Japanese cinema has never gained widespread acceptance in the West, save for Godzilla and Kurosawa films. But those are only a tiny pinprick of Japanese films, which cover all genres, including war. Aside from Tora Tora Tora and Letter From Iwo Jima, there haven’t been many movies that show war from a Japanese perspective that have gained traction in the West. I’d like to change that with 5 Japanese war movie recommendations.
First, we have to define what counts. While chanbara movies are great, when I say “Japanese war movie,” it will only be in reference to conflicts that happened from the Meiji Era to the end of World War II (1868 – 1945). Secondly, it will have to concentrate primarily on war, fighting, and/or wartime military life. So, while I love films like The Revolt and Memoirs of Japanese Assassins, they focused more on political intrigue while Japan was at peace. Thirdly, it just has to feature primarily if not entirely focus on Japanese characters, so that disqualifies films like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Lastly, it can’t be too well known in the West, which basically only means the aforementioned Tora Tora Tora and Letters From Iwo Jima.
These are in no particular order, and I recommend all these films for anyone interested in this era of Japanese history. There are plenty of other Japanese war movies I didn’t get a chance to get to, so let me know if you’d like to see part 2 of this list.
The Militarists (激動の昭和史 軍閥) – 1970
The term gunbatsu has two meanings. One is “military factions,” which could apply to the Imperial Way and Control Factions that nearly tore the Japanese Army apart in the 1930s. The other is “militarist” in the sense that we understand it in the West. Unlike the Nazis and Fascists, Japan never had a political party that seized power and took the country to war. Instead, an amorphous group of vaguely defined “militarists” took the blame.
A docudrama in the vein of Tora Tora Tora, The Militarists opens with the 2-26 Incident, then segues into General Hideki Tojo’s rise as army minister in July 1940, then in October 1941 as prime minister. The movie dedicates a large portion to the runup to Pearl Harbor. While Tojo is a big focus, there is also focus on the unknown staff officers who pressured their superiors into war, as well as the fierce rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy that hindered the war effort.
Primarily a docudrama, there’s a fictional journalist character – partly based off a real person – whose pro-Navy editorials angered Tojo so much he ordered him drafted into the Army, until the Navy scooped him up and sent him into the Naval Press Corps.
The Militarists is a high-level look at the war, primarily through those who planned it, but also takes a deep look at Japanese society and how it too played a part in starting the conflict.
Japan’s Longest Day (日本のいちばん長い日) – 1967
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto and boasting a memorable score, Japan’s Longest Day is one of the most famous Japanese war movies, so much so that it is usually rerun every August 15th. So popular was this film that it inspired the so-called 8-15 series of war movies by Toho during the late 60s/early 70s, of which, The Militarists is part of. It deals with the last twenty-four hours of World War II and the infamous Imperial Palace Incident (Kyujo Jiken). Unlike The Militarists, this film has no fictional characters and is as docudrama as you can get. For those unaware, the last twenty-four hours of World War II were fraught with intrigue and drama, perfect fodder for a movie.
After deciding to surrender, the Emperor recorded a speech to broadcast to the people on August 15th, 1945. However, a group of junior Army officers launched a coup, killed the commander of the Imperial Guard, and cordoned off the Imperial Palace. Their goal was to find the recording, destroy it, and continue the war until the bitter end.
Some of Japanese cinema’s heavy hitters play leading roles such as Toshiro Mifune as General Anami, So Yamamura as Admiral Yonai, Chishu Ryu as Prime Minister Suzuki, and Hakuo Matsumoto as one of the first actors to portray the Emperor onscreen. But the most memorable performance is Toshio Kurosawa as Major Hatanaka, the main ringleader of the plot. Kurosawa is hysterical, unhinged, and volatile, like a volcano constantly on the verge of erupting.
Another entry in Toho’s 8-15 war movie series and also directed by Kihachi Okamoto, this docudrama focuses on the last major battle of the Pacific War. With a large cast of actors primarily playing historical figures – and some fictional ones – the movie shows the defense preparation, strategy, and eventual fight the Japanese waged to defend Okinawa. Seeing soldiers being machine-gunned, bombed, and burnt does get a little monotonous in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, but it does a good job at showing the depth the Japanese went to when fighting a war they were doomed to lose.
Port Arthur (二百三高地) – 1980
Unlike World War II, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is seen as Japan’s “good war” through a sort of David (Japan) vs Goliath (Russia) lens. Most of the world expected Russia to win and was genuinely surprised when Japan won victory after victory, culminating with the sinking of the Russian fleet at Tsushima. Although there were imperialistic motives (the war led to Korea’s eventual annexation by Japan), the Russo-Japanese War was and still is a source of pride for Japan. There was a real possibility that Japan could have lost and become colonized herself, but instead it became the first Asian nation to defeat a Western power in modern history.
Port Arthur mainly focuses on two characters, Lieutenant Takeshi Koga (Teruhiko Aoi) and General Maresuke Nogi (Tatsuya Nakadai), the former being fictional, the latter a historical figure. Lieutenant Koga starts off an idealistic Christian who has no ill-will toward Russia. Before he leaves his civilian job as a schoolteacher, he writes “Beautiful Country Japan, Beautiful Country Russia” on the blackboard, forbidding the children to remove it until the war is over. General Nogi is, of course, commander of the Third Japanese Army, the unit assigned to capture Port Arthur from the Russians.
Port Arthur was especially important since it was a warm water port, meaning it didn’t freeze over in the winter, making it desirable for both sides. As such, the Russians fortified it heavily and made the Japanese pay for every inch of territory with flesh and blood. Good-natured at first, Lieutenant Koga’s Christian faith dissipates as he leads his platoon through charge after charge into the teeth of enemy fire. By the end, he is a cynical, hardened killer, unrecognizable from the Christian schoolteacher.
General Nogi’s storyline shows the Japanese High Command and follows his desperate attempt to dislodge the Russian foe and losing his two sons in the process. Tatsuya Nakadai’s portrayal of Nogi is fantastic, showing us a man who is trapped by his own duty. Directed by Toshio Masuda (who shot the Japanese scenes in Tora Tora Tora) and clocking in at a whopping three hours, Port Arthur is an epic saga of Japan’s “good war.”
Think Rashomon set during the Pacific War and you have Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. Directed by Kinji Fukusaku (Battle Royale), this film follows a Japanese war widow (Sachiko Hidari) in the early 1970s petitioning the government for her husband’s pension, who died during the Pacific War. However, the Army branded her husband a deserter, which nullifies her claim. Unable to accept that, she tracks down members of her husband’s old unit, but each man gives a contradictory story of how exactly he died. Was he killed in action? Was he executed for cannibalism? Or is the truth even worse?
The war aspect of this film is told through flashbacks, but it does a magnificent job of showing the zeitgeist of postwar Japan, which wanted to forget and move on. The veterans she meets range from completely shell shocked unable to adjust to civilian life, to respectable men who hide their trauma behind a stoic face. But there is a lingering dread – told in amazing shots of still photos showing Yukio Mishima and Inejiro Asanuma’s assassination – that if Japan completely forgets the war then another might occur.
Even the widow’s daughter never knew her father and has no interest in his fate, urging her mother to drop the matter and get on with her life. The film does a masterful job at showing that not only soldiers suffer in war, but also those they leave behind. But a deep yearning gnaws at her until she discovers her husband’s shocking fate.