If you can get past those first turgid reels, Okamoto comes up with an effective historical thriller. Despite the initial evidence, he proves quite capable of manipulating time as the government dithers over the text of the Imperial Rescript the Emperor must read and the propriety of the Emperor speaking into a microphone while the madmen plot their mayhem. Anchoring the picture, predictably enough, is Toshiro Mifune as War Minister Anami. This character serves more or less as the film's moral compass. A superpatriot, he's initially reluctant to surrender. He believes, almost insanely, that Japan shouldn't consider itself beaten until the Allies invade and a major land battle decides the issue. He stuns fellow Cabinet members with the assertion that Japan has been handicapped by having to fight on small islands where its full military might couldn't be brought to bear. His personal belief is that the millions who've already died will have done so in vain if Japan doesn't fight to the bitter end. In short, he thinks much like the maniacs who try to prevent the surrender, except for one thing. His values are grounded in obedience, like any good soldier's, and when the Emperor speaks and says the war is over, it's over as far as Anami is concerned -- end of discussion, that's an order. If he feels he still has a debt to the dead, or to the Emperor he feels he failed, his proper recourse is seppuku. Those who throw tantrums and otherwise act out, assuming that the Emperor has been tricked and the country stabbed in the back, are forgetting something important. They're putting their own personal feelings and prejudices before the word of the ruler and the good of the country. Anami is no hero -- he does nothing to suppress the uprisings, leaving that to others -- but his personal example is damning to the conspirators. Mifune's performance is of a quality out of proportion to the commercial ambitions of this all-star studio project.
But the ensemble acting is really good all around here, and the crosscut action has a thematic coherence that makes the finished product much better than the first twenty minutes would leave you fearing. When a historical picture can make you feel suspense the way this one does -- it does probably help if the audience doesn't know Japanese history that well -- it's a praiseworthy accomplishment. But even if you know the general history you may not know what happened to particular people, and the cast here is good enough to keep you interested in their several fates, while our sense of the stakes makes the plight of even minor characters like a radio announcer suddenly important. When the announcer faces down a gun-toting soldier who demands to read a speech condemning the Rescript in advance, you feel that it's not only the climax of the film but a fateful moment in history.
With the suspense comes some cathartically violent moments. The death of the Imperial Guard commander is preceded by a close-up decapitation, and Anami's suicide, seconded by himself with a slice to the jugular, is hardly less gruesome in black and white than it would have been in color. These scenes may be tough to watch, but they bring the war home to the last privileged quarters of Japan and remind us more effectively than any stock footage that this is still a war movie. This is a stern film with a strong message. If it resembles a nuclear nightmare more than a classical battle, it at least gives a hopeful account of people with the courage to step back from Armageddon at the last possible moment.