Film / Reviews

'Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Natsu (Japan's Longest Summer)'/'Ishii Teruo: Eiga Tamashi (Teruo Ishii: The Soul of Film)'

Posterity in action — all's fair in war and softcore porn

by Mark Schilling

August is the season in Japan for a never-ending stream of films and TV programs about World War II. Quite naturally, from the Japanese perspective, most of this outpouring examines the war’s closing days, particularly the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some outsiders (including this one) question this emphasis, which edits out most of the eight years Japan was at war, starting with China in 1937, while giving the impression that Japan was more victim than perpetrator.

The latest film in this long line is “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Natsu” (“Japan’s Longest Summer”), a docu-drama directed by Hitoshi Kurauchi. The film is based on an eponymous novel by Kazutoshi Hando that Kihachi Okamoto made into the 1967 hit “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi” (Japan’s Longest Day).

Rather than focus, like Okamoto, on the drama of the war’s closing moments, particularly the futile attempts by zealous military officers to take the entire county down in flames, Kurauchi re-creates Hando’s source material: a five-hour round-table discussion for “Bungei Shunju” magazine that Hando hosted in 1963 with 27 men and one woman who witnessed Japan’s struggles in the fateful summer of 1945. His cast is a mix of professional actors and prominent nonactors, including scholars, politicians, bureaucrats and newscasters.

Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Natsu (Japan's Longest Summer)
Director Yoshiro Nakamura
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Japanese Opens Aug. 7
Ishii Teruo: Eiga Tamashi (Teruo Ishii: The Soul of Film)
Director Dirty Kudo
Run Time 80 minutes
Language Japanese

To provide background and perspective, Kurauchi uses everything from wartime newsreel clips to interviews with Hando, still sharp in his late 70s, and the cast members, who reminisce about their own wartime or postwar experiences. (Only four of the original participants were still alive at the time of production and in the film are only profiled, not interviewed.)

This approach has its drawbacks, the primary being a certain stiffness deriving from not only the amateur acting (though some of the nonpros are quite good), but the setting itself: 28 strangers sitting formally in a large Japanese-style banquet hall and addressing not only each other but the magazine’s unseen readership — and posterity.

On the other hand, this reconstruction offers an enlightening glimpse into the mentality of those who had experienced the war, from the heights of power in Tokyo to the depths of a South Pacific jungle. Asked relatively uncontroversial questions by a sympathetic moderator — no sharp-elbowed queries about war atrocities or the Emperor’s responsibility — they are forthright in their answers and respectful of their fellow participants.

One is Yoshio Shiga (Soichiro Tahara), a communist who spent the war years in prison (“We were watching what Japan was doing from prison, but strangely enough, false rumors didn’t make their way inside — we just heard the truth”). Another was Okikatsu Arao (Osamu Shigematsu), an army colonel who plotted a coup d’etat on Aug. 13 to forestall surrender, but was dissuaded by his superior, War Minister Korechika Anami.

But even such opposites on the ideological spectrum hear each other out politely; no one hurls accusations of criminal acts or calls for a return to former military glories. Having directly experienced the totality of Japan’s defeat and the war’s enormous human cost, they are resigned and reflective, if still hopeful for the future. At a time when hope is in short supply, this attitude, whatever else you may say about their wartime acts, is inspiring.

Teruo Ishii was not called the King of Cult for nothing. The ero-guro (erotic and grotesque) films he directed in the late 1960s and early ’70s not only pushed contemporary boundaries of the permissible, from group nudity to graphic depictions of deviant sex, but paved the way for the directorial outlaws of later decades, from Shinya Tsukamoto to Takashi Miike.

But Ishii, who was born in 1924 and made nearly 80 films before his death in 2005, was a more varied director than his cult rep implies. He filmed jazzy, sophisticated noirs for Shintoho in the 1950s, the smash-hit “Abashiri Bangaichi” (“Abashiri Prison”) yakuza action series for Toei in the 1960s and, after a 14-year hiatus from the big screen, “Gensenkan Shujin” (“Master of the Gensenkan Inn,” 1993) and other films set in the strange, erotic borderland between dreams and waking life called Ishii World.

Now porn director and Ishii intimate Dirty Kudo has made a documentary, “Ishii Teruo: Eiga Tamashi” (“Teruo Ishii: The Soul of Film”), to accompany a 30-film Ishii retrospective and various Ishii-related events in August. (The documentary will open on Aug. 7 at Shibuya art-house cinema Eurospace, while the retrospective is screening at the Cinema Vera theater in the same building from July 31 to Sept. 3.)

Kudo diligently rounded up many of Ishii’s former colleagues, from Shintoho-era fellow assistant directors Eizo Yamagiwa and Akira Aono to “Gensenkan Shujin” star Shiro Sano, and collected many funny, revealing anecdotes about Ishii and his methods. He could, say Sano and others, be scarily intense on the set, yet a charmer off it. He also enjoyed tossing the script and reeling off shot after improvised shot far into the night as, Yamagiwa and Aono ruefully commented, his staff struggled to keep up.

This is all interesting, but Kudo, unfortunately, provides little in the way of context or explanation for Ishii newbies. He also skimps over Ishii’s famous earlier films in favor of patchy late-career exploitation pics, perhaps because getting rights permissions, especially from Toei, was expensive — or impossible. Still, “Ishii Teruo: Eiga Tamashi” is essential viewing for any fans of this wayward, original talent, for whom the only sin was boring the audience.