Thursday, March 15, 2012


Sometimes a movie wants to be one thing and ends up another. The English-language title of Kihachi Okamoto's docudrama seems to faithfully represent the director and writer Shinobu Hashimoto's intention to emulate The Longest Day, the sprawling all-star international D-Day epic from 1962. For Japan, however, the longest day doesn't see a big battle or even an American bombing raid. After about 20 minutes of barely-dramatized exposition (narrated by Tatsuya Nakadai in a grave waste of a great actor), the film focuses on the 24 hours leading up to the August 15, 1945 radio broadcast by Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, announcing Japan's surrender to the Allies. With The Longest Day's international scope impossible for him, Okamoto juggles a number of plot threads to make room for a huge cast, this being a Toho showcase celebrating the studio's 35th anniversary. The points of interest are the characters' varying reactions to Japan's unprecedented admission of defeat in war, with the most attention going to those desperate and despairing dead-enders who want to stop the broadcast and topple the civilian government in order to keep the war going. As officers of the Imperial Guard kill their commanding officer and attempt to seize control of the Imperial Palace, and while a rogue military unit attacks the prime minister's house, the warmongering madness and the race-against-time format become less reminiscent of any other World War II film and more reminiscent of those doomsday twins of 1964, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe. But while those movies milked futile attempts to avert Armageddon for maximum suspense -- the Kubrick almost in spite of itself -- Japan's Longest Day gets its paradoxical suspense -- it works as a thriller despite our knowing that the conspirators must fail -- out of desperate efforts, in the wake of Armageddon, to keep it going.

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.

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