Home > History, Reviews, Television > TV Review: Tokyo Trial Four-Part Mini-Series

TV Review: Tokyo Trial Four-Part Mini-Series

In the wake of World War II, 11 Allied judges are tasked with weighing the fates of Japanese war criminals in a tense international trial! 

Tokyo TrialProduced by NHK, FATT Productions and Don Carmody Television

Distributed by NHK in association with Netflix

Released in Japan and worldwide on Netflix in December 2016

Directed by Pieter Verhoeff and Rob W. King

Filmed in 2015 in Japan and Lithuania this English language mini-series focuses not so much on the defendants and the trial itself but more on the dynamics between, and the machinations of, the Judges appointed by the Allies to conduct the trial and reach verdicts, their perceptions, prejudices and preconceived pre-trial conclusions.

In attempting to bring gravitas to the drama the acting in the first episode, always a bedding in period for any series, seemed to be rather stiff as each of the actors playing the Judges tried to find their characters. It was only as the series progressed that the acting became more relaxed and natural; a shame given that there are only four episodes. Without prior knowledge of the plot there was an expectation that as the story unfolded it would involve the trial defendants much more than it did and as it became apparent that this was not the case there was some disappointment until drawn in by the development of the behind the scenes story of the Judges; the primary plot.

Hideki Tojo

Hideki Tojo, Prime Minister of Japan

In the Spring of 1946 eleven Justices appointed by the victorious nations in the war in the Far East gathered for the ‘Tokyo Trial’ during which twenty-eight of Japan’s war leaders were put on trial. The basis on which they were to be judged would form the foundation of how war as a crime by individuals would be judged, something which up till that point had not been established. It had previously existed only as a statement as part of the Paris Peace Pact of 1928 to the effect that given that signatory states had committed themselves not to use war to resolve disputes that war from that point onwards could be ascribed as a crime only to a Nation and not to an individual.

tokyo trial justice room

The panel of Judges in discussion

This formed the first of the pivotal arguments that began to divide opinion amongst the Judges, some of whom felt that a war crime as an act of an individual had not been defined and established at the time Japan went to war and that by its definition as a crime ascribed to a Nation it could equally apply to the use of nuclear weapons by the USA or the actions of the Dutch in Indonesia, a point made by the counsel for the defence in questioning the veracity of the tribunal itself as to whether it could sit in judgement on the Japanese War leaders. In addition to this was the need for the Judges to commit to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East Charter modelled on the Nuremberg Trials which some of the Justices felt set the legal precedent for the Tokyo Trial which remained unchallenged until the arrival of Judge Pals (Irfan Khan) from India.

Irrfan Khan as Radhabinod Pal

Irrfan Khan as Judge Radhabinod Pal

This marks a point when, seemingly, old style colonial attitudes towards Judge Pals surface from some of the old establishment Judges, primarily Judge Lord Patrick (Paul Freeman). As an Indian Judge, Dal seems to be the only one who has any sort of insight into the legal and moral inconsistencies adopted by the victorious Western Powers after they had, historically, forced Japan to open its doors with all of the consequences and repercussions that had entailed. The implication being that Japan had been isolated and intimidated by the West because it had followed the example of the West only to be judged at the Treaty of Versailles by values which the Western powers themselves were unable to uphold as they themselves were colonial masters of large parts of South and South East Asia, the additional question being raised as to whether there can ever be such a thing as beneficial colonialism for the colonised. The arguments, often seemingly hopelessly semantic, on points of law and moral and ethical issues form a very substantial basis for the series with the divisions and personal animosity that emerged from the disagreements going on to underpin the factional machinations of some of the Judges.

Paul Freeman as William D. Patrick

Paul Freeman as Judge, Lord William D. Patrick

As the trial progresses more is seen and heard from some of the most prominent defendants and as is the penchant these days (a la ‘Narcos’) actual archival documentary court footage is mixed with that of the fictional presiding panel of Judges. General McArthur (Michael Ironside) makes an appearance and discussions between McArthur and President of the Judges Sir William Webb (Jonathan Hyde) as well as actual filmed court statements by Hideki Tojo cover the issue of Emperor Hirohito’s involvement in the war.

Jonathan Hyde as President Sir William Webb

Jonathan Hyde as President of the Panel of Judge Sir William Webb

Some of the on screen Judges are more prominent than others. Judge Bert V.A. Röling (Marcel Hensema) appointed by and representing the Netherlands takes a central role, and for once the Soviets, represented on screen by Judge General I. M. Zaryonov (Kestutis Statis) are treated, if not sympathetically, with some humour and humanity.

Two subplots are important enough to mention; that of the relationship between Judge Röling and the German pianist Eta Harich-Schneider (Hadewych Minis) ‘We need some of these people to rebuild Japan’, and between Röling and the Japanese author Michio Takeyama (Shinya Tsukamoto) ‘We could have stopped them’, both expressing controversial views.

Marcel Hensema as Bert V.A. Röling

Marcel Hensema as Judge Bert V.A. Röling

There is some particularly nice use of locations such as the façade of McArthur’s former SCAP HQ in Tokyo (now the low rise section of the DN Tower 21 of the Dai-Ichi Insurance Company), and the auditorium of Ichigaya Court (which was the former Imperial Japanese Army HQ but which is now the Ichigaya Memorial Hall located at the HQ of the Japanese Self Defence Force) which was used as the Court Room for the trial, but in particular the extended use of the main lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (now an exhibit at the Meiji-Mura, Meiji Village Museum, at Inuyama near Nagoya).

Overall the series is a fascinating albeit slightly stilted attempt to get behind the public face of the Tribunal Panel of Judges throwing up all sorts of issues around the legalities, moral principles and ethical rules that today underpin the actions of the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Well worth the concentration required to engage with the debates the series presents and the need to overlook the early stiffness of some of the acting.

NHK ‘Tokyo Trial’ web link (Japanese)

http://www6.nhk.or.jp/special/detail/index.html?aid=20161212

360 degree virtual panorama of the preserved McArthur’s office

http://vr.panokul360.com/d05/dai-ichi-life/001/pc.html 

Auditorium of Ichigaya Court

http://ww2panorama.org/panoramas/tokyo-iii

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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  1. September 26, 2017 at 9:14 am

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