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.

Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.

The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

4473285465_b5cf3a248fThere’s a persistent myth that Japanese cinema avoids talking about the war directly and only addresses the war part of post-war malaise obliquely but if you look at the cinema of the early ‘50s immediately after the end of the occupation this is not the case at all. Though the strict censorship measures in place during the occupation often made referring to the war itself, the rise of militarism in the ‘30s or the American presence after the war’s end impossible, once these measures were relaxed a number of film directors who had direct experience with the conflict began to address what they felt about modern Japan. One of these directors was Masaki Kobayashi whose trilogy, The Human Condition, would come to be the best example of these films. This early effort, The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Kabe Atsuki Heya), scripted by Kobo Abe is one of the first attempts to tell the story of the men who’d returned from overseas bringing a troubled legacy with them.

The Thick-Walled Room is set inside an American detention centre for soldiers who have been declared B or C class war criminals. In essence, these are the rank and file men who were “just following orders” or committed random acts of desperation because they believed it was necessary to survive. The men are kept fairly well in the prison, they aren’t treated cruelly though they are sent for forced labour in a stone quarry. The main protagonist of the story, Yamashita, insists on maintaining a beard as a form of mini rebellion (quipping that he’s trying to grow a rope to hang himself). He feels betrayed by a superior officer,  who ordered him to commit an atrocity and then cut some kind of deal to deny it afterwards and get off scot free – he returned to Yamashita’s home town, has married and is lording it over Yamashita’s own family as some kind of devious landlord.

The others in the cell include a young romantic dreaming of a girl he met in the war who, it turns out, has long forgotten him and is now living in the pleasure quarters. The film also doesn’t shy away from the other implications of the war with a Korean soldier also among the detained who laments what’s happening both to the country of his birth which is now once again at war and his adopted country tearing itself apart in guilt and defeat. When asked whether he’s from North or South Korea the soldier hesitates, perhaps offended by the question, and simply replies “I am Korean” before walking off. Others dream of home and wives and families and this whole thing being over. However, they’re all at the mercy of two governments – the Americans and the Japanese and though they believe they may finally be released when the treaty is signed, it’s never that simple.

Masaki Kobayashi begins the themes he would return to over and over again – the depths of human cruelty, repression, indifference, vengeance. These are man who risked their lives for a god only to find he was a man and nothing more. They’ve come back alive, but different. Not only must they deal with the shame of defeat and now being prisoners of their enemies but also with entire war guilt of a nation. These are just the little guys, they did as they were told even if they didn’t want to or they killed and stole to survive. They have done terrible things to those who had no role in the conflict, this is not in dispute, and they pay a heavy spiritual toll for those actions. The people who ordered and orchestrated these deliberate reigns of terror, however, have largely escaped or lied and cheated their way out of the hangman’s noose.

Kobayashi uses a lot of expressionist techniques more reminiscent of silent cinema than of the more recent films of the era. Whilst the men are inside the cell there is nothing outside it, the war still exists in here and in their minds. We start off leaning on the walls of the cell only to find ourselves thrown back into the heat of the jungle and finally thrown out again after encountering our dramatic event. The faces of the dead pass in montages across the screen crying “murderer” and “war criminal” in a constant vision of recrimination. Even if they are eventually released, these men will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

In fact, the film was so controversial that the release was held back until 1956 even though the American occupation was technically over before it was completed. Though it isn’t the most accomplished of Kobayashi’s films, The Thick-Walled Room includes many of the ideas and motifs that he would return to throughout his career. Kobayashi wants us to see things as they are and were from all angles. He sympathises with these men but doesn’t excuse what they or the nation as a whole has done, as he would continue to do he seeks a way forward that acknowledges the past but will bring us to a more compassionate future.

The Thick-Walled Room is the first of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.


Nobi: Fires on the Plain (野火, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

86485840228b9d174ae44b6a189f8c0bIt’s a fallacy to think Japan doesn’t make war films. Or perhaps, more that they didn’t make them until the recent swing to the right in Japanese politics seems to have made it OK to make Hollywood style war movies. Up until the sixties, Japanese cinema was willing and able to engage with the darkness of the recent past and several wonderful films such as Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no Jouken 人間の条件) or Okamoto’s The Human Bullet (Nikudan 肉弾) not to mention Ichikawa’s own The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategotoビルマの竪琴) presented the still fresh sorrow and regret associated with Imperialist ’30s onwards. None of them, however, come close to the hellish world of Fires on the Plain (Nobi 野火).

Based on Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name, Fires on the Plain begins with the beleaguered conscript Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) being berated (at length) by his commanding officer for returning from the field hospital earlier than expected. Despite having been given five days food, Tamura has returned after just three days because the hospital refused to admit him. Sick with TB, Tamura is told the hospital feels its duty is to the battlefield wounded – not those who’ve been unlucky enough to catch a debilitating and often terminal condition. Of course, his CO doesn’t want him back either – with only so many resources left and staring defeat in the face, why waste food and effort on a man who can’t pull his weight and is probably going to die anyway. And so, Tamura is sent back to the field hospital with no additional food and instructed to wait there until they let him in or alternatively, there’s your grenade – isn’t there? Do the decent thing. Thus begins Tamura’s bleak odyssey into the depths of human depravity, trying desperately to survive in the unforgiving Philippine jungle.

Legend has it that Funakoshi was so dedicated to the part that in true method fashion he’d been living on a starvation diet prior to the film’s starting and in fact actually caused it to be halted almost immediately when he collapsed from severe malnutrition. That might in part explain his miraculous performance with vacant, staring eyes like someone whose soul has gone somewhere far away. His halting and confused speech, understanding and not understanding, desperate to survive but terrified of what he might become – Tamura has no choice but to keep on walking, trying to find something to cling on to. Everybody knows the war is lost, yet there’s nothing they can do but keep on fighting. Tamura even considers the unthinkable – surrender, but another soldier beats him to it and is promptly mown down by a machine gun wielded by a Filipina resistance fighter working with the Americans. The most pressing problem is the lack of food. There is very little to live on left on the island which has been well and truly wrecked by every side. You can steal food from the indigenous people (if you can find any) or there’s ‘monkey meat’. The great taboo – cannibalism. Ultimately Tamura decides sometimes the price for survival is just too high if you won’t be able to live with what you’ve done.

In the west, particularly in the US, the film was criticised for its ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of Japanese soldiers – that it was another instance of Japan ‘playing the victim’ which was a common American reaction to the more contemplative war films of Post War Japan. It is true, the films glosses over the immediate situation of the Japanese occupied Philippines though the film largely takes with the Japanese on the run from American troops and the Philippine resistance. The fact there have been atrocities is never directly addressed though it hangs in the background like a grim, guilty spectre. It might explain why Tamura’s early meeting with a pair of villagers who’ve made a stealthy visit to their abandoned home to retrieve a parcel of salt buried under the floor becomes so fraught. In the first instance, Tamura was foolish to enter the house and approach them – even his disordered mind he must have known it was very unlikely they’d react kindly to his presence. If he just wanted to know what was buried under the floorboards, he had only to fire a warning shot and scare them off before they could dig it up and then retrieve it himself. When he does show himself the male villager runs off but the female is so scared she can barely move and can’t stop screaming. Tamura shoots her and takes the salt for himself. Disgusted with his actions he throws his rifle into the nearest pond. That isn’t to say the film lets Tamura, or indeed the other men or the whole Japanese war machine, off the hook. Only that they’ve become this way because of what war reduces you to – less than animals, surviving by any means even if that means betraying your fellow men.

Fires on the Plain was adapted from Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name by Ichikawa and his screen writing wife Wada Natto who, while keeping broadly to the tone and spirit of the book, made several changes. The most obvious being to the structure of the novel which has more of a framing sequence, an unreliable first person narrator and a complicated structure. In the novel Tamura, a fictionalised version of the author, is a Christian and the book is written with a Christian view of the world rather than the traditionally Japanese viewpoint common to the majority of soldiers. Therefore, Ichikawa decided to remove the Christian themes from the film in order to present Tamura as more of an everyman though the Tamura of the book is presented much more ambiguously. This also explains the changes to the film’s ending which is bleaker and less forgiving that than that of the novel.

One of the most horrifying depictions of war ever put on screen, Fires on the Plain lays bare the true horror of warfare. Trapped in a sort of purgatory, forced to wander the jungle waiting for the inevitable yet desperately clinging on to life, Tamura’s story can’t be described as anything less than hellish. Wading past corpses, mud, blood and those who’ve already gone mad – this is humanity at its lowest point. Even if you meet another soldier, they can’t be trusted – it’s every man for himself. Ichikawa’s world is bleak beyond belief with no hope in sight, the only possibility of salvation lying in the large fires that appear at distant points along plains. Everyone assumes them to be a signal of some kind but nobody knows what they mean or for whom they are intended. A descent into hell, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most realistic and most powerful anti-war films in cinema history.

Fires on the Plain is unavailable in the UK but is available in the US from the Criterion Collection. Shohei Ooka’s book is likewise unpublished in the UK but is available in English in its original 1957 translation by Ivan Morris currently in print from Tuttle in the US though it should be noted that Morris’ translation is itself heavily edited. 


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.