On Aug. 15, 75 years ago, Emperor Hirohito (posthumously, Emperor Showa) announced Japan’s surrender in World War II on the radio to his stunned subjects, nearly all of whom were hearing his voice for the first time.
Cinema has also played a key role in framing and expressing Japan’s experience of the war, starting from the war years when studios churned out propaganda to boost the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.
Most World War II-themed films, however, are set in the war’s waning days, when American bombs rained down on Japanese cities, including the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The range of subjects is diverse, as are viewpoints on the conflict, though “never again” is a common sentiment, particularly among directors who personally experienced the war.
What follows are 10 films that illustrate the range of those subjects and viewpoints, in order of release. Not all necessarily belong on a “best films” list, but all show — with art and passion — how Japan and the Japanese have addressed a national trauma that still echoes loudly today.
“Army” (“Rikugun,” 1944)
Directed by a young Keisuke Kinoshita, this three-generation drama is a standard-enough propaganda exercise for much of its running time, with the patriotic central couple, played by Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka, raising their eldest son to be a soldier worthy of the Imperial Japanese Army. It’s somewhat disconcerting to hear Ryu, best-known for playing kindly father figures in the postwar masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, waxing indignant at a friend’s pessimism about Japan’s victory. But the famous final sequence, with the mother (Tanaka) running frantically through back streets to catch one last glimpse of her son who is bound for the Manchurian front, carries a raw emotional charge. Kinoshita also made the war-themed films, “Morning for the Osone Family” (1946) and “Twenty-Four Eyes” (1954). (Available on Hulu Japan and Amazon Prime.)
“Hiroshima” (“Hiroshima,” 1953)
Based on survivors’ accounts and made after the end of the U.S. Occupation — and its film industry censorship — this was the first Japanese film to realistically depict the Hiroshima atomic bombing and still makes for disturbing viewing. Using thousands of extras, including Hiroshima citizens who had been disfigured and sickened by the blast, director Hideo Sekigawa re-created everything from the mass deaths of children and their teachers to the hunt by desperate survivors for missing family members amid blackened corpses and ruins.
Though criticized on its release for its anti-American slant, as exemplified by shots of smiling American G.I.s touring the ruins with their Japanese girlfriends, the film also shows diehard Japanese military types determined to fight to the last, oblivious to the suffering and death around them. Another film focusing on the youngest victims of the bombing is Kaneto Shindo’s “Children of Hiroshima” (1952).
“Fires on the Plain” (“Nobi,” 1959)
Kon Ichikawa is domestically more celebrated for “The Burmese Harp” (1956), a haunting drama about a Japanese soldier who stays in Burma (now Myanmar) after his country’s surrender to bury his dead comrades, but “Fires on the Plain” is a rare honest depiction of the war’s harsh realities for Japanese soldiers in the field. Based on a novel by Shohei Ooka and set in the Philippines in the dying days of the war, the film focuses on a starving Japanese soldier (Eiji Funakoshi) who struggles to stay alive after his comrades are slaughtered by an American ambush and the survivors resort to cannibalism. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“Hoodlum Soldier” (“Heitai Yakuza,” 1965)
This film about the war in Manchuria from an enlisted man’s perspective spawned eight sequels, all starring Shintaro Katsu, the burly, charismatic actor best known abroad for the “Zatoichi” period action series. The premise — a bookish, army-hating corporal (Takahiro Tamura) takes a loutish, discipline-loathing private (Katsu) under his wing — promises broad comedy, but director Yasuzo Masumura also delivers a sharp insider’s take on the wartime army in all its brutality and stupidity. More absurdist in its critique of the military is “The Human Bullet,” Kihachi Okamoto’s 1968 black comedy about a soldier assigned to single-handedly sink an enemy battleship. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“Japan’s Longest Day” (“Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi,” 1967)
Based on research by reporter Soichi Oya, this Kihachi Okamoto epic meticulously reconstructs the 24 hours leading up to Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast. Over the course of nearly three hours, the film presents an in-depth political, social and psychological portrait of Japan at the moment of its greatest defeat. It also supplies thrills, as never-say-die military types plot to stop the broadcast and fight on to glorious annihilation. Similarly epic and ambitious is Masaki Kobayashi’s three-part film series “The Human Condition” (1959-61) about a pacifistic labor camp supervisor (Tatsuya Nakadai) conscripted and sent to the Manchurian front. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“Grave of the Fireflies” (“Hotaru no Haka,” 1988)
Based on an semi- autobiographical story by Akiyuki Nosaka, Isao Takahata’s animation begins with the death of a teenage boy in a Kobe train station shortly after the end of the war, then flashes back months earlier, when the boy and his 4-year-old sister are left alone after a firebombing destroys their house and kills their mother. The film tells their story with an evocative visual beauty, but no sentimentality whatsoever. Instead the pathos of their descent into isolation, starvation and death is unbearably sad — and unforgettable.
“Caterpillar” (“Kyatapira,” 2010)
Veteran provocateur Koji Wakamatsu based this dark drama on a notorious 1929 story by Edogawa Ranpo, but his take on the war’s madness and degradation is all his own. A lieutenant (Shima Onishi) returns to his home village from the Chinese front as a decorated hero, but without his arms and legs. His wife (Shinobu Terajima) at first basks in his reflected glory but comes to hate his incessant demands, particularly for sex. The film eviscerates official wartime ideology, with nationalistic lies papering over horrific crimes. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“The Eternal Zero” (“Eien no Zero,” 2013)
Films about tokkōtai (kamikaze pilots) have long been popular in Japan, but this Takashi Yamazaki film, which earned ¥8.76 billion in 2014, hit unsurpassed box-office heights. Based on a novel by author Naoki Hyakuta, its story of a hard-nosed “Zero” fighter pilot (Junichi Okada) determined to survive to the end of the war seems to push against the genre’s tendency to present its heroes as pure-spirited youths. But the pilot’s decision to finally volunteer for a suicide mission released floods of tears in theaters across the land. Love it or hate it, the film offers insights into the nationalism that pervades so many Japanese war films, past and present. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“Fires on the Plain” (“Nobi,” 2014)
Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2014 film is less a remake of the Ichikawa classic than Tsukamoto’s own take on Ooka’s novel. As might be expected from the director of the cyber-punk cult hit “Tetsuo: The Iron Man,” the violence and gore are in-your-face and raw, but in the service of Tsukamoto’s impassioned antiwar message, delivered with no sensationalism whatsoever. (Available on Hulu Japan and Amazon Prime.)
“Hanagatami” (“Hanagatami,” 2017)
Directed by the late Nobuhiko Obayashi after he received a terminal cancer diagnosis, this drama about the lives of youths in Saga Prefecture as the clouds of war gather is no last hurrah of a dying man. The film’s rapid cutting, impassioned acting and phantasmagoric visuals come together to immerse the viewer in a strange, febrile moment in time. The protagonists, soon to be separated forever by war, live with a dreamlike passion and intensity. Informed by Obayashi’s early memories and ever-fertile imagination, the film is a one-of-a-kind evocation of war’s turmoil. Obayashi followed up with his final film, the similarly antiwar and gloriously over-the-top “Labyrinth of Cinema” (2019). (Available on Amazon Prime.)