So Long Asleep: Waking the Ghosts of a War

David Plath
2016 | 60 minutes
Country of Production: USA
Countries Featured: South Korea, Japan
US Premiere | Director in Attendance

Healing the wounds of war, Japanese priest Yoshihiko Tonohira began a movement to exhume, memorialize, and repatriate the remains of Korean men who died in 1940s Japan. In squalid, brutal conditions, more than 100 lost their lives, becoming war's anonymous casualties. Tonohira's drive to recover these victims raises important questions about war memory, postmortem rituals, and international cooperation.  

Co-presented by the Asia Society


Activate: My Perspective

“What do I hope to activate with So Long Asleep: Waking the Ghosts of a War?

I want to find that certain someone—or someones—who will continue to pursue an issue posed by So Long Asleep. Why do our American portrayals of the Asia-Pacific War fail to reveal the massive amounts of slave labor imposed on Asian men? Asian ‘comfort women’ draw headlines and protests. And the fate of Allied POWs is dramatized in books and films such as Unbroken and Bridge on the River Kwai. But the fate of nearly two million Asian civilian men goes unremarked. Much more scholarly research is needed. Even more needed is a documentary film project that can embrace the array of persons and languages involved across the sweep of East and Southeast Asia. It’s a David Suzuki-sized mission I couldn’t hope to accomplish. Grant review boards would look at a proposal from me and think—perhaps rightly—‘this will take several years; how do we know he’ll live long enough to finish it?’ In addition I want people to see that the repatriation pilgrimage in So Long Asleep offers an upbeat model for remembrance and reconciliation. It’s a model that can be deployed in many arenas of ethnic and nationalist rancor, not least here at home for repatriating the remains of Native Americans.

What has So Long Asleep activated in me? The textbooks say (1) research the topic, (2) design your film, (3) obtain production money, (4) shoot and edit. But this documentary project has gone in reverse. On short notice—an invitation from my former student Byung-Ho Chung—I hired camera operators, went to Japan and Korea, shot tens of hours of video, then spent ten months editing materials in three languages. Now I’m beginning to have time to investigate the scope of wartime male slave labor. Though dimly aware of the issue I failed to attend to it across decades of study and teaching about East Asia history and culture. 

There’s another kind of personal activation. For years I’ve set aside small amounts of money from royalties and from an occasional production budget surplus: money I was saving for a rainy day. So Long Asleep unfurled my umbrella.”

—  David Plath | Director, So Long Asleep: Waking the Ghosts of a War