Army 陸軍 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944)

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif

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.

Port of Flowers 花咲く港 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1943)

film_syosai_img_01_04-thumb-730x480-1642Keisuke Kinoshita is far better known in his native Japan than outside it despite his long and prolific career in filmmaking. Equally adept at comedy and tragedy and tackling all genres from musicals to crime dramas, Kinoshita began his career in the relatively turbulent war years where every last detail was at the censor’s mercy.  Port of Flowers is his very first foray into the director’s chair and began a long association with the comedy genre. Though, yes, it has it’s obligatory moments of bare faced propaganda, the film is refreshingly light on heavy handed political statements and prefers to focus on a humorous take on small town life.

Life in a sleepy little port town is about to get significantly more exciting after the local inn has received two rare telegrams purporting to be from the same man but sent from different locations one day apart. The man in question claims to be the son of a businessman who lived in the town some years previously but has since died and the bereaved child has a hankering to see the little shipping village that the father apparently loved so much. After picking up their new guest at the station the mini delegation of inn keepers and officials are shocked to discover another disgruntled customer also claiming to be the sender of the letter. Sufficed to say neither of the two in question is what he claims to be but has come to town with the intention of fleecing some gullible country bumpkins out of grandma’s silver. The two decide to work together but eventually the goodnatured enthusiasm of the villagers (and the rising war effort) begin to make them rethink their nefarious ways!

Given the time period and strict censorship, it would be ridiculous not to expect some degree of pro-war sentiment in the film but Kinoshita has managed to more or less leave the conflict as merely a background setting. Life in this little fishing village seems fairly tranquil and the war has barely encroached on its idyllic settings. There are youngish men about, the people aren’t rich but they aren’t afraid and the only mention of turbulence seems to be a young woman who’s recently returned from Manchuria not entirely at her own volition. There are some fairly excited mentions of various victories but these are fairly minor events, almost like something happening far away to other people to whom you feel connected but not quite involved with. The most important thing is the building of the ship – not only is it a source of pride for the villagers, a way of fulfilling the dream of a respected visitor they all remember fondly but it will also be for their country. Everyone must contribute as they can because it’s for the entire community of citizens, not just the village but for everyone in the country and it’s important. Their sacrifice and hard work will matter because it will be for the greater good.

Here endeth the lesson, for the most part. What of our two bumbling crooks? It’s never really explained how they came to know so much about this poor, unsuspecting community and simultaneously hatched on the same scheme at the same time but they must have been pretty well out of options to think these poor villagers were going to be worth this much effort. They came to commit a fraud but ended up having to actually do the impossible and make their improbable scheme work solely because the villagers’ kindness was too much to bear. The addendum to the lesson being that pure hearts can shame the devil and innocence becomes infectious after a while (in the best possible way).

Very much of its time and with an air of disposability, Port of Flowers is an enjoyable, surprisingly warm film but not without its faults. Eschewing heavy handed propaganda for a subtle enforcement of traditional, communal values it reflects Kinoshita’s subsequent humanistic concerns and even manages to do so without giving in to the censor’s red pen. A nice take on an old story, Kinoshita once again proves that nothing matters so much as people and goodness will always win through in the end.

Human Bullet

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.