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March 09, 2010

Japan at War

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Japan's Longest Day/Nihon no ichiban nagai hi
Kihachi Okamoto - 1967

Battle of Okinawa/Gekido no showashi: Okinawa kessen
Kihachi Okamoto - 1971

Father of the Kamikaze/A kessen kokutai
Kosaku Yamashita - 1974

Black Rain/Kuroi Ame
Shohei Imamura - 1989
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

AnimEigo has taken four older titles and repackaged them collectively. The idea is to give viewers more of an idea of World War II from a Japanese perspective. Two of the films though aren't war films in the traditional sense of being about men in battle, but about the events that took place at the close of the war, and the aftermath for one civilian family. While not an exact comparison, it would be as if a set Hollywood films about World War II included Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.

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Japan's Longest Day is comparable to The Longest Day only in the casting of what must have been every male star on the Toho Studios lot. The most famous name of course is Toshiro Mifune, but there's also Tadashi Shimura and Chishu Ryu, as well as Tatsuya Nakadai providing the narration. Although the history regarding the debates that proceeded the surrender is fascinating, as film it gets a bit talky for the the first hour.

Where things really kick in is when a group of young officers decide that they would not only not surrender, but they would persuade the military staff to back their plan to extend the war. Whether or not these rebellious officers were the wild eyed fanatics that are presented in the film, it is amazing to learn that their obsession with continuing the war included burning down the home of the Prime Minister for being a traitor, and ransacking the offices of the Emperor in order to keep the recording of his surrender speech from being broadcast.

Most of the people are introduced with their titles, and some notes that are part of the supplement give added context to some of the references to other historical events or persons. On a purely cinematic level, what I liked best about Kihachi Okamoto's film was his use of close ups, whether of a pragmatic Mifune, a tearful Shimura, or several of the lesser known actors. Some of the more earnest pronouncements, such as Ryu's declaration that younger people should replace the aging government cabinet, or Mifune's exhortation to his junior officers to live to rebuild Japan bear the hallmark of screenplay writer Shinobu Hashimoto.

Battle of Okinawa is a more traditional type of war epic, alternating primarily between the officers' headquarters and fields of battle. The film is more interesting for its content than any cinematic concerns. What may be most alarming is learning about how the military forces and the civilian population were virtually placed in a position to be defeated by the numerically superior Allied forces, and the extent of suicide among both populations. Used as a symbol of innocence in time of war, there is small girl, perhaps no more than five years old, who is seen wandering from place to place, the lone survivor amidst the ruins, mud and corpses.

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A streak of very dark humor also runs through the film, with such characters as a nurse's introduction to battle field surgery, which usually consists of sawing off injured legs, and the army barber, who provides comic relief. Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tamba are the two officers who provide the main advice to Keiju Kobayashi. Nakadai portrays Hiromichi Yahara, who survived to write a book about the battle, and served as an advisor on the film.

There is a curious footnote to the film: Tamba and Nakadai nostalgically mention seeing a movie together, the American silent, The Blue Danube, by forgotten writer-director Paul Sloane. In doing some research, Sloane's last listed film, Feng ye qing was a Japanese production made in 1952, about an American soldier and a Japanese woman.

While it appears that Tora! Tora! Tora! has been used as a template, Father of the Kamekazi also seems to have been inspired by Patton. There are not one, but two scenes of soldiers being slapped. I had only scene one previous film by Kousaku Yamashita, the fast moving yakuza adventure, Red Peony Gambler starring the then very popular Junko Fuji. Clocking in at over three hours, Father of the Kamikaze is probably of greater interest for its presentation of historical events.

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The idea of using suicide pilots apparently came from several sources, buy it was the naval officer, Onishi, who created the official group. Originally seen as a last ditch attempt to turn the tide of was back into Japan's favor, it became the chosen tactic, even after it became less effective. More so than Japan's Longest Night, the film helps explain the psychological trap that the military found itself in with the inability to accept surrender, as well as the general psychology of Japan of that time.

What worked best for me were some of the quieter moments, primarily Onishi with his wife examining a flower that only blossoms at night, and their reunion in bombed out Tokyo - the wife waiting at the ruins of their house with a pot of tea. There is also one remarkable scene with Onishi defiantly standing outside an air base while others hide from the strafing of U.S. planes.

I have written about Black Rain previously to coincide with that film's initial DVD release. Not only is Imamara's film the best in this set, Black Rain is still the best DVD release of a classic film in 2009, equal if not better than anything stamped with the label "Criterion Collection".

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Posted by peter at March 9, 2010 11:40 AM

Comments

Interesting suite of films. I'll have to let my friend Frako know about this set, if she doesn't already.

Posted by: Maya at March 10, 2010 04:14 AM