Caves, Graves, Prisons, Homes

On Losing Ground and GAMA

James Wham

Losing Ground
Year 2023

Director KAORI ODA
Year 2023
Country JAPAN

Losing Ground takes place in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar with around five million people, which now suffers under the military junta of Min Aung Hlaing and his Tatmadaw. The group formally seized power in the February 2021 coup d’etat—the date, our narrator tells us, “all freedom disappeared”—though the Myanmar military had maintained de facto control even prior to this. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, an electoral tool of the Tatmadaw, had hoped to legitimise itself through electoral politics, buttressing its effort with a guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats stipulated by the 2008 constitution (which, of course, they wrote). Yet the election results of November 2020 showed that the National League for Democracy held too much promise; so came the coup. It’s worth noting that the two parties are not so ideologically distinct, that the NLD ultimately operated in service of the USDP: both prefer a neoliberal regime maintained by military power; both favour the Bamar people and willingly enacted a genocide of the Rohingya in 2017, which saw 25,000 killed and more than 700,000 expelled from the country. If the coup seems ultimately superfluous, one should remember the old adage about absolute power. With the electoral route taking too long and too many strange turns, the Tatmadaw thought it better to seize the country by force.

In Losing Ground we see the aftermath of absolute corruption: armed soldiers in the street, guns aimed towards civilians, protestors with signs and hardhats fighting for their freedom. Confined to his home, lights out, back turned to the camera to preserve anonymity (diffusing our empathy among the many faceless victims), Losing Ground’s narrator tells us he preferred being in prison because it served as an antidote to isolation. He speaks of poetry, storytelling and hope found in dark places, all while looking out toward a blue sky that no longer belongs to him. “I feel like my future is broken into particles that are so small that I can’t even see the pieces.”

Shattered future, shattered past: In GAMA, peace guides sift through cave sediment and find bits of broken bone. These are the remnants of shūdan jiketsu, or group suicides, which took place in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, where local civilians, many indigenous to the island, were told to hide in caves (gama) to evade the rape and torture of Allied troops. Some 25,000 Okinawan men were recruited into the Japanese Imperial Army to defend the island; more Okinawans died than members of the Allied and other Japanese forces combined. The gama have since become an issue of contention within Japanese history, which is one reason why peace guides like Matsunaga Mitsuo are so invaluable today. Early in the film, he turns off his torch to offer a ‘dark experience’ and the screen goes black. Immediately we understand that primal fear of the unknown – how far-off sounds resemble footsteps or whispers, how the contours of total darkness conjure ghosts. Matsunaga’s narrative mostly comprises experiential anecdotes like this, an attempt to situate the past on personal terms—itself a mode of excavation. But beyond these individual experiences is the intimation of a greater national reckoning: In 2007, the Ministry of Education demanded a revision to school textbooks, to retract the notion that Okinawans were coerced into suicide. To be coerced (kyoyo) by suicide order (jiketsu meirei) is fundamentally a form of murder and makes the state complicit in the killing of its own people. The gama suicides would therefore differ from the noble kamikaze fighters who willingly (though what’s free will in war?) drove 120-kilogram torpedoes into enemy battleships. And they would differ also from the greater suicidal act that was the Battle of Okinawa itself, fought with the knowledge that the war was already lost, by a defending army outnumbered fivefold, whose sole objective was to buy time for the mainland to negotiate its surrender.

“During the war there was no phrase ‘shūdan jiketsu’,” writes Kinjō Shigeaki. “There was ‘gyokusai’, however, a grandiose militaristic euphemism, signifying the ‘crushing of jewels’, meaning people giving up their lives joyfully for their country rather than succumbing to the enemy or falling into their hands. It was only after the war, especially in the 1950s, that ‘group suicide’ came into use … The state now wants to say these deaths were ‘voluntary deaths.’ But that isn’t the way it was. The people of Okinawa never killed themselves on their own initiative.”

In the siege of Okinawa, the ancient walls of the Shuri Castle were destroyed, and the old world with it. Local farmers and fishermen who had worked their land for centuries were suddenly swept up in American modernity, dressed in military surplus, smoking Chesterfields, driving trucks and drinking Coca-Cola. Then came the Japanese Miracle, the tech boom, the cult of kawaii overlaying a grotesque and bloody history. And now, the present, in these dark caves—in this dark cinema—where peace guides shine light on the truth.

* * *

History is written with our blood
Those who lost their lives in the fight for democracy
Our country is a land built with martyrs
We will not be satisfied until the end of the world

Kabar Ma Kyay Bu (Until the end of the world)

James Wham lives in London and writes for The Baffler and New Left Review.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the programme Losing Ground + GAMA at Close-Up Cinema, 25 April 2024.