July 26, 2007
The Pacific War on screen
Letters from Iwo Jima is a cinematic and philosophical failure: a plodding movie with nothing interesting or insightful to say about one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. The only thing this movie made me feel was: irked. All that money and talent and this is all they could come up with? There are much better movies out there that deal with the same or similar subject matter.
The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) isn't any more complex, but then it doesn't pretend to be. It is the quintessential war movie told in Manichean terms--good guys versus bad guys. But with some conflicts, that's what it all comes down to in the end. The landscape may be gray, but there was nothing gray about what the U.S. Marines fighting there were ultimately fighting for.
However, the ferocity of the battle demands to be put in a greater cultural and political context, and the following three films do that well on the American side, especially considering when they were made.
Go for Broke (1951) follows the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Made up mostly of Japanese Americans from the internment camps, where 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry had been forcibly relocated in early 1942, it became the most decorated U.S. military unit of its size. The perfect definition of hopeful patriotism: soldiers fighting to secure rights for others that they did not then enjoy.
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Sayonara (1957), both starring Marlon Brando, take place during the Occupation. Teahouse, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is a broad comedy about attempts to impose "American-style democracy" on a small village in Okinawa. The movie correctly predicts that the outcome will be less an imperialistic imposition than a cultural amalgamation.
Sayonara is an overwrought melodrama that illuminates a startling fact: mere months after killing each other by the hundreds of thousands, the biggest problem the U.S. Army faced in Japan was . . . "fraternization." The movie deals directly with the racism still inherent in military policy a half-dozen years after the war's end and pervasive in American society at the time.
From the Japanese perspective, director Kinji Fukasaku provides a piercing and unsentimental look at the life of the lowly WWII infantryman in Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972). The story, told mostly in flashbacks, follows a war widow investigating the truth behind her husband's war-time execution for killing a superior officer.
The final act of the war plays out in Kihachi Okamoto's docudrama about the twenty-four hours preceding Japan's surrender, Japan's Longest Day (1967). This is not a war movie, but a political document interrupted by bursts of extreme violence. The film is apologetic--even hagiographic--about Hirohito's role; nevertheless, it accurately portrays the suicidal spasm of fanaticism that ended the war for good.
To understand how Japan arrived at such an inglorious chapter, Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai (2003) accidentally ends up describing the ideology of the Shinsengumi, a bunch of fanatical dead-enders hired by the Shogunate to "defend" Kyoto from the real Saigo Takamori's troops. On the other hand, Yojiro Takita's When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003) actually is about the Shinsengumi.
Although the attempted counter-revolutions instigated first by the Shinsengumi and then by Saigo Takamori were handily defeated, the ideology they prized would hold sway for three-quarters of a century until it was literally blown to pieces.
Another useful perspective can be found in the anime series Zipang, which looks at WWII through the eyes of the modern Japanese military. Zipang borrows directly from the plot of The Final Countdown (1980), in which a modern U.S. aircraft carrier travels back through a wormhole in time to early December, 1941.
But The Final Countdown never challenges its audience. Gee, will they rally to save their compatriots from the horrors of Pearl Harbor? It's a non-decision, except for some philosophical, science-fiction fretting about "altering the historical timeline." In the end they're saved from making any really difficult decisions by a convenient deus ex machina that comes at the climax of the movie.
In Zipang, a JDF Aegis-class guided missile destroyer is thrown back in time to the eve of the Battle of Midway. But the crew of the Mirai know their countrymen are on the wrong side of history. They are from a wealthy, democratic, post-industrial, peaceful Japan. They have no desire to see the Imperial Japan of the era and its brutal empire prevail. But neither do they wish to stand by and watch them get slaughtered.
Zipang illuminates the kind of moral and existential challenges created in the cauldron of armed conflict--also explored in Under the Flag of the Rising Sun and Japan's Longest Day--but that are nowhere to be found in the profound-looking but intellectually lazy Letters from Iwo Jima.
My final two recommendations should be watched in the following order: First is the Nova documentary, "Sinking the Supership," a straightforward account about the life and death of the Battleship Yamato.
The flagship Yamato was (and remains) the largest battleship ever built. Yet by the Battle of Midway in 1942 it was obsolete, aircraft carriers having come to dominate naval warfare. With most of Japan's naval air force destroyed by late 1944, the Yamato had becoming a floating white elephant and was retired to Kure, its home port on the Inland Sea, a dozen miles south of Hiroshima.
Then during the Battle of Okinawa, in the final months of the war, the Yamato was dispatched--without air cover--to Okinawa. The question every mother asks: "If all your friends went and jumped off a cliff, would you too?" was the exact same reasoning behind Operation Ten-Go. The Japanese military couldn't hold the Yamato in reserve while so many kamikaze pilots were throwing themselves into the abyss.
The Yamato was sunk by American aircraft before getting anywhere near Okinawa. Fewer than 300 sailors out of a crew complement of over 2700 survived when its magazines exploded and it sank, one of the worst naval disasters in history. The resurrection of the Yamato in popular culture--the anime series Space Battleship Yamato in particular--I believe reflects a desire to inject meaning in the pointless demise of such a grand vessel.
The Yamato is spiritually resurrected in "The River of Time" episode of Kamichu! (DVD 3 episode 9). Kamichu! is an anime series about Yurie, a junior high school student living in a small fishing village in Hiroshima Prefecture, who wakes up one morning to discover she's been turned into a minor Shinto deity. Think of it as a Shinto version of Touched by an Angel.
In Shintoism, every unique object or thing in the universe has its own god (Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a good primer on the subject). In "The River of Time," the spirit of a sunken fishing trawler makes its way to Yurie's house (shades of Finding Nemo) to ask for her help--as the local Shinto deity--in escorting the spirit of the Yamato back to Kure.
Along the way, Yurie meets one of the Yamato's few surviving crew members and shares with him a vision of the ship before it was sent to its death. It is a simple and sentimental story that speaks with no political or ideological agenda, a sad and moving requiem asking only that, in the words of Shakespeare's Henry V, this "band of brothers . . . be in their flowing cups freshly remembered."