Why have Japanese filmmakers recently been turning out so many films about World War II and its aftermath? The obvious answer is that they’re commemorating the 70th anniversary of that war’s end, which was marked on Aug. 15. But there are far fewer new films about WWII in most of the countries that fought with and against Japan in that conflict. (China, where the anti-Japanese war film has long been a thriving subgenre, is an exception.)
One parallel with the recent spate of local WWII films is the apologetic speech Japanese prime ministers are still expected to deliver on significant end-of-the-war anniversaries, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s (delivered on Aug. 14) being the most recent. This speech is inevitably subjected to close scrutiny by the Chinese and Korean governments, and media types, who nearly always find it not apologetic enough. So why keep giving it — and why keep making WWII films?
It seems Japan has yet to put the war behind it, for reasons that range from the long memories of former subject peoples who bore the atrocities of the Japanese military to the deep centrality of the war experience to the Japanese national psyche.
So Japanese WWII films keep appearing and audiences keep coming, despite the fact that the war generation — a core target for such films — is quickly dwindling.
Films at the commercial end of the spectrum commonly portray the war as a disaster and their heroes as exemplars. The most prominent recent example is Takashi Yamazaki’s “Eien no Zero” (“The Eternal Zero”), an adaptation of Naoki Hyakuta’s best-selling novel about an ace pilot (Junichi Okada) who is determined to return to his family alive — and is labeled a coward by many of his comrades for saying so. In the end, however, he selflessly takes the place of a young pilot on a suicide flight, and his descendants try, decades later, to find out why.
Released in December 2013, “The Eternal Zero” became the biggest live-action hit of the year, earning ¥8.76 billion at the box office. Prime Minister Abe was among the film’s fans and proclaimed himself “deeply moved.”
Animator Hayao Miyazaki, however, blasted it for propagating what he called “a phony myth” about the nobility of the doomed pilots.
In reaction, an angry Yamazaki told me during an interview that his film, “depicts the war as a complete tragedy, so how can you say it glorifies war?”
I believe Yamazaki was sincere in framing his film as anti-war. Miyazaki, on the other hand, correctly identified its key message, which is one found in many local war films: Hate the war, but honor its heroes, who sacrificed themselves that we Japanese might survive and prosper.
Since Japanese rightists have extended the definition of “heroes” to include the convicted war criminals enshrined with more than 2.4 million war dead at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, citizens of Asian countries that suffered under Japan’s rule understandably tend to find the supposed anti-war sentiments of such films less than convincing.
Some Japanese war films are forthrightly revisionist, such as the 1998 drama “Puraido: Unmei no Toki” (“Pride”), with its sympathetic look at wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, or Yukio Fuji’s 2001 film “Merdeka 17805,” in which gung-ho Japanese soldiers fight for Indonesian liberation from Dutch rule. Many, however, are softly nationalistic exercises that offer absolution from war guilt in group victimhood, with most of the Japanese characters presented as innocents caught in a maelstrom of death and destruction.
In “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” (“I Want to Be a Seashell”), a 2008 film based on a seminal 1958 TV drama, Masahiro Nakai, of the pop group SMAP, plays a small-town barber who is drafted into the army, forced to execute an American prisoner of war and is later tried as a war criminal. From beginning to end the hero is presented as a blameless, peace-loving victim.
Contrasts to this sort of sentimentalism can be found mostly among indie films. Among the starkest is “Nobi” (“Fires on the Plain”), Shinya Tsukamoto’s adaptation of a WWII memoir about Japanese soldiers starving and dying in the Philippine jungle. (The memoir was previously adapted by Kon Ichikawa in an grimly realistic 1959 film.) Delivering unsparing depictions of battlefield horror, including cannibalism, the film has filled theaters since its July 25 opening, recording more than 10,000 admissions — but it will never beat the 7.1-million admission mark set by “The Eternal Zero.”
Some local war films steer a middle course between tear-jerking celebrations of the Japanese spirit and harsh condemnations of Japanese war acts. Hayao Miyazaki’s hit 2013 animation “Kaze Tachinu” (“The Wind Rises”) depicts not only the brilliance of its real-life aircraft designer hero, Jiro Horikoshi, but also the use of his beloved creations as destructive fighter planes during WWII.
Masato Harada’s “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi” (“The Emperor in August”) — a remake of Kihachi Okamoto’s 1967 film about Japan’s decision to surrender — gives a sympathetic portrayal of a peace-loving Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) while earnestly striving to portray him true-to-life rather than with an audience-pandering slant.
“The Emperor in August” has become a hit since its Aug. 8 opening, with the distributors predicting a ¥2 billion box-office total. Before the film’s release Harada told me that its success “would change industry thinking.”
“They’ll think, ‘We should make more films for mature audiences and not be afraid of taking chances,’ ” he explained.
I hope he’s right. But I also know that films about pure-spirited kamikaze pilots will always look tempting to producers here. They’re the closest to a sure thing the local movie business has, and will probably continue to have, as indicated by the crowds of young fans flocking to see “The Eternal Zero.”
War is hell — but, in Japan, it’s still box-office gold.