The Daily Heller: A Film About the Sign and Symbol Known as Manji

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Months before the pandemic I was contacted by Adam Weissman and Yousuke Kiname, who partnered to make a documentary film about one of the most spiritual and holy of Japanese emblems, the manji. I knew from writing and researching my books The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption? and The Swastika and Other Symbols of Hate that the manji and many other “hooked crosses” were all one and the same. Only the names of the symbols had been altered to reflect their respective meaning in so many parts of the world, especially the far East.

I agreed to be interviewed on camera for the film Manji to offer my thoughts regarding the co-option of what the Nazis initially referred to as the hakenkreuz, and whether or not it should forever be tarnished by the evil it represented for a comparatively short but nonetheless tragic period of world history. What I did not realize was that this interview was designed as as a debate between me and Reverend TK Nakagaki, a Japanese Buddhist priest living in America who authored a book that effectively argues that the Nazi Hakenkreuz and the manji, or swastika, look similar but are not the same at all. Now that the film is making the rounds of this season’s festivals, I asked the filmmakers what they learned from this investigation, which follows Nakagaki’s mission as he answers the questions of origin and redemption. (here he also answers some critical questions.)

The Manji film is attempting to educate and alter “Western” perceptions and emotions regarding the swastika. What personally triggered the making of this film?
The initial spark of interest came when we read TK Nakagaki’s book about the swastika and realized just how little we, and likely most people around us, knew about the symbol. It was fascinating to discover just how many cultures and religions around the world had been using it, going back millennia.

Growing up both in the U.S. and Japan, I knew that the Buddhist symbol and Nazi symbol were different, but didn’t have a clear understanding of how or why that all came about.

We felt like this was a unique opportunity to take on the subject since, to our knowledge, there hadn’t been a documentary made about the swastika that took the time to really examine both understandings of the symbol.

Have either of you made a documentary before? Did you find it a high learning curve?
Not since college.

Since I work mainly as a cinematographer, I have been a part of many documentaries, but this was my first time directing and producing a doc.

I have directed a few short narrative films and other short-format content, so beginning the project wasn’t as difficult, but the nature of documentary filmmaking, filming sporadically over an extended period of time, shooting run-and-gun and trying to find the story and drama as you roll, meticulously going through the footage to piece together the film, those things I think take time getting used to, and I have a long ways to go before I’m even close to becoming a good documentary filmmaker.

Adam: I’ve only worked on documentaries as legal counsel for different productions, so jumping in as a producer was new for me as well. I was fortunate to have Yousuke handle the technical filmmaking aspects of the doc, but found that elements like interviewing and wrangling things together behind the scenes actually benefited from a lot of the skills I developed as an entertainment lawyer.

How did you locate Reverend TK Nakagaki, and how much of his book was the engine that drove the film?
Yousuke: A producer friend introduced me to TK. She was initially approached by him to make the documentary but was too busy at the time, so she recommended it to me. We met TK over a coffee after both of us finished reading his book, and decided to take a crack at the documentary.

The book is certainly a catalyst for the film and clearly an important item for TK because it represents a major accomplishment for him. We used the book as a reference for a lot of the history covered in the documentary, but the documentary extends well beyond the historical overview.

TK’s intention behind the book is to start a conversation about this taboo subject, but I would say the engine behind the film is more so TK’s drive to educate people about the swastika and have the symbol regain acceptance in the broader Western culture. The film is an observation of a person willing to stand up for a fight for his beliefs, even when those beliefs are controversial.

How have audiences responded to the debate within the film—that whatever it is called, a hooked cross is a swastika (a symbol by any other name, so to speak, has consequences to certain groups)?
The documentary actually had its first screening in a film festival this past week, so we are just starting to get our initial audience reactions. So far it seems that most of our audience members were unaware of the symbol’s history and cultural relevance prior to watching the film. After getting over that initial shock, we have heard a wide range of responses. Some viewers believe that the symbol cannot be redeemed, others believe we should give leeway to letting Buddhists, Hindus and others use it openly in society right away, and many fall in the camp of not being sure how the symbol should be handled and wanting to explore this conversation further.

Adam, you are a lawyer by profession and Jewish by birth. What drew you into this potential maelstrom of opinions?
 As a lawyer that practices in the media and entertainment industries, I have a deep respect for the freedom of expression we have in the U.S. Part of my job is evaluating whether my clients’ work is “appropriate” or not. The notion that a symbol that can be simultaneously interpreted to have seemingly contradictory meanings of both peace and hate is fascinating.

I grew up in a fairly insular Jewish community where I was given an education about the Holocaust from a young age. As a result I had a visceral negative reaction every time I saw a swastika. It was only later in college, when I took some Eastern philosophy courses, that I first learned about the symbol’s ancient history and positive associations. I’ve always had a bit of a mixed perspective on the symbol as a result, but truthfully never gave it much thought until reading TK’s book. At first I dismissed TK’s mission as ignorant and callous, but as I sat with it I realized that in doing so I was dismissing the valid beliefs and traditions of people across the globe, going back millennia. 

There were moments during filming that made me uncomfortable as both a lawyer and a Jew. One day you would have someone arguing that 75 years was enough time and that we no longer need to think about the Holocaust. The next day someone else would argue that the entire Hindu and Buddhist population should be OK dropping their sacred symbol simply by virtue of now living in the U.S. Neither perspective was right, but acknowledging the emotion and distress behind each perspective led me to believe that there must be some solution that respects both sides. I am still not sure what that solution is, but exploring the possibility of a solution is what drew me to this issue and still keeps me engrossed in it. 

Do you believe that TK’s mission will change minds as the symbol—whatever it is called—is still used as a racist sign and symbol of hate?
As long as the swastika is being actively used as a symbol of hate, it seems unlikely that people in the West will change their minds about the symbol. It would be very difficult to convince people, especially those who have experienced hate crimes firsthand, that the symbol can represent peace, auspiciousness, or any of the other positive associations carried by Hindus, Buddhists and other groups.

Adam: Education helps fight fear of the unknown. We hope that if more people learn the true history behind the swastika and are able to openly engage in dialogue about the symbol, it will take away some of the impact it has when used by modern hate groups. Then perhaps we can move towards a point where we’re more comfortable seeing the symbol positively used.

Manji is currently being shown for the next month in the virtual-only film festival Toronto Lift-Off. Those interested in watching it on demand (and voting) can purchase a ticket here.