Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SHONENKO - the Taiwanese boys who built Mitsubishi aircraft as Japan's defences crumbled

Most elderly Taiwanese live with sad memories of W.W.2. Even though Imperial Japan surrendered before the Allied forces were required to mount an invasion of Taiwan (code named OPERATION CAUSEWAY) a ferocious Air War had been fought over the Japanese colony. Formosa was bombed and strafed continuously between 1944 - 1945 and when I lived in Taipei in the mid-1980s, I was sometimes conscious of the fact that unexploded U.S. bombs sleep in the mud deep beneath the teeming city.

I first understood the power of these living memories when I took some of our Taiwanes relatives on a tour of the aviation museum in Seattle. I recall assuming that only my kids would get a thrill from the visit, but I was wrong. I parked our van close to an outdoor exhibit - a B29 bomber glinting in the hot sun, and the two Taiwanese ladies began a highly animated conversation. My wife offered me translation; her auntie's encounter with the Boeing B29 Superfortress had triggered a flood of memory. She was reliving the afternoon when a U.S. bomber was shot down near her home in southern Taiwan. Auntie described the crash and the contrasting images of a spread of white parachutes floating down, while acrid sooty smoke ascended. She knew that another B29 had dropped the atomic bomb in 1945, thus saving her family from forced participation in any last ditch effort by the Japanese Army to defend Formosa.

Liang-Yin Kuo is a young film maker with a proven talent for recording compelling stories. Among her documentary films are SEARCHING FOR THE DISAPPEARED JAPANESE ZERO (2002) and SHONENKO (2007) which have been broadcast on Taiwan and Japan television.
Many proud Taiwanese film makers have found inspiration in the fabulous history and rich folk culture of their country. Liang-Yin Kuo took her film training at U.S.C. in California, (she has a Masters in Film and Television Production) and returned home to begin her career. After a string of projects on Taiwan heritage she has found a niche for herself. One of her early films was inspired by "grandfather stories". Following the Japanese surrender hundreds of warplanes became available for scrap. Her grandfather recalled that in 1946 he got his start in business by breaking up a Japanese Zero fighter and using the aluminum to make bowls. Intrigued, Kuo partnered with a Japanese classmate at U.S.C. and together they investigated the story.

The work was absorbing and took them on a journey of discovery. In the process of producing the film Ms. Kuo learned much about the traumatic period in Taiwan's history when the Japanese evacuated, only to be replaced by Nationalist Chinese troops fleeing the Communist Revolution. In addition Kuo came to understand the status of the Zero Fighter as something of a cultural icon; only thirty still exist. The film went through several experimental cuts and was at one time 90 minutes in length. In final form it 30 minutes and is distributed as SEARCHING FOR THE DISAPPEARED JAPANESE ZERO. It won a Golden Harvest Award for Best Documentary and was broadcast on Taiwan Public T.V. in 2003.

Liang-Yin Kuo directs a shot for her 2002 film SEARCHING FOR THE DISAPPEARED JAPANESE ZERO. The documentary had its origin in the stories which her grandfather told her about his life during WW2. Taiwan was then a Japanese colony and in 1944-45 bombed and strafed by U.S. aircraft on a daily basis.

SHONENKO - Encouraged by the response to her film, Kuo chose another WW2 subject, and one which contributed to shaping of postwar Taiwan. The experiences of young boys separated from their family and friends, their memories of a sojourn in Japan punctuated by constant threat of being bombing, is a subject which had touched thousands of families across Taiwan and which was well received by modern audiences. For the film Kuo once again teamed with her U.S.C. classmate, Shuhei Fujita. They worked as co-Directors and Fujita assisted in getting doors to open in his country.

After the Japanese Navy lost the decisive Battle of Midway their government rushed the construction of a new naval arsenal, and the development of a fighter interceptor to defend the Home Islands. A program to recruit child workers from Taiwan (boys aged 12 - 14) met with success because families believed the official promise that their sons would receive a good technical education while working as Shonenko. Japan's ambitious plan to recruit 25,000 or more boys was disrupted by American Naval encirclement but in the end some 8,419 Taiwan boys found work building the J2M3 RAIDEN. At wars end more than 7000 boys were repatriated to Taiwan. The world forgot about the Taiwanese Shonenko until a book on the child labourers was published in 2001. Ms. Kuo read it and was quick to realize the possibilities for a film.

The Mitsubishi J2M3 - RAIDEN (Thunderbolt) was codenamed "Jack" by the Allied Forces. It was designed specifically to shoot down long-range bombers like the giant B29. Thousands of boys from Taiwan, aged from 12 to 14, were impressed as labour on the production of the RAIDEN. Now elderly men, the "Shonenko" maintain an active association.

Kuo's project received immediate funding and took four years to research and shoot. Over 40 of the surviving Shonenko were interviewed and Kuo chose eight of them to feature in the film. In addition she located still photos and useful wartime footage in archives in Tokyo and Washington. Kuo prefers to shoot with a Beta Cam and transfer her film to 16 or 35 mm when needed. The result is a film which is continuing to win awards in Taiwan and which is gaining an international audience.

Childhood's End - This photo was sent to worried parents back home in Taiwan. Here more than a hundred "Shonenko" pose in front of their barracks on the grounds of a Mitsubishi aircraft factory.

SHONENKO is a feature documentary at this year's Taiwanese Film Festival which runs at the Vancouver International Film Centre on Seymour Street. It will be screened on Sunday June 22 at 5:50 PM. Tickets are $7. A DVD is selling in Taiwan for NT390 but as yet is not available from Amazon. com.

If anyone knows a distributor in Canada for this DVD , please contact me and I will post the info. Cheers! R.J. Jack in Vancouver.


Lemonni said...


I'm one of the coordinator from TWFF. Could you update the our website link to ?
Right now the one in your entry is not valid.

Thank you very much.


Ronald J. Jack said...

O.K. Annie. Done!