This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Who was The Bird in Unbroken? What was The Bird’s role in the story?
The Bird in Unbroken, whose real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, was a corporal in charge of discipline at the POW camp where Louis Zamperini was interned. The Bird in Unbroken was known to be ruthless and violent, and he especially targeted Louis.
The Bird of Unbroken
Whatever Louie and the other men had experienced at Ofuna would soon pale in comparison to life at their new POW camp: Omori. A Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe was in charge of disciplinary measures, and none of them, especially Louie, would be spared his wrath.
Omori was on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay connected to the main city by a bamboo-slat bridge. Watanabe had arrived in winter 1943 and soon became one of the most feared guards in the country. His tactics were so ferocious, Omori became known as “punishment camp.” The prisoners had many names for Watanabe, but the one used the most was “the Bird.”
Watanabe, or “the Bird” in Unbroken was from an affluent, privileged family. He studied French literature at university and moved to Tokyo to work in a newsroom after graduating in 1942. When Japan went to war, he quit his job and enlisted. Watanabe’s sights were set on becoming an officer, like his brother, and felt his privilege and education made him a certain candidate. But he was passed over for promotions and told he would never move beyond corporal. That decision would be the catalyst for the suffering of hundreds of men in the years to come.
Bitter and resentful of high-ranking men, Watanabe’s angst grew after he was transferred to Omori. A post at a POW camp was considered the lowest rung on the military’s ladder. His sense of dismissal unleashed a monster inside, and he took his anger out on the prisoners. He was known for his savage beatings, which left men with broken windpipes, ruptured eardrums, broken teeth, and a torn ear in one circumstance.
Watanabe was a sexual sadist and derived pleasure from inflicting pain on others. He destroyed prisoner’s family photos and burned letters from home in front of them. He’d demand to be called a different name each day and punished those who forgot. He forced men to violate camp rules, then beat them for it. Men would later recall a small sag in his right eye immediately before a violent tirade occurred.
However, underneath the brutality was a desperate need to be liked and accepted. Often, Watanabe would show remorse following a beating, crying and apologizing and offering the men cigarettes and candy to win their affections. But these reprieves never lasted long, and within an hour of apologizing, he’d flare into another rage and another round of abuse. He had a particular taste for abusing officers and men who’d been successful as civilians, and as an officer and former Olympian, Louie was the perfect target.
The Bird’s interest in Louie started from the moment he saw him. That first day, Louie and the other Ofuna prisoners were told to stand outside the front gates of Omori. The Bird lounged against the gates, for several minutes, casually eyeing the prisoners without speaking. Then, he was suddenly in their faces, screaming and demanding their names.
When Louie looked in his eyes, he saw madness and looked away. The Bird punched him in the head and demanded that Louie look him in the eye. When Louie did, the Bird punched him again and said not to look him in the eye. That was the moment the men realized they were dealing with a psychopath and when the Bird started his greatest hobby—terrorizing Louie.
The Bird in Unbroken referred to Louie as “number one prisoner” and beat him daily. Louie tried to blend in with other prisoners and hide, but the Bird hunted him like prey and always found him. Louie was desperate for someone to save him, but the only ally the men had at camp was another guard, Private Kano, who often helped the prisoners behind the Bird’s back. He snuck them extra blankets on winter nights, looked the other way when they stole food, and helped sick men visit a POW doctor instead of the merciless camp physician. Despite Kano’s benevolence, there was nothing he could do for Louie.
The abuse weighed heavily on Louie. The Bird in Unbroken was the first thing he thought about each morning, and he fantasized about strangling his abuser. That same childhood insolence made Louie defiant, and he refused to show weakness during beatings. To Watanabe, whose mission in life was to command subservience, Louie’s boldness only made things worse.
The Bird in Unbroken played a huge role in Louis’s life, even after he was liberated from the POW camp. The Bird in Unbroken caused Louis severe trauma that he dealt with for most of his life. He eventually chose to forgive The Bird.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary :
- How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
- The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
- The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors