In ‘Tokyo Trial’, Irrfan Khan watches the watchmen

Were Japanese atrocities during World War II punishable by law? ‘Tokyo Trial’ considers both sides


Irrfan Khan in a still from ‘Tokyo Trials’ .
Irrfan Khan in a still from ‘Tokyo Trials’ .

“One Bengali equals a poet,” goes an old (and excellent) joke. “Two Bengalis equal a film society, three Bengalis equal a political party, and four Bengalis are two political parties.” This is some admittedly accurate stereotyping, neatly capturing what the writer Patrick French, lauding the joke in his India: A Portrait, described as the “artistic and disputatious Bengali”. I venture that the coming together of five Bengalis would result in a Durga Pujo committee, and a more chaotic organization I do not believe can exist.

A committee, by its very nature, is counterproductive, the kind of thing that—according to another hoary old chestnut—leads to humpbacked horses. Tokyo Trial brings to our attention a vital moment in history where several men sat around a table so that justice could be meted out—by justices. As we saw in Sidney Lumet’s immortal film about an indecisive jury, 12 Angry Men, absolute consensus is an impossibility. And here is a tribunal set up after World War II, made up of 12 of the finest and most respectable judges in the world. These are all men used to having the final word. There is, quite simply, no room for anger. Which isn’t to say it won’t rear its head.

Tokyo Trial—a co-production by NKH (the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation), FATT of the Netherlands and Don Carmody Television of Canada, and streaming now on Netflix—is a deeply engrossing four-part miniseries that, fairly and compellingly, puts forth the arguments for and against punishment of war crimes. Twenty-eight Japanese leaders were put on trial by supreme commander Douglas MacArthur’s tribunal, and over a thousand days passed in the deliberations about their punishment. The atrocities committed by the Japanese defendants—which included the attack on Pearl Harbor—were indeed inhuman, and yet, at the time they were carried out, these acts of aggression were a part of war. Charging these men for “crimes” which were, for all intents and purposes, legal at the time they were carried out, is therefore not straightforward on any count.

Irrfan Khan plays Radhabinod Pal, distinguished judge of the Calcutta high court and vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta. As the judge from India, he is added to the panel as a representational afterthought—but his impact is immediate. Pal was the solitary judge who never compromised from a stand of absolute dissent: He believed that this idea of justice imposed by the Allies was one born out of vengeance, not legal fairness. When other judges—like Lord Patrick of the UK—insisted that this was the way for law to evolve, Pal emphasized that the international community had not yet reached the level of sophistication required to declare war a crime.

Khan plays Pal modestly, as a calm and rational freethinker who refuses to get swayed by arguments he considers irrelevant. In 1946, a few months into the tribunal, he confidently declares that India will get its independence the next summer. His reaction to the passionate judges around him is one of cool bemusement. He stands against the tribunal’s charter, and while several dissenting judges find their ideals compromised or altered by attrition or argument, Pal soldiers on. The majority of the judges took six months to draft their final judgement, while Pal composed his own stand-alone judgement—weighing in at 1,235 pages—declaring the tribunal’s verdict “victor’s justice”.

The judge from the UK is shown as pig-headed in the belief that war can be prevented by criminalizing it, the judge from China is level-headed, while the one from the Philippines appears vengeful—nearly as much as the judge from the Soviet Union, a military man and utter Stalinist, whose stand is often softened by a clever interpreter. The show revolves around the violin-playing judge from the Netherlands, Röling, who works as the moral compass, occasionally inconsistent in the way he is swayed by passionate justification.

This is a conversation-heavy series that doesn’t shy away from intricate legal argument, and the attention to detail renders it an essential watch. It is a show about perspective, and deserves not merely attention but reflection. Modelled on the Nuremberg Trials, the Tokyo Trials led to the eventual founding of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Based in the Netherlands, the ICC counts among its members 124 nations—but, notably, America, Russia and China refuse to join.

“I would hold that each and every one of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges,” Pal had declared, words that enshrined him as a folk hero in Japan. We ought to celebrate him as well. There is, after all, an art to being disputatious.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.

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