Why has the flow of Japanese movies about Japan at the end of World War II never stopped, more than 50 years after the event? Why have they far outnumbered the films set in the earlier years of the conflict? It is as if, instead of “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Pearl Harbor,” Hollywood filmmakers had made endless variations on “The Best Days of Our Lives.”
One reason often advanced is that the Japanese prefer to see themselves as the war’s victims rather than its perpetrators — hence all the movies set in Japan, 1945 rather than in China, 1937.
But most makers of these films — Shohei Imamura, Masahiro Shinoda and Kazuo Kuroki among them — can hardly be described as Hinomaru-waving apologists. Like the vast majority of Japanese alive today who remember the war, they experienced it only on the home front — and became strongly antiwar as a result. It’s only natural that their most vivid memories should be of bombings, starvation and chaos rather than victorious battles and parades. The end of the war rather than the beginning.
With this period fading into the mists, most recent films set in it, including Imamura’s “Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi)” (1998) and Shinoda’s “Setouchi Moonlight Serenade” (1997), take a softer-focused view. One exception, however, is Kuroki’s “Utsukushi Natsu Kirishima (Kirishima 1945),” a film based on the director’s own youth in Miyazaki Prefecture, in southern Kyushu.
Instead of affectionately recalling eccentric characters (“Kanzo Sensei”) or dutifully recycling cliches (“Setouchi Moonlight Serenade”), Kuroki’s film evokes the era with a precision only possible from someone who was there — and obsessively remembers everything, the dark as well as the light.
His film, however, reflects not only personal memories but also a time so long past that the potential immediacy of his story is now hard to conjure. Kuroki, a veteran documentary filmmaker who released his first feature, “Tobenai Chinmoku (Silence Has No Wings)” in 1966, meticulously re-creates period atmosphere, including the general air of exhaustion and repressed trauma. But he also keeps violence at a distance — instead of explosions and corpses, we see the beauty of old Miyazaki, with its thatch-roofed cottages and mountain vistas.
This may have a basis in reality — Kuroki spent the final days of the war in this setting — but for viewers who lack the background of Kuroki and his generation, it may seem like a turning away from unpleasant facts, somewhat as if Steven Spielberg had filmed “Saving Private Ryan” from the viewpoint of the folks waiting at home instead of the soldiers on the front lines.
Kuroki’s doppelganger is Yasuo Hidaka (Tasuku Emoto), a gangly, withdrawn youth who is recovering from a lung ailment at his grandfather’s house, while his parents are presumably escaping from the Russians in Manchuria and his classmates are working at a nearby war plant. When one of those classmates was fatally wounded in an air raid, Yasuo ran away instead of finding help — and he has been wracked with guilt ever since. He is fascinated by a print of Caravaggio’s “The Entombment of Christ” that he keeps in his bedroom. Perhaps like the resurrected Christ he can find a new life and beginning, but is such a thing possible?
Meanwhile, soldiers repatriated from China drill and dig trenches in a nearby forest to prepare for an Allied invasion. One, the jaded Toyoshima (Teruyuki Kagazwa) steals government rations being kept in his grandfather’s storehouse and takes them to his lover Ine (Eri Ishida), the wife of a soldier who has probably died in the war. Ironically, her daughter Natsu (Erika Oda) is working as a maid at grandfather’s house and becoming closer to Yasuo, while her son Minoru (Takashiro Kuranuki) is Yasuo’s bitterest enemy, for reasons unknown.
Grandfather (Yoshio Harada), however, is more occupied in marrying off another maid, Haru (Hiroko Nakajima), to a discharged soldier (Susumu Terajima) who lost his leg in the Philippines. A former army officer who fought with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks, the old man also wants to put some steel into Yasuo’s backbone — but the values he has defended all his life are collapsing around him.
Yasuo would seem to embody that collapse — but despite his interest in the enemy’s religion, he is no traitor. When a military policeman publicly humiliates him for being a malingerer, he becomes desperate to find absolution through a glorious death. In the forest he digs his own trench and sharpens his own bamboo spear. Even Japan’s surrender does not chill his ardor — bring on the Americans!
There are other characters and subplots, including a secret romance between Yasuo’s beautiful Westernized aunt (Riho Makise) and a young navy officer, but Kuroki weaves them into his main narrative while keeping the focus where it belongs — on Yasuo and his struggle to come to terms with the horrors he has seen and the mass of contradictions he has become.
Named the best film of the year in a Kinema Jumpo magazine critic’s poll — long the Japanese film industry’s highest honor — “Utsukushi Natsu Kirishima” is a valuable act of witness. Its war, however, is too distant, like the American planes that buzz in formation through its far away skies — vaguely ominous, but not immediately dangerous.
With the SDF now embarking on its Iraq adventure, however, a new generation of Japanese is likely to discover that war is not just nasty, but also leaves scars that never heal. Fade, but never heal.