Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Movie Review: Under The Flag Of The Rising Sun

When I saw this in my cable guide, I hoped that it was another of those “heroic Japanese troops” things, in the manner of “Attack Squadron,” reviewed a couple of weeks ago. It couldn’t be more different. This one is a very serious movie, a heart wrenching and cold-eyed examination of the reality of the experience of ordinary Japanese soldiers caught up in the mayhem of the Pacific war, their experiences upon returning to Japan, and the effects on their loved ones. Great, great cinema, and recommended without qualification.

I was thinking that such a serious movie would be impossible to understand in the original Japanese, but it turned out to be easy. The acting, the story telling, it’s all so very well done that after I picked up the narrative thread I had no trouble at all getting the gist of every scene.

It is the story of a woman who lost her husband in the war. Twenty years afterwards she is trying to piece together what really happened to him and how he met his end. The bureaucracy is no help at all, so she seeks out men who had served with him. Their reports are offered in flashbacks, featuring a mix of actual photographs and new dramatic footage, mostly black and white, occasionally flashing into color for effect.

The reports are uniformly horrible: Japanese soldiers being slaughtered by the relentless (off-screen) Americans; lots of starvation and fighting over food, including trapped rats; lots of cruel non-com’s and officers smacking troopers around and ordering futile Banzai! charges.

The officers are really the bad guys here, as it was in reality. In one flashback, an American plane is shot down and there is one survivor, some poor Airman with stripes on his arm, probably a radio operator, or a gunner. An officer orders a non-com to decapitate him with his sword, but the man recoils from and horribly botches the task. After shooting the American with his pistol, the officer badly beats up the nonplused non-com. One of the great, semi-untold stories of WWII is the brutality and hardship that ordinary Japanese troops were forced to undergo.

One blind guy’s story affects the woman greatly. Was cannibalism involved? There are some quick scenes of starving soldiers seemingly evaluating dead bodies. Telling the story didn’t make the blind guy happy either. After she leaves he furiously rapes his vigorously protesting wife and then kills himself.

Self-serving officers tell rosier stories, but the stories of the regular soldiers get grislier and grislier as the movie goes on. She returns often to one reporter, now a junk collector. As she updates him about what she has discovered, he becomes more and more listless and sad, and he fills in more of the blanks that he was trying to protect her from.

Her husband was a non-com “in charge” of a group of deserters, including the junk collector. Once, an officer came upon them hiding in the hills and tried to arrest them, with a lot of knocking them around and screaming at them. One soldier freaks out and shoots the officer, a mild wound. The officer goes wild and attacks them with his sword, cutting off the arm of one man. Now the little group has no choice and they shoot the officer dead. The junk collector tells of staring first at the arm, then the fire, then back to the arm. Finally the arm is cooked and eaten.

The husband and two others are finally captured by the Army. They get a last meal, a handful of white rice, and are executed on a beach by pistol shots to the head.

Hiroshima comes in at the end, with more grisly photographs, so I suppose there is a touch of the typical “oh, we poor Japanese suffered so.” None of the usual heroic characterization though, and it is true, after all, that ordinary Japanese suffered along with other Asians, and Allied troops, in pursuit of glory for a handful of leaders. It is certainly true that the Japanese troops in this movie had nothing at all to do with planning and starting the war. As usual, the world over, it was the sons of bitches in suits back in the capitol who got the bright idea in the first place and subjected millions of people, including their own, to the resulting horror.

A powerful movie, not for the feint hearted.

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