The legacy of Japanese imperialism continues to haunt a small Okinawan island once home to a sprawling network of coal mines but now mostly to ghosts of its troubled past at least according to Huang Yin-Yu’s beautifully lensed, elegiac documentary Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Lǜsè Láolóng). So named for its thick forests of mangrove trees, the island’s Iriomote Coal Mine ceased production in 1960 but from the late 19th century to the fall of the Japanese Empire at the end of the war, lured workers from not only from the Japanese mainland but from Korea, China, and Taiwan with false promises of tropical climes and plentiful fruits failing to disclose the harsh and exploitative working conditions they would later prove unable to escape.
Possibly the last witness to these times, grandma Yoshiko Hashima (her name naturalised from the original Yang) travelled to the island with her adopted father, Yang Tien-fu who worked for the mines and was responsible for recruiting other workers, at the age of 10 leaving briefly after the war but soon returning. The last of the Taiwanese settlers, she recalls little regarding the running of the mines save witnessing frequent beatings by Japanese soldiers but does recall the discrimination she faced as a foreign worker from the local community who by far made up the smallest percentage of those employed at the mines finding herself with few friends as locals often even declined to eat their food or accept their hospitality.
Yet in a strange way history perhaps repeats itself. Now elderly and alone, her children all having left the island returning only infrequently, she rents out her spare room for extra money to an American traveller, who, like her, came to Japan as a teenager. Though Luis tells us that he hadn’t intended to stay long on the island but likes being able to help Yoshiko who is elderly and alone, she tells us that she regrets her decision to rent to him which she claims she made in the belief he had a wife. She describes him as “‘messy”, claims he has lice, and that his slovenliness has attracted an influx of ants while the pet dog that he keeps on a leash outside disturbs her with its constant whining. Later we see him again having returned to Kansai revealing that he felt that people disliked him and found it difficult to fit in, but that his time in Okinawa has perhaps brought him clarity in the further direction of his life.
Luis was at least able to leave the island at a time of his own choosing, but as the ghostly voice of Yoshiko’s late father reminds us those who worked in the mines were not so lucky. He tells us that he once slept on a pile of bones and the remains of workers who attempted to flee but ended up starving to death in the jungle were a frequent sight in local caves. Exploited and manipulated, workers were often hopped up on morphine, for which they had to pay, in order to up their productivity but also to make them dependent on their employment to avoid withdrawal aware that they would be unable to obtain a such substances in their home country. They also found themselves borrowing on their wages, especially if they contracted malaria and were unable to work, leaving them essentially indentured and therefore unable to leave without satisfying their debts. Yoshiko tells us that few wanted to come to “Dead Man’s Island” yet Tien-fu declares himself uncertain why some miners remained unhappy with the arrangement eventually needing to organise a specialised police force to enforce discipline complaining that workers who were in debt and therefore earning almost nothing often shirked and only worked when the police were around.
Travelling around the otherwise idyllic landscape with its verdant green forests and peaceful rivers, Huang finds occasional ghosts of the departed miners hovering on the horizon dressed only in their white fundoshi underwear, slipping into brief scenes of reconstruction set amid the now ruined structures of the industrial mining complex. The last survivor, Yoshiko hangs on alone yet perhaps not quite reflecting on the implications of her father’s role in the development of the mines or particularly of their legacy. Her own life has evidently been hard, adopted as an infant and then married to her “brother” only to see her children desert her left behind alone in the Green Jail a guardian of a dark history few wish to remember. Juxtaposing the island’s traumatic past with the beauty of its verdant scenery Huang’s elegantly composed documentary poses some serious questions about the imperial legacy but always mindful of its wandering ghosts.
Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)
The festival will also be screening Huang Yin-Yu’s accompanying short film Green Grass, Pale Fire: an elliptical, ethereal dramatisation of three men’s attempt to escape the mines only to find themselves trapped by the beautiful yet maddening landscape.
Images: (c) Moolin Films, Ltd./ Moolin Production, Co., Ltd.