Japanese mass-audience movies about the country’s military during World War II are usually melodramatic, sentimental or blatantly nationalistic. But their pure-hearted tokkotai (suicide squad) pilots flying to certain death are hardly representative of the typical Japanese soldier who, as the war entered its last, desperate days, was often starving, hunted and thinking more about survival than glory, self-immolating or no.
Clint Eastwood’s 2006 “Letters from Iwo Jima” starred Ken Watanabe as the brilliant real-life general who led the defense of Iwo Jima against the invading Americans, but the heart of its story was the struggle of an ordinary private (Kazunari Ninomiya) to somehow make it out of the inferno alive. The film celebrated courage on both sides, but presented war as the nasty, brutal business it is.
Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Taiheiyo no Kiseki — Fokkusu to Yobareta Otoko (Oba: The Last Samurai)” may be based on a novel by WWII veteran Don Jones about the Japanese defense of Saipan, but the Eastwood influence is apparent, mostly for the better.
Its hero is Capt. Sakae Oba (Yutaka Takenouchi), who in real life was stationed on Saipan when American forces invaded on June 15, 1944. On July 7, he took part in the largest banzai charge of the Pacific War, resulting in 4,300 Japanese deaths, but miraculously survived. Retreating into the jungle with the remnants of the Japanese forces and civilian population, he lived a fugitive existence, while leading a guerrilla war.
Oba and his ragtag band finally made their base on Mount Tapochau, the island’s highest point, where they could keep an eye on the enemy from every direction. Even after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, they continued their resistance.
No doubt thinking of the box office here and abroad, the producers have balanced Oba with a fictional American captain, Herman Lewis (Sean McGowan), who speaks Japanese, sympathizes with Oba’s cause and serves as a negotiator between the Americans and Oba and his men. This leads to some improbabilities, as when Lewis pulls shogi (Japanese chess) pieces out his pocket to earnestly explain the Japanese martial mentality to a cartoonish, casually racist colonel (Daniel Baldwin).
But at least McGowan, Baldwin and Treat Williams, playing a colonel more sympathetic to persuading, rather than annihilating, the Japanese resistors, are what Hollywood calls recognizable names. They are also, despite their occasionally clunky dialogue, real actors, which the vast majority of foreigners appearing in Japanese films are not. And they are directed by not the veteran Hirayama, maker of the award-winning 1998 drama “Ai wo Kou Hito (Begging for Love)” and smart 2002 black comedy “Warau Kaeru (The Laughing Frog),” but the bilingual and bicultural Cellin Gluck (“Sideways,” 2009), who has none of the tone deafness that so often afflicts Japanese directors working with outlanders.
What makes the film more than a “Letters” knockoff, however, is Takenouchi’s performance as Oba. I don’t know whether he prepped by starving himself down as Christian Bale famously did for “The Machinist,” but he has the emaciated look and weary manner of a hardened fighter with no illusions about the ultimate outcome.
At the same time, his Oba is no macho manga hero (Toshiaki Karasawa plays that role as a submachine-gun-wielding yakuza-turned-soldier) or unbending bitter-ender (Mao Inoue fills that slot as a fierce-eyed nurse who hates the Americans for killing her family). He is instead a no-drama sort who sees his job as protecting the lives of his people while eliminating as many of the enemy as possible. And he is determined to keep at it until he is ordered otherwise. There is no jut-jawed egotism in this attitude; Oba is unfussily doing his duty as he understands it.
Which may make the film sound jingoistic — a longing look back at the days when Japanese men were not “grass eaters” (soshoku, the derisive term for today’s passive, metrosexual male) but stoic, loyal sons of Dainippon (Great Japan). It is not, really. Instead, it admires its pacifist characters, such as the gentle-spirited Haruko (Tomoko Nakajima), who tenderly cares for her aged mother in the jungle and, after surrendering, smilingly returns to her housewifely routine in a detention camp.
She and her civilian counterparts, more than Oba and his band, represent Japan’s postwar future, in all its mainly peaceful mundanity. I couldn’t help wonder, though, where the Obas of today might be. If he was indeed the “last,” his country is lost.