Thoughts on life after the PhD
The last few years have seen the release of several big-budget period dramas commemorating Japan’s wartime experiences both at home and abroad. One of the more controversial efforts was Eien no zero (The Eternal Zero), which was criticized by Hayao Miyazaki and others as “a pack of lies” for taking liberties with its depiction of kamikaze pilots. Nonetheless, the film won eight Japan Academy Awards and did very well domestically, grossing more than 8 billion yen ($68 million). On the opposite end of the budget spectrum, Shinya Tsukamoto’s re-imagining of the Shōhei Ōoka novel Nobi (Fires on the Plain) tells the harrowing story of a starving soldier wandering the Philippine island of Leyte near the end of the war. Opening this weekend is Haruhiko Arai’s Kono kuni no sora (This Country’s Sky), a portrait of ordinary people (and a disturbing-sounding love story) set during the firebombing of Tokyo. Also opening this weekend (a week before the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender) is Masato Harada’s Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (English title: The Emperor in August), a re-imagining of Kihachi Okamoto’s 1967 film of the same name.
The story focuses on the tense hours between Emperor Hirohito’s decision to surrender in 1945 to the moment his historic speech is broadcast over the radio, during which time various soldiers and politicians fight over exactly how (or if) the war should be brought to an end. A group of impassioned soldiers attempt to stage a coup, the English wording of the Potsdam Declaration is pored over, the prime minister (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rolls his eyes at much of it, and war minister Korechika Anami (Kōji Yakusho) struggles to make the right decision. The whole period comes across as chaotic and mismanaged, with incompetence on all sides, though plenty of characters (particularly Yakusho’s Anami and Masahiro Motoki’s Hirohito) are portrayed as noble in their desire to do the right thing.
Sadly, while The Emperor in August may have been aiming to convey the madness that permeated everyone’s lives in those tense hours, the end result is just…messy. Within fifteen minutes we’ve been introduced to nearly a dozen major characters and at least as many scenes and locations. To anyone lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of the major players of this moment, the crux of the drama–who’s fighting against whom, who’s allied with whom, what their motivations are–remains muddy until the end. Things were muddy, of course, and we get glimpses of the tension that Harada was trying to convey, but the result is so convoluted that I simply didn’t care about the outcome.
The film rushes through events such as the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to get to its pivotal moment: the attempt by a group of soldiers to stage a coup and stop the broadcast of the Emperor’s speech announcing Japan’s surrender. But where this period of the film should have been gripping, it simply felt as muddled as what came before.
Part of the problem is editing. Harada’s scenes are extremely short, and the camera often cuts to a new scene in the middle of a conversation, before tension can build or character development can happen. Just as we’re becoming invested in something, it ends. What we’re left with is an endless series of shouted conversations between different people who are basically saying the same thing: “We must surrender to save Japan!” “No, we must die with honor!” The inevitable scene of one character’s ritual suicide is so long and drawn out, with so many cups of sake drunk, careful positioning of swords, and writing of farewell notes, that when the bloody climax finally came I felt nothing but relief.
This is not the fault of the actors, who do the best they can with the film’s problematic structure. Tsutomu Yamazaki provides a few welcome moments of levity as the hard-of-hearing, disillusioned prime minister, and Kōji Yakusho’s presence is welcome as usual, though the film gives him very little to do other than look grim and resolved. If the film had narrowed its focus and the characters and story lines had been given time to develop, things might have turned out differently. I also wish there had been more attention paid to the dark humor of the moment–the way a careful choice of words allows two officials to escape from the coup-attempting soldiers, the struggle to write the Emperor’s speech in a way that admitted surrender but still tried to maintain a sense of pride and dignity, and the oft-reported fact that because of the unfamiliar, highly formal language that the Emperor used in his speech (and the poor quality of the audio), some listeners weren’t entirely sure that Japan had surrendered at all.
Short scenes and choppy editing can be a potent way to portray the chaos and absurdity of war, whether on the battlefield or in the halls of power. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain (to be reviewed later) accomplishes this spectacularly. With The Emperor in August, though, what we’re left with is a film that feels chaotic and confused, not an effective portrayal of the chaos and confusion of a pivotal moment in history.
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