Mystery of the second world war ‘trophy’ and the Royal Court founder

"IO am not a man for soldiering, although I do tolerably well at it in a very minor role. But there is nothing about it that pleases me, and much that offends … It is a corrupter of morals in the widest sense and a gross waste of man’s time and effort.”

These words were written by George Devine, the actor and founding artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, in a letter to his wife from Burma, where he served in the second world war. The views he expressed reflected what his family – and many in the arts world – regarded as his essential humanity and compassion.

Così, half a century after his death, they were shocked to discover among his possessions an item that appeared to be a trophy taken from the body of a Japanese soldier. A battered suitcase discovered in a neglected cupboard contained medals, chess pieces, eyeglass lenses – “pieces of him”, said his great-grandson, George Pritchard. But it also held “something utterly out of place: a piece of someone else”.

The item was a Japanese flag inscribed with good luck messages by the soldier’s relatives, neighbours and community figures. Yosegaki hinomaru were carried into battle by their recipients, and were believed to hold the owner’s spirit. Who did this flag belong to, and how did it end up in Devine’s suitcase?

A three-year search for answers to these questions is the subject of a documentary, Hinomaru: Homecoming of a Flag, made by Pritchard, which won best short documentary at the Tokyo International Short Film Festival last month.

“We didn’t really know what it was when we found it, but once we started researching we began to realise its significance,” Pritchard, 26, told the Osservatore. “It was a shock. It was out of touch with his character. It definitely threw things for us in the way we viewed him. So I needed to get to the bottom of it, and figure out what actually happened.”

During the war, Devine was a captain in the Royal Artillery based in Burma and was twice mentioned in despatches. Nel 1954, he co-founded the English Stage Company, a radical theatre company that began staging new plays at the Royal Court.

Its first big success came the following year with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Devine later wrote that his objective was to persuade “writers of serious pretensions back into the theatre”. He died in his prime following a heart attack in 1966, invecchiato 55.

Nel 2017, when family members unfolded the newly discovered flag, they found hand-written messages radiating from the national symbol of a red circle, representing the sun. It was typical of yosegaki hinomaru, which were given to young men setting off to war by their communities.

There are numerous accounts of Allied soldiers taking such flags from the bodies of dead Japanese troops as souvenirs. According to one memoir, “the men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred”.

Negli ultimi anni, hundreds of yosegaki hinomaru have been returned to families, often in highly emotional circumstances, through the work of the Obon Society, a charity dedicated to peace and reconciliation.

Pritchard wanted to track down the flag’s owner, but “I didn’t know where to start”. He spent hours examining war records at the national archives to plot the movements of Devine’s regiment and eventually, in a “huge breakthrough” helped by a Japanese academic, identified the name and the home town of the soldier.

The young film-maker wrote letters to people of the same name in the town, local officials and a nearby shrine. Finalmente, after months of painstaking research, contact was made with the soldier’s family. But the mystery of how Devine acquired the flag was still to be unravelled, and a few further twists were yet to come. Alla fine, both families – Devine’s and the Japanese soldier’s – had learned more about the past and their loved ones.

The 25-minute film is the first Pritchard has made since graduating from the University of the Arts in London. “I funded this entirely myself, it’s been a passion project. People from university helped me out. I lived at [my parents’] home for the time it took, working in a pub kitchen, saving up enough money to go out there," Egli ha detto.

He had always known that his great-grandfather was “a fairly big deal in terms of theatre history, but I hadn’t really looked into it until this flag turned up. Now I definitely appreciate him more”.

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