With a name like “Army”, you’d expect this to be a stridently propagandistic film about brave men fighting for their countries – some of whom will likely fall but will cover their families in eternal glory through their selfless sacrifice. Those are certainly the ideas behind Kinoshita’s 1944 film, the last film he’d be permitted to make before the war’s end, however any lingering feelings of pro-militaristic ardor are completely undercut by the film’s near silent closing moments.
Like The Living Magoroku, we begin in another historical era – one just as turbulent as the contemporary action. As people flee burning houses at the dawn of the Meiji era, a father and son shelter a wounded samurai who gifts them a set of historical encyclopaedias. Despite the changing times, the father is convinced a man’s highest duty is to his country and makes a deathbed plea that his son Tomohiko become a fine soldier. Tomohiko tries his best, as an infantry Captain through the several of Japan’s international conflicts of the early 20th century he’s certainly had ample opportunity to distinguish himself. However, luck is not on Tomohiko’s side as minor injuries, illness or simply failing to be selected have kept him safely away from the front lines. Eventually invalided out, Tomohiko tries to make a go of civilian life, finally ending up trying to run a pawn shop (before realising he’s not good at that either and leaving the heavy lifting to his more capable wife). Still convinced of the wisdom of his father’s philosophy, Tomohiko pushes his wishes for military glory onto his oldest son – the equally weedy Shintaro whose slight frame and kindly nature don’t exactly point to a future Field Marshall. Japan needs soldiers though, it’s time for every man and boy to stand up to defend her!
Final scene excised, Army would look like the most obviously propagandistic film in the box set. Full of references to the importance of military virtue and physical strength over book learning, Army brings home that a man who does not fight is not a man. He is weak and womanly and is to be shamed. Even those who are in poor physical health or simply not built for brute force attacks are expected to suddenly shape up and join every other young man in sacrificing themselves nobly for the Emperor. Mothers, even, are not permitted to grieve as their sons were never theirs in the first place – they were merely taking care of them for the Emperor. Now they’ve done their duty and returned their progeny to the father of the nation, they ought to feel nothing more than relief at a job well done, or so says Tomohiko’s wife, Waka. Wouldn’t it be shaming to have a grown up son still at home, after all, or even one that was far from the front line but relatively safe? Prepare for the worst or hope for it? It’s an oddly macabre way of thinking.
However, the last scene of the film which is played almost silently, undercuts this cold willingness to sacrifice and shows it up for its own hollowness. Having originally claimed not to be going to see the brigade depart because she’s a weak and emotional woman, Waka is suddenly overcome by something. She rises and follows the other townspeople drifting towards the noise of the parade with its crowds of cheering, flag waving supporters. Desperately, anxiously, she searches for her son in amongst the multitudes of other young men in identical uniforms marching off gleefully almost certainly not to return. Having pushed through the ranks of ecstatic civilians, she finally catches a glimpse of Shintaro who smiles at her before disappearing back into the ranks of anonymous infantrymen. Waka is left bereft, alone and terrified – her only recourse is prayer.
Unsurprisingly, the army didn’t really like this bit. In fact, one high ranking official marched right down to Shochiku and accused Kinoshita of treason! Luckily, not too much came of that but Kinoshita’s next script about kamikaze pilots was rejected and he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a camera until after the end of the war. Waka’s final uncertainty, her grief at losing her son to this faceless monster undercuts the entirety of the previous 80 minute celebration of glorious military history and masculine pride. All of a sudden it’s not a joyful celebration anymore, it’s a funeral peopled with grieving wives and mothers – hardly the sort of message you want to send out when you’re trying to give the barrel a final scrape when it comes to conscripting for the army. Army is a film that’s defined by its final minutes and is surprising in the level of ambiguity it was allowed to get away with given the strict censorship conditions in place. As a propaganda film it fails, but by design. Kinoshita once again refuses to depict his characters as unfeeling robots who can suppress their natural empathy in the name of duty or honour and a mother’s love proves the most dominant (if hopeless) force of all.