Of all the people who went to see The Railway Man when it opened nationwide last Friday few could have been watching it as keenly as Gill Goddard.
The film is based on Eric Lomax’s experience as a British prisoner of war who decades after undergoing the horrors of a Japanese labour camp on the Burma railway discovers that his tormentor, army interpreter Nagase Takashi, is still alive and sets out to confront him and in doing so exorcises his demons.
“Ed, my husband, made the point as we were coming out of the cinema that it was impossible to comment on the film because we knew far too much about it,” says Gill.
For the University of Sheffield librarian knew both men well before they died.
In fact it was Nagase Takashi that she met first back in the Seventies, when just graduated from university and keen to go to Japan, she heard of a vacancy for someone to give English conversation classes. This was an English language school in Kurashiki run by Nagase Takashi and his wife, Yoshiko.
She was immediately struck by how fascinating a character Nagase was. Physically frail he had been traumatised by the horror and brutality of the POW camps on the Thai-Burma Railway where he’d been a civilian interpreter.
After the war he used Japanese newspaper and radio interviews to call on his country to make a formal apology and recognise the inhumanity of their actions.
As soon as passports became available for ordinary citizens in 1963 he returned to Thailand to start making what amends he could.
He and Yoshiko set about providing support for education, putting local youngsters through school and nursing college and setting up mobile medical clinics.
He has also built Buddist temples to comfort the spirits of the dead - and of the living who exist along side them.
After returning home Gill lost touch with the Nagases but re-established contact in the most unlikely way.
“I was reading a book on holiday called The Railway Man by Eric Lomax and he was describing how he was tortured at Kanchanaburi and how this soft-speaking, devious interpreter was the man he focused his hatred on, “ says Gill who lives at Oughtibridge. “I just had a growing realisation that this was Nagase, a man I had known as a gentle and kind teacher.”
Gill went to see Eric Lomax who was able to put her in touch with Nagase again and she went back to Japan to see him and later accompanied him to Thailand to record his reminiscences for the British Library’s National Sound Archive and has edited his memoirs in English, Crosses and Tigers, and an account of the Cowra incident among Japanese prisoners in Australia in 1944.
At the same time she got to know Eric Lomax and his wife, Patti.
“He came down to Sheffield and did some external lecturing to students over the years,” she recounts, “and at one point there was the possibility of setting up a research centre on the medical effects on FEPOWs (Far East Prisoners of War) but it didn’t come to anything because Eric’s health was declining and he had to curtail some of his activities.”
Gill notes there were many similarities in their later lives. Both had first marriages (“I’m sad Eric’s was never mentioned in the film”) which broke down as a result of their war damage and both had strong second wives who were instrumental in helping them
“I am not sorry Eric died before the film was released,” she observes.
“He found it far too upsetting to see photographs and films of the war.
“And he would have felt obliged to go at least to the local premiere and it would have been a terrible dilemma for him.
“I am glad he was spared that and yet had all the fun of seeing the making of the film when they came to Berwick for a number of scenes and meeting Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine.
“Nagase would have been highly delighted to be represented as a well-built bloke with excellent English whereas he was too small, weak and sickly to be allowed into the Japanese army properly.
“The actor, Sanada Hiroyuki, who plays him in a smart officer’s uniform that Nagase never had, looks amazingly like pictures of the officer who really did interrogate and beat up Eric.
“The thing is that prisoners of war always focused on the one person who speaks English.”
The dramatic climax where Eric confronts Nagase in Kanchanaburi never happened, says Gill. “Patti and Eric went to Thailand and the first meeting was by the bridge you see in the film but it was later in Japan where they eventually poured out their feelings - but that would have been non-dramatic for a film.”
Gill Goddard was consulted by the film’s producer, Andy Paterson, on a couple of occasions. “I was asked to liaise with Nagase but before I went out to Japan people turned up saying they were making a film and he signed a contract. It turned out to be a completely different production, To End All Wars, based on the memoirs of another prisoner. It starred Robert Carlyle and was filmed in Hawaii. This film had to wait until Nagase was dead.”
Gill, whose other involvement was providing some of the pictures which are seen at the final credits, is diplomatic about what she thinks of the film.
“There were some things that were excellent, the scenes in the veterans’ club in Berwick, for example, where none of them spoke about their war experiences which were in their head and so were able to relax their brains for a bit.” But the inaccuracies and omissions clearly irritate her. “I’m looking forward to the director’s cut,” she smiles.
As she approaches 65 this year she intends to retire as East Asian Studies Librarian at the university and get down to writing the definitive biography of Nagase Tamashi.
“Until both he and Eric were gone I didn’t want to make anything public and I didn’t want to cause any offences.”