that is, if the doctors and army officers extricate anything medically or scientifically useful from it — that's even more horrible than if it's a failure. The implications of the scene are far more emotionally violent than anything we actually watch, even if the scene itself (like the previous surgery sequences) is photographed with both the explicitness and clinical detachment of a documentary.
Despite being filmed in 1986, Poison has more the look of the Art Theatre Guild productions of the '60s and '70s, with their sharp black-and-white images, minimal budgets, and found locations. Filming a story this potentially gruesome in black-and-white doesn't just make it less repellent or gaudy, but also gives it a waking-nightmare quality well-suited to its emotional horrors. Eerie images casually abound: the tape over the hospital windows; the rooftops strewn with wreckage; the running water underfoot in the operating theater to whisk away dust and contaminants. And, as we see, the spilled blood.