On the 61st anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, wider discussion of the conflict's meaning to the nation is still controversial – and avoided.
But in a handful of theaters in Japan, "The Ants," a recently released documentary about Japanese troops left in China after the war, is an attempt to remind Japanese of war memories many would rather not acknowledge.
The film, showing at theaters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, has not gotten the national release and media blitz of war films that have taken a more nationalist tack. But it has played to packed theaters, prompting managers to add more showings.
From politicians to the major media, many here shrug off war memories, something that has cast a profound chill over Japan's relations with neighbors that it once occupied. In anticipation of today's anniversary, South Korea warned Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not to visit Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni war shrine, where war criminals are memorialized. Protesters in Tokyo seconded that sentiment.
Some Japanese say their country has apologized for wartime atrocities and should not have to continue to do so. But amid rising nationalism and ongoing controversies over how Japan represents its history in textbooks, those apologies "lack substance," charges Yoshifumi Tawara, of Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21 in Tokyo. "They don't get the impression that Japan offered an apology."
For some, the movie is a welcome challenge to conventional thinking. Rieko Ishikawa says "The Ants" made her think "ignorance is a sin." She has formed a group with others to encourage more people to watch it. The film, she says, is "one of the most impressive works I have ever seen."
"The Ants" ("Ari no Heitai") tells the story of Waichi Okumura and other soldiers who were ordered to fight on in China, "for the resurgence of Japanese imperialism," after the war's end. Like a squadron of ants, Mr. Okumura and fellow soldiers did as they were told, he says.
"What mattered most then was whether you could dedicate your life to your superior officers," recalls the former soldier.
Of 59,000 soldiers who belonged to the first Imperial Army, 2,600 were forced to stay on in Shanxi Province. In the end, they joined China's Nationalist Army, fighting the Communist Army.
Okumura is among the few former soldiers willing to speak out about Japan's atrocities during World War II. Many are unwilling to do so, and some glorify the war. Okumura says that, plagued by guilt, he never told his wife about the war before he and the film crew traveled to China.
During China's civil war, 550 of the soldiers perished and 700, including Okumura, became prisoners of war. Okumura came under mortar attack in battle and suffered permanent injuries.
But Okumura's commander, General Raishiro Sumita, came home even as his soldiers remained. A secret deal existed between Mr. Sumita and Nationalist Army Gen. Yan Xishan, according to testimony from survivors of both sides in the film.
General Yan asked Mr. Sumita to leave Japanese troops to help fight Mao. According to the film and studies of the subject, Yan promised to protect the Japanese military commander, who was a Class-A war criminal.
Okumura, coming home nine years after World War II ended, was shocked to learn that he had been locally discharged from the military during his fight in China. Their military pension denied, Okumura and others waged a legal battle against the government. The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs' final appeal last September.
"They completely ignored it," Okumura says angrily. "Otherwise, they would have to admit Japan's breach of the Potsdam Declaration."
"Mr. Okumura looks like an ordinary grandpa, doesn't he? But when it comes to the issue of those left behind in China, he vents his extreme anger," says Kaoru Ikeya, an award-winning director who still recalls the old man's deep bow at their first meeting two years ago.
During filming, Okumura and Mr. Ikeya covered more than 2,000 miles during a 22-day trip. While painstakingly looking for evidence, Okumura says he had to come to terms with his past and the Imperial Army's brutal deeds. He revisited Ningwu County, the site of his first killing. Like other newly recruited soldiers, he was forced to stab an innocent Chinese with a bayonet since superior officers wanted "to test his courage." The film shows Okumura praying for the dead at the site.
"We were turned into a so-called killing machine," he recalls. "I want to reveal how the military deprived us of our rational nature."
He also reveals how he acted as a lookout while fellow soldiers committed rape.
When asked in the film if Okumura also raped a woman, he promptly responded that he did not. But he emphasized the issue is "not who did or who didn't, but the problem of the whole military."
In one of the most compelling scenes in the film, a Chinese woman tells Okumura how at the age of 16 she was kidnapped, confined, and gang-raped by seven Japanese soldiers and later by a Chinese officer. But she forgives Okumura, who killed innocent Chinese.
These days, more politicians and opinion leaders talk about changing Japan's pacifist constitution and defend political leaders' visits to the war memorial.
More people talk about such issues "without discussing what the Imperial Japanese Army was all about in the war." Ikeya asserts. And also more people use the words patriotism and nationalism "without knowing what is actually happening on battlefields."