Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1938)

five scouts still 3War, in Japanese cinema, had been largely relegated to the samurai era until militarism took hold and the nation embarked on wide scale warfare mixed with European-style empire building in the mid-1930s. Tomotaka Tasaka’s Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Gonin no Sekkohei) is often thought to be the first true Japanese war film, shot on location in Manchuria and trying to put a patriotic spin on its not entirely inspiring central narrative. Like many directors of the era, Tasaka is effectively directing a propaganda film but he neatly sidesteps bold declarations of the glory of war for a less controversial praise of the nobility of the Japanese soldier who longs to die bravely for the Emperor and lives only to defend his friends.

The film opens with an exciting action sequence playing behind the titles featuring impressive scenes of battle with mortar shells exploding while soldiers run over trenches before entrenching themselves with a light machine gun. Eventually the day is won – after a fashion. Having lost 120 men, the 80 surviving of the 200 strong company settle-in to a fortified position awaiting further orders.

The excitement of the battlefield soon gives way to behind the lines boredom. Danger lurks around every corner, but there is work to be done. The men dig trenches, clean their weapons, draw water, cook and eat but they also try to live, chatting or enjoying the “spoils of war” which in this case amount to stolen watermelons and captured ducks. In quiet moments they dream of sukiyaki and of home, but are content in each other’s company and as cheerful as it’s possible to be given the seriousness of their circumstances.

When two enemy soldiers are detected on the perimeter, a squad of five scouts is sent out to investigate but find themselves lost in the confusing Chinese terrain and eventually come under heavy fire. Worryingly enough, only one of the soldiers makes it back in good time with the others remaining unaccounted for until they eventually arrive save one who no one can remember seeing since the beginning of the attack and whose helmet has been found in an abandoned trench.

Tasaka refuses to glorify the business of war. What the men experience is rain and mud and sorrow, not an exultation in male virility and the politics of strength. He does however fulfil his propaganda requirements in demonstrating the army’s dedication to the Emperor. The commanding officer’s final rousing speech reminds his troops that now is the time they are expected to “repay the benevolence of the Emperor” whilst also emphasising that the hopes and dreams of the Japanese people are invested in them and, even if their families at home are worried for their safety, they are also proud of their sons fighting proudly for their homeland so far away from home.

The men too display the appropriate level of patriotic fervour, breaking off to wave at a Japanese plane before dragging out a giant banner to show their support and each remaining committed to serving even when physically compromised. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his arm, violently rejects the idea of going to a field hospital even though there is a strong chance that his arm will need to be amputated if they do not remove the bullet in due time. The soldier pleads to be allowed to stay on the front line, claiming that he does not mind losing an arm if it means he gets to stay and help his comrades. His comrades, touched by his dedication, nevertheless urge him to get his arm seen to by subtly suggesting that his desire to remain on the frontline is a kind of vanity when his effectiveness is compromised. His arm, technically speaking, does belong to the army and the Emperor after all. Another soldier, not so lucky, exclaims he can see Japan as he lays dying, singing the first verse of the national anthem before finally giving up the ghost.

As the men march off towards the final battle following the rousing speech from their commander who warns that many will die, they do so melancholically rather than with eagerness to sacrifice themselves on an imperial altar. Tasaka stages the battle scenes with impressive realism, drawing inspiration from news reel footage to capture the immediacy and energy of the live battlefield, filming on location behind the lines in Manchuria for added effect. The behind the lines sequences are intentionally less dynamic and conventionally captured, allowing the tedium and the anxiety of a soldier’s life of waiting to take centre-stage. Tasaka’s film may seem naive and perhaps lacks the initial impact of the shock of seeing such visceral action scenes portrayed on screen for the first time, but it is also mildly subversive in its subtle rejection of the militarist lust for glory even whilst heaping praise on the ideal soldier’s love of Emperor, comradeship, and strong sense of duty and honour.


I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)

img_0Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.

One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.

Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.

In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.

Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.

Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.   


Clip (English subtitles)

Victory Song (必勝歌, Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, Tetsuo Ichikawa, 1945)

vlcsnap-2017-08-01-00h21m20s082Completed in 1945, Victory Song (必勝歌, Hisshoka) is a strangely optimistic title for this full on propaganda effort intended to show how ordinary people were still working hard for the Emperor and refusing to read the writing on the wall. Like all propaganda films it is supposed to reinforce the views of the ruling regime, encourage conformity, and raise morale yet there are also tiny background hints of ongoing suffering which must be endured. Composed of 13 parts, Victory Song pictures the lives of ordinary people from all walks of life though all, of course, in some way connected with the military or the war effort more generally. Seven directors worked on the film – Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, and Tetsuo Ichikawa, and it appears to have been a speedy production, made for little money though starring some of the studio’s biggest stars in smallish roles.

The first scenes make plain the propagandistic intentions by starting in 660BC with a pledge of protection for the descendants of Amaterasu – ancestral mother goddess of Japan. Flash forward to 1941 and her sons are doing their best. Stock footage gives way to soldiers in the Asian jungle, taking a brief respite from the fighting to console each other with thoughts of home which is presumably where most of these small stories of resilience come from.

The soldiers appear to come from all backgrounds, the youngest of them seeming to be just a young boy whose strongest memory of home is his mother’s face. They chat cheerfully about their hometowns, never betraying any sense of fear, boredom or fatigue but the commander suddenly announces that they’re all “going home” until the next attack – taking a brief voyage of memory back to the motherland.

Within this framing sequence, the ordinary people of Japan go about their ordinary lives with cheerful forbearance. A young man cares for his parents after his older brother has given his life for the Emperor, serving on the home front by working himself so hard there’s a danger of going overboard and rendering himself out of action. His father argues that as long as everyone in Japan works as hard as they can, they can never be defeated. Community comes to the rescue again when a train gets stuck in the snow and the entire village gets out of bed to free it.

While the adults are giving it their all, the children are preparing to become fine subjects of the Emperor, training their minds and bodies to be of the most use whilst singing patriotic songs and performing military drills. Another segment finds the children praising their parents for their bravery, playing and roughhousing like any children would, but a hint of darkness emerges when a group of boys plays at war with their toy aeroplane. One little boy, Yuichi, has applied for the young pilots school without talking it over with his parents because he didn’t want them to be sad about him going away. His father, at least, is proud of him but upset at not being consulted. Practically measuring him up for the uniform, Yuichi’s father marvels at all the “young pilots” in the village – a chilling note seeing as none of these boys can be more than ten years old.

While the men go to war the women are at home waiting. Another persistent question relates to the fate of unmarried women – a positive motion for an arranged engagement is disrupted by the receipt of a draft card, prompting the male side to suggest they call the whole thing off. The woman, however, points out that every young man is in this position and she doesn’t see the point in expecting the worst. Life must go on, women must get married, and men must go to war. All of these things must be accepted without thinking too hard about it or there will be nothing for these gallant men to come home to.

The difficulties of wartime life extend to the fear and destruction of air raids, though a news report of the fire bombing of Tokyo reminds us that it could all have been much worse if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of the pilots and ground based defence forces keeping the threat from the skies at a minimum. Other reports detail dive bombing of hospital convoys while the wounded die happily knowing they’ve done their duty. Likewise the “special attack squad” prepare to meet their fates with stoicism and determination while their relatives are treated with especial esteem.

Interspersed with the vignettes and stock footage there are songs and dances bringing both entertainment and inspiration. The final message is one of resilience and unity, that Japan stands together to defend its ancient homeland in devotion to its Emperor, but then such a message would hardly be necessarily if the situation were brighter. Brief allusions are made to rationing, to the destruction and constant loss of life but these are all things which must be born for the glorious future. There is, however, much more stock put in remaining positive than there is in trying to deny the ongoing desperation. As propaganda films go, this one may backfire but does perhaps shine a light on the unspoken anxieties of ordinary people facing an extraordinary situation.


Final scenes including the “Victory Song” itself