The Railway Man: Colin Firth, Japan, Torture, Forgiveness

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Last night, Amir and I went to see The Railway Man. In the movie, which is based on a true story, Colin Firth finds and plans to kill the man who kept and tortured him in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. He ends up reconciling with the man, and they become something like friends.

I think that Colin Firth is the British version of Tom Hanks, because no matter what's bothering him in a movie, I always feel really badly for him. He's just a sympathetic character, even when he's in a relatively enviable position like being the King of England or vacationing with maid service (in The King's Speech and Love Actually, respectively.) In The Railway Man, the situation merited plenty of sympathy even without Colin's puppy-dog eyes gazing out beneath his thick spectacles.

Awww, Colin Firth!

To be clear, I don't have a crush on him. I just want him to be happy. He's like a sad toddler that needs a hug. 

The movie goes back and forth between what looks like the 1970s and WWII. Colin Firth, who's playing a person named Eric Lomax, has flashbacks to his time as a POW and his torture. 

I knew that the Japanese POW camps were the worst, but I had no idea that they led thousands of soldiers on a suicide mission to build a railway in Thailand. Working on the railroad didn't look much better than being held and tortured in a cell. 

As I was watching the movie, I started thinking about all of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. The prison-labor camps that they operated during the time they occupied Korea in Seodaemun were terrible. All of the other POW camps that they held during WWII. The forced prostitution in Korea that they still haven't apologized for, despite daily protests by 90-something-year-old survivors. And then I thought about what we did to them: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the internment camps for Japanese-Americans. I thought of the Holocaust, occurring at the same time across the globe. There was a torture scene showing simulated drowning, a practice that we used after 9/11 in 2002 and 2003, despite the fact that Japanese soldiers were hanged for the same practice following our victory in WWII. I thought about what's happening right now: North Korean prison camps, widespread use of torture in Syria, the mass-murder in Sudan, and on and on and on. It seems like barbarism is a natural component of human existence. 

I don't have a hard time seeing fights, or even murder, in movies. I think I understand how killing someone might be necessary for survival, or at least anger might reach a point where killing someone seems like a good idea in the heat of the moment. What I don't understand is this grotesque, drawn-out hurting of another person at close range. It only takes a second to pull a trigger, but in the minutes or hours spent torturing someone, wouldn't you start to feel sick to your stomach seeing that kind of pain? Wouldn't you feel sorry for them? Wouldn't that rush of anger that might allow you to kill someone subside if you were next to them for long enough for your adrenaline levels to come down? Also, doesn't it feel unfair to hurt someone when they're already tied up and can't defend their self? Academics always point to the Milgram experiment to explain how anyone can be a monster, but in that case the victim and the "torturer" are in different rooms. My theory is that in the same room, it never would have worked. Okay, the Zimbardo experiment says otherwise, but I have to hold onto some hope. 

I took a trip to Japan during summer break a few years ago. There were two memories that I've held onto from that experience regarding forgiveness.

The first: I was on a train somewhere and a drunk man approached me. He spoke pretty good English, and wanted to know where I was from. He told me he knew all the Universities in the United States. "Minnesota? University of Minnesota.  Gophers!" Umm, okay, news to me. Then the conversation took a dark turn. "You know, my uncle lives in the United States, in California. You know you had internment camps in California? He lived in one." This was one of the things I had in the back of my mind the whole time I had been in Japan, 'what if they are mad about the internment camps?' I was pretty horrified that I was being confronted about it directly, but I responded the best I could. "I am sooooo sorry about that. We are so sorry. We learned about it in school. We are..." But he actually started giggling in the middle of this. "It's okay!" he replied. "It's just history!" 

The second: I went to Hiroshima, to see the monuments and the museum. The sky was clear, the sun was out, the grass was green. People were out biking around and shopping downtown. It was surreal to see such terrible images and connect them with such a beautiful city. I went through the museum and was standing in front of a fountain. The plaque on the fountain said that the water was for the many people who died screaming for water after the bomb hit. The way that the museum was set up was very matter of fact, not as anti-American as I had expected it would be. It just showed the US government documents explaining why we chose to bomb Japan, the horrors that resulted, and a message to never use chemical weapons again. The fact that the museum hadn't pushed American guilt made me feel a mixture of relief and further guilt. 

So I was standing in front of this fountain, and three girls who were about nine years old asked to interview me for their English class. It started out pretty innocently: nationality, favorite food, favorite color, favorite movie. Then came "What do you think about Hiroshima?" In hindsight, I realize they just wanted to hear that their town was nice. But given the location that they were asking me this question, I don't think my reaction was unreasonable. "I feel really bad and sorry. Many Americans feel very sorry. I am so, so, sad and sorry." 

The girls looked pretty freaked out and confused, and their teacher, who turned out to be hiding nearby, swooped in for damage control. "Let's take a picture!" she offered, and some minutes later I realized my mistake. 
The three little girls that I weirded out. Actually, that girl on the far left looks pretty oblivious.

I think it's worth mentioning that prior to my time living in Korea, I wouldn't have felt like I had to apologize about anything that happened before I was a voting citizen. Actually, even when French people gave me a hard time during study abroad during college, I would always respond "well, I voted for Kerry! Don't blame me! Je ne suis pas stupide!" But Korean society believes in collective culpability based on nationality, which isn't any more wrong than it is right, just a different way of thinking. 

Anyway, what I'm driving at here is that I was really touched by the way that the drunk guy on the train and the people who made the museum in Hiroshima and those little girls seemed to look forward, and accept the past as it is without looking for revenge or harboring resentment. 

In The Railway Man, Colin Firth says something like, "Anywhere there has been man, there has been war." Nicole Kidman replies, "but it's so peaceful now." We can't avenge all of the injustices and we shouldn't continue to characterize all Germans as Nazis (some people do still do that, you know.) It's better to look at current situations, look forward, right wrongs in the present, and enjoy peace as it comes. It's rare enough that it should be treasured when it arrives.


Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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