“Forgive—Don’t Forget” could simply be viewed as the story of an American returning a World War II-era samurai sword to a Japanese family. Instead, the one-hour documentary is a thoughtful, nuanced, and heartfelt journey of reconciliation that helps strengthen mutual respect and understanding between two cultures.
As with any well-told story, the journey is as interesting as the destination. Each step of the film explores a different aspect of the sword and what it represents, both during the war and in contemporary society. Fortunately, the filmmakers stay focused on the human side of the story, complete with moments of uncertainty, frustration, reflection, determination…and even unexpected bursts of humor. On such a unique journey, how does one know what to expect next? The film excels in these moments—allowing protagonist Paul Ufema (and the audience) several moments to reflect along the way. There is much to learn, and thankfully, there is no sense of forced urgency.
All war is hell, of course, with atrocities on all sides. But many Allied combat veterans of the Pacific Theater repeatedly cited the barbarity of the Japanese military as an obstacle to reaching a place of personal forgiveness. The savagery, many argued, was a reflection of its broader culture at the time. The film could have including some discussion about the lasting impacts of war on the aggressor—helping to dig deeper into Japanese society’s polarized self-view seven decades on. But admittedly it is a complex and fraught subject, involving lingering trauma, anger, and guilt, and perhaps it would be better suited as the subject of its own documentary. As Paul’s uncle, Lance, says early in the film: “I can understand why you’d want to give this back. Maybe it’s best to do that. Maybe that’ll make things a lot better, it’ll make a better world. I don’t know.”
It is a strong, thoughtful film that helps remind us that even two distinct cultures—both with memories of pain and loss—can seek out common ground and find a way forward. It doesn’t try and solve the larger issues, but it’s a start. And that matters. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.
Forgive—Don’t Forget has been selected for film festivals across the United States.