However Kinoshita himself feels about war, nothing in Army subverts the script's propaganda account of 80 years of history leading up to World War II. In short, Army tells us that Japan's WWII enemies -- the U.S., Great Britain and Russia -- have always been hostile elements interfering with Japan's rightful regional aspirations and unfairly favoring China over Japan. At the brink of the Meiji revolution in the 1860s, the English-speaking powers are poised to intervene during a civil war. After Japan whips China in the 1890s, the European powers unjustly force Japan to return a province ceded over by China. The Russo-Japanese War a decade later is portrayed as just revenge on Russia for its role in Japan's earlier "humiliation." In the 20th century, the Chinese need a new rebuke because they've been "looking down" on the Japanese. In the film's most eccentric reading of history, Army accuses China of manipulating the U.S. and U.K. into helping them conquer Japan! But whoever's manipulating whom, all these countries need a beating, and Japan's just the country to do it. Of course, this summary of recent history overlooks Japan's role in World War I, when it allied with some of these benighted nations against its eventual Axis partner, Germany, but history on film is always selective, whatever the filmmaker's intentions may be.
Army follows one family through these turbulent years. The Takagis are patriots who never quite manage to see combat, through no fault of their own. Circumstances keep them off the battlefield, and to compensate the current patriarch (Chishu Ryu) is a superpatriot, while the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) goads their eldest son to be brave and excel in all things. The lead actors are major figures in Japanese cinema, each with a lengthy and honored career that in Tanaka's case extended into direction. They help make the case against Army as propaganda by effortlessly humanizing their characters. Tanaka in particular has a closing scene that became one of the great moments in Japanese movies as she races through town trying to get a final glimpse of her boy as he finally marches off to war. Her obvious feeling of loss is supposed to belie her eagerness to see the lad become a soldier, and sympathetic viewers of Army take all such moments as subversive of the desired patriotic message. But if Hollywood could have it both ways, so could the Japanese Army. Neither sought to deny that people would feel sad about giving up their boys to war.
Yet when Army invites empathy it's presumed subversive of itself because the script has characters, including the mother, tell us that Japan's young men really belong to the Emperor, while their parents are only caretakers until the boys are ready to go where they belong. I think it's wrong to see a contradiction between that viewpoint and the sadness the mother feels upon finally giving up her son. To see a contradiction is to presume that wartime Japan was a totalitarian state, so fanatical and inhumane that its cinema would only want to show parents rejoicing to send their sons to war. Army suggests a somewhat more relaxed, empathetic attitude, even though the film reportedly was partially censored. It's a propaganda film that takes indoctrination itself as a subject for admittedly gentle satire, the way a Hollywood war film might poke fun at rationing. It can even make fun of excessive patriotism, as when two characters get into a furious argument over whether the medieval Japanese could have beaten the Mongols without the aid of the "divine wind." It's probably a mistake to presume that Kinoshita, his writers, or the Army consider one side of that argument the right one. Yet there are also moments when the film seems critical of its own empathetic impulses. In one scene, a father hears a report of a battle in which his own son was involved, growing increasingly concerned as it appears that the boy's unit suffered heavy casualties. He asks for more detail until his informant rebukes him, seeing that the father is more interested in his own son's fate than the fate of the army or the nation. Army wants its audience to take the larger view while acknowledging their natural feelings. That is only not propaganda if you expect propaganda to portray its people as supermen rather than ordinary human beings. Hollywood propaganda didn't work that way and in this case neither did the Japanese version.
Kinoshita is one of the echt Japanese directors, along with Ozu and to a lesser extent Mizoguchi, whom some critics exalt above the more popular directors like Kurosawa and to a lesser extent Kobayashi whose work is too "western" or allegedly tailored to global arthouse audiences. For certain critics the great subject of Japanese cinema is not the way of the samurai or the soldier but family life. Army is an early film by one of the reputed specialists in intimate domestic stories that is meant to keep up the country's enthusiasm for war. In that respect, it does a good job emphasizing that this particular war will be some people's one opportunity to do something great for their country, to live up to the values listed in various imperial rescripts, etc. Its enduring virtue once its original purpose became obsolete is its ability to do several things at once. While Tanaka's dash through town at the end is the obviously great cinematic moment, an even greater if less flashy moment comes earlier, at the family's last dinner together. The mother asks the son to give her one final shoulder massage, and as he gives her the treatment the younger son, in monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, goes over to the father and gives the old man's shoulders a similar if less effective pummeling. All the while, the family is taking care of last things, but the absurdity of the little boy drumming on dad's shoulders lightens the moment and softens the blow that the mother will feel more strongly later. This scene is the essence of the picture, a mirror to the Japanese people's actual experience of the war -- not counting the bombings that audiences were enduring when the film was released at the end of 1944. The irony of Army is that it might have been most effective as propaganda had it been exported, because no one could watch it without realizing that, no matter how crazy they might be about the Emperor, and no matter how biased their view of recent world history, the Japanese are first and foremost human beings like the rest of us. To say that outside Japan in 1944 would really have been subversive.