, , , , , ,

Watching Japanese films from the 1940s and 50s  is difficult for many.  No big sword fights,no clothing shed in intimate love affairs. Comic scenes are few and far between.  Mystery, crime and gangsters are yet to come.  There is love, certainly, but so restrained and understated it’s sometimes hard  to watch — “just touch her, already!”  Instead, he’s going off to war and they slightly bow to each other. But let me make a case for making some of them part of your viewing life. We, the United States, and they, Japan, have a history worth considering. And movies are part of it.

Movie makers by profession, motivation and organization are an elite group. What they are driven enough to imagine, pull together and put on the screen, we assume, comes from sources deep within and not from quizzing focus groups about what they would like to see.  Nevertheless, by audience and critical response to movies, we get some sense of how well the movie maker reflects the temper of his, or her, times; whether a film is an insight into popular emotion and self-regard.  What might these, and other post-war Japanese films tell us about mood, attitude, identity?  What did the Japanese think of the war they were waging?

1944 was not a good year for Japan.  After an initial string of successes in empire building against Russia and China (encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt, see The Imperial Cruise ), its occupation of Vietnam (September, 1940), Thailand (December, 1941)  and most of Indonesia (March, 1942), and most famously marked by its surprise attack and destruction on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941,  by 1944 the tide was beginning to turn, apparent to Japanese and Americans alike.


The Japanese army still had enough forward progress to invade India in March but by mid-June American bombers were coming over Japan from China and on June 19 the Japanese Carrier fleet was defeated in the Philippine Sea; by the end of August Japan was leaving India.  By 23 October its battle fleet was destroyed at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.


That year, two young, beginning-to-be-important Japanese directors made two of the few movies being made that year, film production having dropped from 232 in 1941 to only 46 in 1944. While both are in the genre of “propaganda” films they are also, in some sense, the beginning of Japan’s wave of post-war films, paralleling in many respects those of post-war Italy’s neo-realism — Vittorio De SicaFederico FelliniRoberto Rossellini and  Luchino Visconti among them.  At least in these two movies, however, the grittiness of cities in rubble and ragged, feral children is not part of the story.

Akiri Kurosawa (1910 – 1998),  his breakthrough Rashomon (1950) still six years in the future, finished a movie called The Most Beautiful.  That same year, under auspices of the Japanese Army,  Keisuke Kinoshita made Army/Rikugun.

After over a decade of war, beginning with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, both are clearly filmic praise, and exhortation to the viewing audience to support the Emperor and the “Unified Nation” in the war, each by calling up and reinforcing centuries old tropes of Japanese  character and racial/national unity.  Neither is as overtly propagandistic as most of the Allied films being filmed and shown at the same time; neither has images, for example, of air squadrons dropping bombs or parachutists over enemy territory (not that there weren’t such in Japan.)  The images are not of fighting forces, aimed at making the viewers proud of daring sons and strong husbands, but of the viewers themselves, unified and hyper diligent in their wartime occupations of supporting the troops, making the best weapons possible, under extremely demanding schedules and,  in the case of Army, by responding with patriotic urgency to join the fighting men.

To Western, individualist cultures, some of the messages are difficult to credit, some of the behavior, or acting, seems almost a caricature.  All calls are to submission to the common good, as defined by the emperor and its leaders.  Leadership is called for and needed, but its primary quality is humility  A leader gains in prestige as she insists she is not worthy of being a leader.  A mother speaks of “returning” her son to the Emperor for whom “she was only minding him.”  A morning pledge is taken to “Follow the Example of the War Dead.”

Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful is about hundreds of women working in an optics factory producing the finest in optical gear for bomb-sights, periscopes, range calibrators. It is highly mechanized on the one hand and highly detailed at a personal level.  There are marvelous shots of spindles and rotors working in unison while young, uniformed women look after the mechanisms and, when ready, extract finished products for inspection and polishing.

The plot tension is set up by a call for a four-month sprint of increased productivity. It’s not said, but it’s clear, that the earlier assurance of national victory is no longer in the air.  The men are to increase by 100% and the women by 50%.  This rouses the women’s indignation and their leader, Tsuru Watanabe  [Yôko Yaguchi, later married to Kurosawa] is sent to plead that while women of course aren’t as strong as men, they should at least be asked to take on a 75% increase.  After some fatherly concern from the managers this is approved and the pressure really begins.  Constant, focused attention, and lack of sleep take their toll. A line graph charts the rises and falls in their effort.  One girl gets sick and her parents demand that she be sent home – to her extreme distress.  It is interesting,  that even in war-time the parents in this very ”conforming society” would a) dare to ask, and b) actually take their daughter from work.  She is humiliated by her torn loyalty to her friends  – no one will replace her;  the others on her team will have to make up.

The girls all live in a big dorm, supervised by a kind and observant house-mother (Takako Irie), who has her own role to play in the ongoing tale, helping to motivate and team-build the girls after a series of morale deflating incidents — with volley-ball competition among other things. Marching to work every morning with their own drum and bugle corps, stirringly rendered by the score, adds to their pride and enthusiasm.

Watanabe, under pressure from all sides, misplaces an important, flawed optical piece.  Worried that it has been shipped, and will be used in combat and lead to Japanese deaths, she exerts herself even more.

The interesting thing, to my eye, is that this urgency to work together is not conveyed through fear of oncoming, raping, bestial armies, but because this is what good Japanese do: subordinate oneself, sacrifice for the other, make the family and the nation strong. This was the very ideal Mussolini was looking for in his ideal fascist state, though in Japan’s case it was a product of centuries of ancestor devotion and Emperor worship.

It was striking to me to see that just as the position of women in European society had been upset and rearranged by WW I  — they began to work outside the home in large numbers, they did work formerly only done by men, they agitated and got the vote– so it was for women in Japan in WW II.  Never before had young women been allowed away from home, to dress so casually — trousers yet!– and to do demanding technical and manual factory work.  Never before would fathers have permitted it.

I’m sure that the post-war, and post 1960’s Japanese, as they have taken on more western individualism, have moved some distance from the war-time behavior  we see in the film.  I suspect they would be, at least a bit, amazed by the message of the movie, though less so than we Americans.  The bowing and apologizing, the repeated gomenasai & sumimasen of these 1940s movies are not nearly as pronounced in recent Japanese films but still far more than American, French, British or German movies ever portray; a brief bro-hug, maybe, a bow, however slight, never! A quick, tossed off apology, yes, repeated, emphasized and repeated apologies, never.

The technical prowess is not yet full Kurosawa, but is evident.  Stark black and white scenes, many static shots, into and out of which the characters move, lovely interiors,  slow panning but seldom, very occasional tracking shots.  All this in war-time when the resources must have been extremely scarce- and many of the movie technicians and workers deployed with army units and not available.  His clarity about the realism he wanted in his movies begins here as well.  He shot the film in an actual optics factory on the outskirts of Tokyo, and had cast and crew live there.

“I told [the actresses] to play it like amateurs. And I really made them live together in a dormitory during the filming, and made them do lots of things–running, for example–which they had never done before, in order to remove their polish, their hesitations in these roles which were so different from any they had ever played before,”  … to live under the same difficult conditions as the actual factory workers, eating mainly seaweed and rice mixed with other grains…. for more.

This was not the only film Kurosawa made about the war, and the aftermath in Japan.  In fact, even Rashoman (1950) has it’s links.  See a short essay here.


Kesisuke Kinoshita (1912 – 1998), slightly Kurosawa’s junior, was obliged to take on an even more direct appeal to aid the war effort.  His Army (1944), starts off with a quick filmed resume of Japanese war successes, and betrayals by ostensible allies — being forced in 1895, for example, by the Triple Intervention of Russia, Germany and France to give up the conquered Port Arthur and Liaodung Peninsula (Japanese presence was of great concern to Russia) for more compensation by the defeated China, and then again in 1905 when to end the Russo-Japanese war, a duplicitous Theodore Roosevelt in the Treaty of Portsmouth, convinced Japan to drop claims for Russian compensation in return for half the Sakhalin Peninsula.  Though this created a peace in the region for some thirty years, it also set the groundwork for Japanese resentment and it’s aggression in the 1930s, leading to the bombing of Pearl Harbor   (Again, see Imperial Cruise for more on the Roosevelt/US hand in the matter.  TR by the way, won the Nobel Peace Prize for this.)

The movie centers on the pride and importance to a family of being part of the great effort, to defend the nation, to honor the fallen dead.  The father, Tomosuke Takagi [Chishû Ryû,] though an Army captain at the turn of the century, had been denied the chance to fight the Chinese and the Russians, due to poor health.  When WWII  in the Pacific begins he is anxious for his somewhat weak, “cowardly” son, Shintaro [Kazumasa Hoshino] to participate; family honor, and a father’s second chance through his son, is involved.  The mother, Waka [Kinuyo Tanaka] is equally moved. She is only the “custodian of her son for the Emperor,” she says, and it is time to return him.  The equanimity and pride with which they accept the possibility of death is quite remarkable — not refusal to think that it might happen, but even happy to make the sacrifice if needed for Emperor and nation.

The incredible closing minutes of the film, as the mother rushes out belatedly to bid her son goodbye and races along the marching men, trying to locate his face, puts the “equanimity and pride” to the lie.  Great editing, cutting between close-ups of her face, of the men’s faces, a tracking shot showing her in awkward run, bound by the skirt of her kimono, brings us directly into her aching heart. Perhaps the censors didn’t see it as we do, or perhaps they did and agreed, but her desperate effort to see her son for the last time must have moved audience then as it does today.


In the same year, Kinoshita directed Jubilation Street, a very tender story of neighbors taking leave of each other, their futures unknown, as their homes are to be removed for the war effort.  A year earlier he made The Living Magoroku, a movie about a landowning family and those around them having to break old customs and taboos concerning land use and the graves of their ancestors, to help the war effort.  Both are oddly compelling, and as stories, more involving and interesting than the two morale raising projects above. More on these at a later time


I watched both of these films, and others from the Japan at the time, to understand to some extent, how their artists reflected on the national trauma of war, and how,  through watching the movies, the people themselves might have seen themselves.  How similarly and how differently are people affected by images of idealized values and behavior, these aggressors and victims, one to the other?  I’ve always been amazed at how quickly after the war, Japanese and Americans let old fears and hatreds go.  Is there something in the projected image of society and values in these movies  that predicts or explains this?   On a less difficult observational level I was impressed by the strength of female dignity and leadership shown, in the factory especially but even in the homes.  It’s hard to not notice the peremptory tone the men use with the women — Get my bed ready!– but if there is not equality, there is a balance maintained; no simpering helpmates here.  The ability of subservient wives to give back in family arguments, and win, even counts as quite modern.  Some of the scenes might have been lifted from couples arguing over children’s behavior in the 2010s.  I loved a few scenes of fierce door-slamming, well rice-panel slamming, to make the point: don’t talk to me anymore about that!

Even though from our perspective these are “propaganda” films, at a remove of seventy-five years we can see them as more than that, as showing people as all people imagine themselves to be,  in the right, making their homeland safe for themselves and their families from an enemy, unjustly and for malevolent reasons, coming from the outside to dictate a life they do not want. The viewers, actors and directors did not see themselves as aggressors.  They did not know about, or radically discounted, the Japanese Army’s atrocities in Nanking, the horrific medical experiments on prisoners in China, the savage POW camps in Indonesia. Kamikaze! was not a suicidal death wish but a calling on the “Divine Wind,” long enshrined in Japanese history and mythology, that blew the Mongol invaders away from the Coast of Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, thus saving country and people.  They saw themselves, in other words, the way any people of good will and good character do  – when information is controlled and stepping away from the common belief is dangerous..

As the old song goes, “there but for fortune am I.”


Both of these, and many more, Japanese around the world, are available at FilmStruck which I’ve been enjoying immensely for several months.  Worth the subscription price.

For more on Kurosawa




A Conversation between Kurosaw and Garcia Marquez at http://articles.latimes.com/1991-06-23/entertainment/ca-2154_1_akira-kurosawa

A good article on The Most Beautiful at http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/290055%7C0/The-Most-Beautiful.html

Kurosawa, 10 Essential Films at https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2010/mar/23/akira-kurosawa-100-google-doodle-anniversary


For more on Kinoshita