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.


A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1958)

Slope in the sun posterYujiro Ishihara had become the face of the “Sun Tribe” movement thanks to roles inspired by his brother Shintaro’s novels including the seminal Crazed Fruit in which he starred opposite his later wife, Mie Kitahara. Tomotaka Tasaka’s A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Hi no Ataru Sakamichi), adapted from the novel by Yojiro Ishizaka, is a much less frenetic affair than Nakahira’s famously intense youth drama, but retains the Sun Tribe’s world of purposeless youth whose inherited wealth has driven them to a life of listless ennui. Like Crazed Fruit, Slope in the Sun is the story of two brothers chasing the same girl, only this time one looks bad and is really good, while the other looks good but is really no good at all.

Beginning on the titular sun beaten slope, the film opens with a young woman, Takako (Mie Kitahara), entering the frame as she searches for an address on a piece of paper she is carrying. She finds the house – a large Western-style mansion, but is prevented from entering by a young man who mistakes her for a saleswoman and instructs her to use the tradesman’s entrance. The young man, Shinji (Yujiro Ishihara), continues to taunt her with lewd language before poking at her breast. Takako tries to leave but is persuaded to come inside to meet the lady of the house and the young woman, Kumiko (Izumi Ashikawa), whom she has come to tutor.

The Tashiro household is a strange one. There are three almost grown up children – oldest brother Yukichi (Yuji Odaka) who is a medical student, middle brother Shinji who is a painter, and the youngest daughter Kumiko who is approaching the end of high school and is a little over sensitive about a mild limp which is the consequence of a childhood accident. Takako nearly turns the job down when she realises that the family want less a teacher to help with Kumiko’s studies, than a kind of big sister to help her navigate her way into the adult world, but eventually warms to the Tashiros and decides to give it a go. A college student in need of money, Takako is currently living in a boarding house where she is friends with the older lady next door, Tomiko Takagi (Hisako Yamane), and her 18 year old musician son Tamio (Tamio Kawachi).

In contrast to the earlier Sun Tribe films, A Slope in the Sun is much more subdued though it does maintain an upperclass atmosphere filled with bored young people who struggle to find purpose in their lives through having no particular economic or social worries thanks to the protective cushioning of their wealth. The central issue is a common one to the familial melodrama – middle child Shinji has always felt disconnected from his family and has discovered that the woman who raised him is not his birth mother. He wants to know the truth of his family history but is also a kinder soul than his outward behaviour may suggest and does not want to hurt anyone or risk destroying the otherwise pleasant enough family life he enjoys as a Tashiro.

As expected coincidences abound though the truth is obvious seconds after Takako tells someone the name of her new employer causing them to gasp and draw pale with shock. It seems that everyone in the family already knew that Shinji is only a half brother except Shinji himself – their overcompensation in treating him kindly was the initial tipoff for his suspicions, but this question of blood relation turns out to have a surprising dimension. Oldest brother Yukichi is, outwardly, the model son – handsome, clever, gentlemanly, but on closer inspection his veneer of respectability turns out to be just that. The boys’ mother, Midori (Yukiko Todoroki), knows this well and partly blames herself for allowing Shinji to take the blame for a childhood accident rather than forcing her own son to confess. For all his seeming goodness, Yukichi is an amoral coward, womaniser, and habitual liar whereas there’s a kind of honesty in Shinji’s lewd speech and even in his own lies which he indulges partly out of a sense of smug superiority, as Midori puts it, but also because of the inferiority complex which has marred his life as he feels himself somehow lesser than either of his siblings.

Takako vacillates between the two brothers, taken in by the manipulative Yukichi but strangely drawn to the provocative Shinji. Unlike Nikkatsu’s other youth films, Slope in the Sun ends on a note of happy resolution rather than nihilistic suffering as each member of the family is encouraged to embrace their true natures, putting secrets to one side, and becoming closer in the process. Tanaka’s approach is a more classical one than Nikkatu’s usual fare, making use of silent cinema-style closeups and dissolves but veers towards the avant-garde in a brief flashback sequence offered in dreamlike widescreen. Despite the jazz clubs and subplots about misused geishas, this is a more innocent world than the post-war melodrama would usually allow, finding space for happiness and forgiveness in each of the conflicted protagonists once they each agree to submit themselves to the truth and meet the world with openness and positivity.


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