Human Bullet (Nikudan) is a powerfully absurd antiwar satire. Set in the very last days of the second world war, when most can see the writing on the wall but don’t want to admit that their situation is hopeless, the film attempts to capture the bewilderment and confusion as people start to comprehend the situation. An unnamed soldier of about twenty years old is training to be an officer and is repeatedly subjected to ridiculous tasks and ideas sent from high command.
Whilst in charge of the food store, it’s discovered that three packets of biscuits have gone missing. Whilst being question about this the soldier remarks that himself and the other men have become cows, that is they’ve learnt to ruminate – a skill which he then demonstrates to the non plussed superior officer. They stole the biscuits because their rations are pitiful and they lack the strength for their training. Pointing out the obvious that this warehouse is full of food whilst the men are collapsing from malnutrition, the superior angrily tells him the food is for the final battle. Pointing out that there won’t be a final battle if they’ve all died of starvation further annoys the officer and our hero is reprimanded for his defeatist attitude by being forbidden to wear any clothing until further notice.
This further notice only comes when the squad is abruptly designated an anti-tank suicide squad, they will basically run into tanks whilst carrying explosives. Given one day of freedom before being expected to make the ultimate sacrifice, the soldier finds love after a few wrong turns and a strange meeting with an armless bookseller (a noticeably odd late performance from Chisu Ryu). He also develops a strange friendship with some orphaned children and ‘saves’ a suicidal woman.
Alas his orders are abruptly changed again and having failed to meet up with his unit he ends up, in the most absurd image of the film, a man in a barrel strapped to a torpedo. When you hear about lost Japanese soldiers years later not knowing the war is over and you wonder how that can happen, well it’s because of things like this. Aimlessly drifting and bemoaning the ridiculousness of his situation, his feelings of helplessness and bewilderment perfectly sum up the events of the summer of 1945.
Okamoto’s trademark dark humour prevent this from being as bleak as the subject matter might suggest, although the finality of its ending is still incredibly powerful. Like Catch-22 or Dr Strangelove the film beautifully sends up the absurdity of war, and especially of an authoritarian win at all costs philosophy. It’s a shame this film isn’t currently available on DVD anywhere with English subtitles as it’s a very unusual film even by the standards of the Japanese Wave. Human Bullet is unforgettable and really deserves to be better known in the West.