How 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.