The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei, Kiju Yoshida 1973)

Snapshot-2015-11-18 at 01_34_49 PM-1660087891Having taken avant-garde story telling to its zenith in Heroic Purgatory, Yoshida returns to the realm of politics with a far more accessible effort in Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei). Inbetween the two films, Yoshida had made another more mainstream offering, Confessions Among Actresses, which had been moderately successful with both audiences and critics but with Coup d’Etat he came back to the artistic fare he’d been pursuing since leaving Shochiku. Unlike the other two films in Arrow’s Love + Anarchy boxset, Coup ‘Etat deals with a right wing rebellion rather than the communists and anarchists which are more familiar to the post-war world.

The film begins with a nervous young man brutally stabbing an elderly businessman in the street before taking his own life. On claiming his remains, the man’s sister finds a letter addressed to Ikki Kita – a well known right wing intellectual in favour of the institution of martial law. Kita, or more particularly his work, becomes a figurehead for a putative revolution organised by young army officers who have become disillusioned with the elected government, its plans for increasing Westernisation and treatment of the poor. They seek to overthrow parliament and put the Emperor back in charge for a kind of paternalistic socialist state. Kita remains on the fringes of this movement, coming into contact with a young soldier who wants to join the revolution and advising him but repeatedly making it clear that he is not involved with the coup itself. Nevertheless, even if not directly involved, Kita will still pay the price for his radical ideas.

Less an examination of the historical events of the time or the coup itself, Coup d’Etat is a psychological portrait of Kita’s last days. Marking the only time Yoshida was not involved in the screenplay (this time leaving things entirely to playwright Minoru Betsuyaku) the film follows a much more linear structure rather than playing with time in the same way as Eros + Massacre or Heroic Purgatory. Kita had written a hugely influential book which advocated moving to a system of martial law under the paternalistic care of the emperor alongside nationalisation of industries, minimisation of private property and a better welfare state. However, Kita is a public intellectual not an activist. He takes no personal part in the armed struggle (though he is aware of each of the actions and close to the people who facilitated them), yet still he pays the price. Whether this is an indictment of his lack of physical commitment to the ideals that he spoke of, or an indictment of a system which seeks to shoot the messenger is up for debate but in any case Kita is “betrayed” by the very same emperor that he worshipped as a god.

Having said that, it’s Emperor Meiji who hangs on Kita’s wall. What Kita and the officer class wanted was a “Showa Restoration” in line with the “Meiji Restoration” but almost the reverse as they returned to a form of paternalistic government where personal freedoms were restricted but everyone was well cared for. We actually don’t learn a lot about Kita during the film (a strange thing to say about a “biopic” which is often how the film is described) but it seems that he had a strict childhood in which he was prohibited from feeling fear – each time a boy was a afraid, he was supposed to cut himself as a punishment. Yet Kita is afraid and this tension between intellectual thought and irrepressible emotion is one that restricts his physical actions to the point that he remains a solitary figure entrapped by his own ideology. That he is then betrayed by the very figures that he sought to exult is the very highest form of tragedy and it’s difficult not to believe that the real coup d’etat is being perpetrated against Kita himself.

Perhaps because of its relative narrative simplicity, Coup d’Etat is a visual masterpiece taking Yoshida’s especial gifts for composition to new heights of beauty. Once again shot in black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film is an unsettling maze of shadows and light coupled with uncomfortable angles and a musical score that’s almost like a science fiction film. Yoshida’s prognosis is indeed bleak – the young soldier for example who’s unable to carry out his part of the mission and eventually falsely confesses to having been a spy simply because he felt insignificant and wanted to be a part of something is symptomatic of the self-centred ineffectuality of the younger generation. Once again, youth has been evaluated and found wanting though age doesn’t fare much better in the end. The filming of Coup d’Etat was delayed for sometime as Yoshida underwent an operation to remove a tumour from his stomach. His ultimate satisfaction with the film and the feeling of having come to the end of a cycle coupled with the need to recuperate more fully kept Yoshida away from the director’s chair until 1986 though he’d never return to it with the same intensity as in his political trilogy.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Scene from near the end of the film:

Reviews of the other movies in the set: