Sunday, December 7, 2014

DVR Diary: Keisuke Kinoshita's ARMY (1944)

Introducing this film on Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz was at pains to frame Army as anything but a propaganda film, even as he informed us that it was commissioned by the Japanese military. But if Army isn't wartime propaganda, then neither is an American film like Since You Went Away. After all, in that picture Claudette Colbert bawls after sending her husband off to war, and everyone is very sad when they learn that Robert Walker has been killed. Yet no American critic would dare say that those scenes make Since You Went Away a subtle anti-war movie, yet Mankiewicz, or whoever writes his intros, makes such a claim for Army, on no better basis that that Keisuke Kinoshita and his writers dared make their characters fairly rounded human beings. If Army doesn't seem like propaganda to some viewers, that only reflects a very narrow notion of what propaganda can be.

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.


Murderous Ink said...

This film is a difficult one to assess, but general agreement today is the film was a failed propaganda, and the failure was designed by Kinoshita.
First of all, the version you see today is not the same one as it was released in 1944. The last sequence of Tanaka chasing the marching column of soldiers was cut. It was considered a blasphemy by the military and the government, arguing that the parents of recruited soldiers should rejoice and be grateful that their sons could die for the country. I am not kidding. At NHK website, there is a huge deposit of video interviews of the ordinary citizens during the war, and they all relate the same story: the parents of the soldiers were not allowed to show their sorrow or anxiety in public during the sendoff. Since the movie was considered 'public', Tanaka's behavior was tabu, and military officials furiously condemned Kinoshita's direction as defeatist. As a punishment, Kinoshita was suspended, never allowed to join any production, and practically was forced to resign from Shochiku.

One of the reasons Kinoshita thought he could get away with this was he did comply with totalitarian world view in the first half of the film. But that first half was nothing new. That revisionist historical view was the standard textbook material at the time. Remember, Japanese schools at the time were teaching that the world was only 2700 years old or so, because the ancestors of the Emperor created the world then.

You can't equate the moral standards of Americans at the time with that of Japanese. Just can't. Especially at the political level. One of the Generals tried to ask the Emperor if he could authorize to send 20 million men to Kamikaze attacks. And he was dead serious. We had a battalion of divers equipped with bamboo spears who were trained to poke holes on the bottom of landing U.S. Marine vessels. Many of them died during the training.

The film industry during the war in general was not enthusiastic, to say the least. Many filmmakers were practically sabotaging by making movies way below standard. Kurosawa was somewhat taking advantage of the situation, but other than that, older veterans, Shimizu, Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi and others were trying to lay low. Instead, the younger ones had to fulfill the military demands, and Kinoshita was one of them.

The round characterization can be found in several Japanese propaganda films of the era, but it was usually as a story of the great war hero being a human. Its message was "you can be a hero too and die for the country in the end".

It maybe difficult for any of us today to imagine such fanaticism and insanity could rule a whole country, but it did.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for commenting at such length, MI: I especially appreciate a Japanese perspective. I got the wrong impression from the TCM commentary that there was additional footage of Tanaka's final scene that was cut by the censors. My position was that, even as it exists today, Army still seemed as serviceable as propaganda as Hollywood films that addressed grief and loss without repudiating the war. Even in Hollywood there were cases (e.g. The Fighting Sullivans) in which filmmakers seemed to go too far and a demoralizing effect was feared. But I accept your point about ideological if not cultural difference. For the sake of comparison, I wonder if even as much ambivalence as we get in Army was permissible in German or Soviet films during the war. I'd also be greatful if you could cite more purely propagandistic Japanese films for the sake of comparison with Kinoshita's film.

Anonymous said...

Murderous Ink-SAN wrote 'The last sequence of Tanaka chasing the marching column of soldiers was cut'. But my grandmother (when she was a child, seventy years ago!)) saw the scene then. I searched some Japanese sites about The Army. They mention the last scene 'wasn't cut' as there was a understanding person (about cinema )in Japanese army then.

Murderous Ink said...

About the last sequence of "Army": I looked up the several sources and there seem to be some different accounts on the issue. Some says it was cut, while the others testified (as Anonymous mentions) there was that last sequence intact. According to the biography of Shiro Shiroto, the head of the Shochiku Studio at the time, the censorship officials did try to cut the very last shot of the sequence, but decided against it. So, it is likely the official print at the time of release in 1944 did have it. In any event, Kinoshita was completely ostracized after this film.

I wrote a series of posts on how Japanese censorship saw the propaganda films from Nazi Germany. These probably give you some ideas about how Japanese censorship perceived the moral of the time.

One of the most successful propaganda films from the era is definitely "The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (1942)".

Here is my take on aviation propaganda films from Japan:

Here is my take on Kinoshita's Army from another point of view.

I guess I posted too much links for now.


Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks to MI and Anonymous for more info about Army and the complexities of making propaganda films in Japan. Don't worry MI: There are never too many links when they lead to something worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am the anonymous of yesterday.
I also add that Kinoshita made ‘Army’ after he worked for a soldier (he got injured in China and was discharged. Correctly writing, he was promoted to a director after the discharging). I think he must have realized ugliness of war, there. That might influence him to make this film. (His experience of the war in China was written in a unfilmed scenario which he was eager for making.)
He felt the strong pressure from the military in the war time so he felt very happy when the war was over. ‘I can make films what I want to make!’ But he soon realized The USA army occupied Japan also interfered in his filmmaking. His ‘Morning for Osone Family’ had to be changed its last scene for propaganda of democracy. And ‘The girl I loved’ was banned at first as the USA army thought ‘ the protagonist’s self–sacrifice attitude is related to Japanese self–sacrifice spirit in war time.’
I heard the USA army’s censorship had been severer than the ex-Japanese army one. What an irony!
(I’m sorry if what I wrote was already written in the commentary of your DVD. I don’t have it.)

Anonymous said...

Hello, from the Anonymous again.
According to a Japanese book ‘Genius director: Keisuke Kinoshita’ by Hideo Osabe, Kinoshita was not ‘ostracized’. Kinoshita knew he lost a chance to make next film and handed in his resignation to Shochiku, but his boss held it. Then situation is expressed in a film ‘Dawn of a film maker: Keisuke Kinoshita story’(2013)
I heard Mizoguchi and Shimizu had made propaganda films too. Ozu was sent to Singapore and making a propaganda film for India. Shochiku refused to make propaganda film at first. But to get materials for film making, they had to obey the secret service.
Recently, Kinoshita’s ‘Army’ was on a Japanese pay TV channel several times. If the TV company thinks it is a simple propaganda one, they won’t broadcast it, will they?
I’ve never seen American propaganda films you mentioned. But I remember one American old film (I don’t remember the title) in which, a churchman preached young congregations to go battlefield and fight bravely. I was very shocked as I believed churchmen are the men who love peace most.
*Today, it is available to buy "The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay" DVD. Why? Because it attracts Japanese military and special effects OTAKU’s eyes today.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon: During World War II American propaganda made heroes (or martyrs) of the "Four Chaplains" (i.e. religious advisors) of different denominations who went down with a naval vessel in 1943. In cinema, Howard Hawks's Sergeant York addressed the tension between religion and war before America entered World War II. Alvin York initially opposes war on religious grounds but is persuaded to "render unto Caesar," as the Bible says, by joining the army and becoming one of the great American heroes of World War I. Many Christians profess a love for peace, but many love righteousness better, which often gets them into fights.

Murderous Ink said...

It's difficult to assess how much propaganda was injected to a particular film and how much entertainment, isn't it? "Sergeant York" is a case in point. It was popular primarily because it was an entertaining film. One of the best performances from Gary Cooper. But I believe, Gary Cooper character did pull the trigger, because the studio sensed the war might be inevitable. There are many other films of the era, not only in U.S. but everywhere, which were popular mostly because they were just fun to watch. In my opinion, Kinoshita's "Army" fails in this regard, I find it rather cumbersome until the last twenty minutes or so. And I admit that the last sequence is the powerful cinematic moment.
I have never seen "Tender Comrade (1943)", but I read it is a story about the wife who lost her husband in the war, and it was a quite emotional film. HUAC didn't like it. Have you ever seen it?

I know the story about the resignation letter, but I don't think the personal favor(?) by the boss does not make anything better. Like the blacklisted Hollywood writers who had the fronts. The "industry" did not allow him to work again and Kinoshita knew it, and that's "ostracization".
As for American censorship during Occupation of Japan, I don't find it ironic as you do, because proper comparison should be that with Japanese censorship in occupied China, Korea and Southeast Asia. If you would like to continue this discussion (it is off-topic here), I invite you to my thread
If you read this, you will realize I don't have any fantasy about American occupation, either.

In any event, propaganda in cinema is not a straight subject. Local Chinese people in Manchuria loved "The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay" when it was released, because they didn't know what it was about (they didn't understand Japanese), but they loved pyrotechnics and aviation. Without context, it can be and is an entertainment. When we see these films, we should try hard to understand the context of the film. But the best propaganda films maybe the ones we will never notice. As Goebbels said, "Propaganda becomes ineffective the moment we are aware of it."

Samuel Wilson said...

MI, I've never seen Tender Comrade either but I know the story about HUAC's objections. Ginger Rogers, the star, was a right winger who objected to a line in the script: "Share and share alike; that's the American way." In the context of the story about a group of war widows living together, the line seemed to advocate communism to those with ideologically sensitive ears -- and having "Comrade" in the title didn't help matters. It isn't the only war propaganda film Hollywood would repudiate. Anything that included praise for the Soviets had to be answered for once the Soviets became our enemy in the Cold War. American Cold War propaganda films may actually be more closely compared to Japanese war propaganda since American anti-Communism was arguably more extreme and hysterical than our anti-fascism during the war.