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One of the major themes in the documentary Japan Memoirs of a Secret Empire: The Return of the Barbarians is cultural isolation. The Edo Empire has been depicted as one that preferred to remain unknown to the western world. Arguably, the documentary does not highlight some of the reasons why the Tokugawa shogunate refused to let the western world into Japan. Indeed, in the discussion of cultural isolation is the debate of close country policy. Before the Meiji Restoration, it is arguable that Japan was peaceful. The various classes within the society were treated differently with the Samurais held in the highest regards. The close linkage between politics and culture further enhanced the close country policy that is well captured in the documentary.
A second major theme of the documentary is the influence of interaction, in particular, Western interaction, with high cultural societies. The documentary supports the argument that the interaction that introduced Japan to the rest of the world was critical in ensuring human rights and freedom of the most vulnerable classes in the society. For example, the documentary compares the number of people who were learned in the different classes (Michael 00:21:59). The top classes had the most learned individuals as compared to the other lower classes.
After reviewing the film, one can argue that the documentary approaches the subject matter sensitively in order to highlight an accurate picture of the events that happened during that era and how those events led to the development of modern-day Japan. The production quality is lower than expected for a film that came out in 2017, a time when 3D and other HD film options were highly favored in film.
The documentary brings out everything that history tells. The dates and places highlighted in the documentary are also correct. However, it is important to note that the documentary stresses some events more than others. The main reason for doing this is shaping the story to suit a specific purpose. One can state that this is one of the ethical issues that arise from the documentary. Looking at history, one of the things that have not been well covered in the documentary is the involvement of Sakamoto Ryoma. According to history, his assassination played a big role in rallying the public to support the Meiji Restoration (Prough, 564).
Arguably, the documentary covers the ethical question on the intention of German Doctor Englebert Kaempfer in his letters to the Western world about the Kingdom of Japan. The doctor was part of a group that had been allowed to stay on a secluded island. Thus, there have been debates on whether it was ethical for him to “spy” on the shogunate and inform the Western world.
As mentioned, the documentary offers viable insights into the shogunate era and the restoration time in Japan. One of the key pieces of information that add to the understanding of the Restoration time that is missing from the course books is the impact of the laws of compassion on the Restoration era. From the documentary, one understands that the Meiji Restoration did not just happen in the last few years of the Edo Empire as the book denotes. There had been other smaller and relevant events that led to the Restoration. Additionally, the strength and courage of Sakamoto come out clearly in the documentary especially due to the background information on the loyalty of samurais to the shogunate.
One of the major differences between the book and the documentary is the fact that the documentary focuses more on before the Restoration while the book discusses during and after the restoration (Marius, 34). The two approaches give a comprehensive view of that whole era. Indeed, one can learn a lot about the history of Japan from both productions. A second major difference between the two is the direction of the story.
The documentary portrays, to some extent that the people involved in the shogunate as villains. Since the book does not largely focus on them before the restoration, the individuals mentioned who pushed for close country policy are the only ones who have been portrayed as villains (Marius, 34). Arguably, both the book and the documentary are authoritative. However, the book can be perceived as more authoritative as it has less bias compared to the documentary.
Indeed, the visual themes of the documentary add to the understanding of the subject area in various ways. First, it brings out the visual images/pictures of the different classes within Japanese society. Secondly, it supports the major themes of the story, for instance, the theme of inclusion. One can clearly see the difference between the close country politics society and the open society of modern Japan. Through the visual aids, one can highlight differences in development, progressive culture, and even social inclusion. Also, whereas the book narrates the story of the making of Japan as a whole, discussing all the stakeholders involved, the documentary focuses on how the leadership of Japan failed the country during the Edo regime.
“Japan Memoirs of a Secret Empire: The Return of the Barbarians Documentary.” YouTube, uploaded by Michael Arthur, 2017. Web.
Marius, B. Jansen. The Making of Modern Japan. Belknap Press, 2002.
Prough, Jennifer. “Meiji Restoration Vacation: Heritage Tourism in Contemporary Kyoto.” Japan Forum, vol. 30, no. 4, 2018, pp. 564-588.