The conventional Japanese World War II movie is something of a paradox. Usually set in the war’s closing days and after (I’ve heard Emperor Showa’s surrender statement so many times now I could recite it in my sleep), with a pacifist message implicit or explicit, it nonetheless celebrates traditional martial virtues.
The heroes — be they tokkōtai (suicide squad) pilots flying one-way missions from Kyushu airfields or teenage girls tending the wounded in Okinawan caves — are finally as stoic about their appointed deaths as any samurai. Far from a futile waste, they and their surviving loved ones typically believe that their ultimate sacrifice is for the good of the country. In fact, the characters who glow brightest with pure, selfless devotion are the most likely to meet a noble end, while their impure survivors are wracked with guilt.
Based on a 1993 novel by Jiro Asada, Kiyoshi Sasabe’s “Nichirin no Isan (The Legacy of the Sun)” promises to be a different sort of Japanese war movie — but ends up being another sentimental justification of self-destruction for the greater glory of Dainippon (Big Japan).
The fictitious story revolves around a treasure supposedly accumulated by Douglas MacArthur, the American general who ruled Japan during the Occupation, and his career-soldier father. (Given that both lived on government pay, not plunder, while serving in America’s tiny prewar army, this “treasure” is ludicrous on its face.) Gen. Yamashita, who commanded the Japanese forces in the Philippines, seized the loot there and had it shipped to Japan.
Realizing that Japan is going to lose the war, five high-ranking military officials appoint two trustworthy young officers, Maj. Mashiba (Masato Sakai) and 1st Lt. Koizumi (Seiji Fukushi), to hide the treasure until it can be used for Japan’s postwar recovery. They are assisted by the rough-hewn if kindly Master Sgt. Mochizuki (Shido Nakamura) and, more mysteriously, 20 teenage girls and their teacher (Yusuke Santamaria), who has gotten into trouble with the Kempeitai (military police) for supposedly democratic (that is, antipatriotic) views.
The girls accept their task willingly enough, cheerfully singing a patriotic ditty about sending MacArthur to hell. But once they have carted the treasure — gold bars in boxes — to a cave outside Tokyo, Mashiba and Koizumi receive an order to poison the girls. Horrified, the pair decide, on Aug. 14, 1945, to go to headquarters and ask for the order to be rescinded. Flyers dropped by the Americans say that Japan has accepted the Potsdam Declaration, with its demand for unconditional surrender. What is the point of sacrificing young lives for a lost cause?
Questioning an order from the Japanese military, even at this last stage in the conflict, would take enormous courage. At the same time, Mashiba and Koizumi are not stainless heroes, but rather men with ordinary human feelings and an instinct for self-preservation. This makes their decision more admirable and, in a Japanese war movie, atypical.
But when their good intentions go awry and disaster occurs (which we know early on from the present-day framing story), the film falls into the standard pattern for a local war elegy. As he did in his 2006 WWII film, “Deguchi no Nai Umi (Sea Without Exit),” director Sasabe mixes cliched clenched-jawed emotionalism with plenteous period detailing, as well as characterizations more nuanced than the genre norm. Mashiba and Koizumi, for example, are given detailed backgrounds, thoroughly explained, that make them ideally suited for their strange assignment.
“The Legacy of the Sun” is not likely to get much international exposure; given the painfully wooden performances of the actors playing the Americans, with the exception of the avuncular Mickey Curtis as MacArthur’s elderly former interpreter, the U.S. market is especially a write off. Too bad, since for all its absurdities, it offers valuable insights into Japan’s wartime mindset — as well as its echoes today, 66 years after the Emperor stepped away from the mic.