Film review: Wansei Back Home - Taiwan-born Japanese trace their roots in poignant documentary

Seventy years after being sent from the island, elderly Japanese recall their separation from childhood friends – many, as they discover, now dead – and the struggle to feel a part of Japanese society

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 5:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 8:05pm

3.5/5 stars

A collection of personal stories from a largely forgotten part of history, director Huang Ming-cheng’s documentary follows several wansei – Japanese who were born in Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 when it was a Japanese colony. Most such people were sent to Japan after the end of the second world war, and the film follows its subjects as they try to trace their family roots and revisit their childhood homes in Taiwan after almost seven decades away.

A passion project of Taiwan-based producer Mika Tanaka, who spent 12 years reconnecting with the wansei generation of her late grandmother, Wansei Back Home features interviews with eight wansei, and incorporates historical footage, old family photos, and animation, to tell their story of enforced separation from childhood friends and relatives in the Japanese settlements in Taiwan, and the peculiar sensation of being estranged from their own hometowns.

Tainan - a Chinese city that celebrates its Japanese colonial past

One wansei returns to his neighbourhood to find that almost all his long-lost friends have died, while others recall the hardship they endured as “foreigners” struggling to assimilate into Japanese society. To many of these wansei, Taiwan was – and still is – their paradise. The most touching story involves a bedridden Taiwanese grandmother who finally locates her wansei mother’s tomb in Japan through the persistent efforts of her family.

The film does a mediocre job of addressing the political context behind all this – though you get the feeling that this was never Tanaka’s priority. As a record of personal histories, Wansei Back Home finds deep emotions in its ordinary subjects. Viewers looking to learn more about the wansei experience can also refer to Tanaka’s book of the same name, which tells the stories not just of the eight this quietly melancholy film features but a further 14.

Wansei Back Home opens on July 14

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook