The Revolt 動乱 (Doran) is a Japanese movie from 1980 that seems like it was specifically made for me. It’s a sweeping historical drama set in 1930s Japan that specifically deals with the internal politics of the Imperial Army and the two famous coup d’é tats of 1932 and 1936.
The Revolt is directed by Shiro Moriani, whose previous works include the 1973 disaster movie Japan Sinks and the more similar historical drama Mount Hokkoda from 1977. The Revolt stars Ken Takakura as the stern-faced but softhearted Captain Keisuke Miyagi. Known as “Ken-san” by his fanbase, Takakura is best known for playing tough guy yakuza characters, like in the 1989 American film Black Rain. Captain Miyagi is a different role for Takakura, but he fits the part nicely, emoting through stern glares and grunts. Fitting, since he’s also called as the “Japanese Clint Eastwood” who was known for his steely stares rather than his line delivery.
The film opens in the spring of 1932. A soldier, Private Mizoguchi, sneaks out of the barracks in the middle of the night. The commanding officer, Captain Miyagi, is alerted and soon the hunt is on for the AWOL soldier. The search party soon finds Private Mizoguchi and offer him a simple solution – suicide. However, a struggle ensues and a sergeant is killed by accident. Captain Miyagi learns that Private Mizoguchi’s older sister, Karou (played by Sayuri Yoshinaga), is being sold off to a brothel by her poverty-stricken father.
The selling of daughters was shockingly common during this time period, particularly in the rural Tohoku region of northeast Japan. Known as the rice basket of Japan, the Tohoku region suffered a severe famine in the early 1930s, leading many fathers to sell their daughters, just to make ends meet. Although this practice had a long history in both China and Japan, the experiences during the Great Depression fueled many young officers’ desire for radical reform in the shape of a coup d’é tat.
We cut to one of the most famous coup attempts in modern Japan, the 5-15 Incident. On May 15th, 1932, Navy officers and Army cadets assassinated Prime Minister Inukai and attempted a coup d’é tat. Except for the assassination, they completely failed in their objectives. However, there was widespread support for them among the public, and their actions inspired other military officers to attempt their own coups.
There are hints early on that Captain Miyagi will become one of those officers. He is even asked directly whether or not he supports the 5-15 Incident. For now, Miyagi asserts that he is an apolitical soldier, although he deeply sympathizes with Private Mizoguchi’s situation. When Mizoguchi is sentenced to death for desertion and the sergeant’s death, Miyagi even tries to appeal his case, to no avail.
For his troubles, Captain Miyagi’s superiors send him to the Korea-Manchurian border to get rid of him. Cold, barren, and brutal, the only respite for soldiers are prostitutes – the infamous comfort women. While at a drinking party, Miyagi crosses paths with Karou, now working as a prostitute. Alone, they catch up but nothing beyond that. Miyagi doesn’t even make a move on her. Instead, he encourages her to become more than what she is.
Miyagi the diverts his attention to Park, a Korean gangster who is also Karou’s pimp. He also has contacts with dubious Japanese Army officers, and smuggles opium from Manchuria into Korea. The Japanese Army was heavily involved in the drug trade, with some officers pocketing their earnings outright. Many more funneled drug money back into the coffers of the Imperial Army. When Captain Miyagi arrests Park, it arouses the anger of many other officers who have dealings with the Korean. He’s given a subtle choice – release Park and Karou’s debt will be forgiven, freeing her from a life of prostitution.
Captain Miyagi agrees and after stoically carrying Karou in the snow to a hospital, joins a unit fighting guerillas. After the puppet state of Manchukuo was proclaimed, there were many “bandit pacification campaigns” in Manchuria which lasted from 1932 until the early 1940s. After fierce fighting, Captain Miyagi comes to the dismal conclusion that the Japanese Army and society is corrupt. Venting in an official report, we see scenes of generals at lavish geisha parties while Miyagi and his men freeze in the blinding snow.
A narrator rattles off the events from 1933 – 1935: the Jehol Campaign, the Teijin Incident, the Military Academy Incident. All these incidents help fuel Miyagi’s distaste for the elite and powerful, the men who control the economy and the Army. These are the men who profit while the common people like Karou must toil in prostitution and soldiers die in the snow of Manchuria.
In the autumn of 1935, Miyagi, now married to Karou, is visited by young officers in his home in the country. From about 1932, the Japanese Army split into two factions – the Imperial Way (Kodo-ha) which demanded extreme, radical solutions to solve societal problems that would eliminate the civilian government, give absolute power to the Emperor, abolish capitalism, and redistribute wealth to the poor.
Opposing them was the Control Faction (Tosei-ha) which was a loosely aligned group of Army officers who demanded more practical solutions, such as cooperating with zaibatsu financial cliques and establishing a ‘national defense state’, which would require the support of existing institutions in industry and government. The ‘Control Faction’ was more of a slur used by the Imperial Way to identify their enemies.
It’s here where Ken Takakura’s casting as Captain Miyagi hits a speed bump. The visiting officers are all young, hence the nickname the ‘Young Officers’, and all in their 20s. Takakura was 48 when they filmed The Revolt. I could look the other way that a 48-year-old is still a captain, after all, some officers retire at that rank. However, the officers who planned the 2-26 Incident were all very young men. Takakura looks more like a grizzled colonel than a junior officer plotting a coup de’tat.
Nonetheless, Captain Miyagi is sympathetic but concerned their plan will fail. He goes to meet a former teacher at the Military Academy for advice but is unaware he is being watched by the Kempeitai, the Military Police. The former teacher, Lieutenant-Colonel Kanzaki, is sympathetic to the Young Officers, and even kills a ranking general of the Control Faction.
Miyagi is brought into questioning by a Kempei sergeant, who is actually beginning also to sympathize with the motives and goals of the Young Officers. He is torn by the Japanese concept of giri and ninjo or duty and emotion. Duty is a highly valued trait in Japanese society, particularly among military and police officers. However, it would be a mistake to consider them all unthinking automatons. The Young Officers are a primary example of this – their duty, their giri, was to obey orders from superiors, but their emotion, their ninjo, urged them to rebel and restructure Japan based on their version of justice.
Meanwhile, all is not well between Karou and Miyagi. It’s revealed that since she began living with him, Miyagi hasn’t even touched Karou. Perhaps, he’s disgusted by her former life as a prostitute, or some shame of taking advantage of her situation – whatever the reason, there’s been no sex in the Miyagi house.
As the date for the coup d’é tat approaches, a wavering Miyagi visits his father, who turns out to be a rich man. Despite coming from wealth and privilege, Miyagi is deeply sympathetic to the plight of Japan’s poor and decides to support the Young Officers. The Kempeitai and Control Faction are aware of the brimming coup d’é tat. Far from being worried, they feel that once it fails, it will give them an excuse to arrest and execute the leaders of the Imperial Way, ridding them of that troublesome group once and for all.
This isn’t farfetched and is a conspiracy theory that has long been associated with 2-26 Incident, particularly the idea that the Showa Emperor himself encouraged the plot in order to discredit the Imperial Way whom he regarded as a gang of bloodthirsty fanatics.
On the eve of the coup d’é tat, Captain Miyagi and Karou finally have sex. For a moment, they appear like a happy couple, but it’s doomed not to last. On February 26th, 1936, Captain Miyagi and the Young Officers gather 1,400 soldiers to initiate the Showa Restoration. Just as the Meiji Restoration of 1868 restored the Meiji Emperor to power and usurped the Tokugawa Shogunate, this modern version would restore the Showa Emperor to the center of political life in Japan, casting the corrupt civilian government into the abyss.
They’re all set to move out when the Kempei sergeant from earlier confronts them. In a struggle of giri versus ninjo, he is sympathetic to their ideals but his duty as a Kempei, a military police officer, trumps everything else. After a tense standoff, Captain Miyagi has no choice but to cut him down.
We then cut to the soldiers spreading out across Tokyo, assassinating top government and political leaders. The music here is well-done and pretty ominous, like a threatening military march. Tokyo is put under martial law, with a good chunk of the city controlled directly by the rebels. At first, many top generals are sympathetic but that completely changes when the Emperor himself declares the rebels to be traitors and orders their rebellion crushed.
For four days, Tokyo teeters on the edge of civil war, but in the midst of a tense standoff between the rebels and troops loyal to the government, Captain Miyagi and the Young Officers are compelled to surrender. Unlike the ringleaders of the 5-15 Incident, there is no public trial and instead, they’re court-martialed behind closed doors. After a tearful goodbye to Karou, Miyagi and the others are executed by firing squad. The ending credits roll by with Karou walking alone on the beach, as a wistful enka song plays.
The Revolt is a good historical drama but you’d be better served by knowing the actual events before watching it. Many Westerners, and even many Japanese, are pretty ignorant of this time period so it’s good that movies like this exist, if only to keep the memory of these events alive. As a Westerner, I was a bit surprised how sympathetic the director was toward the ringleaders of the 2-26 Incident, go so far as to paint them as misunderstood heroes. Sure their methods were brutal, but their motives were pure, unlike the corrupt warmongers in the Control Faction.
That is a false dichotomy. While the Control Faction won supremacy in the Japanese Army, the Imperial Way Faction was quite warlike and murderous in its own right, demanding immediate war with the Soviet Union. The main difference is that the Control Faction was willing to compromise with existing political and economic institutions, while the idealists in the Imperial Way thought any accommodation was a sign of corruption.
Still, I’d recommend The Revolt if you can get your hands on it as it delves into a subject most people (Japanese included) have forgotten or choose to forget.
- Like many Japanese historical dramas, there’s a narrator who pops up from time to time to dispense historical facts. This would be the cardinal sin of telling not showing in a Western movie, but somehow, it doesn’t bother me in a Japanese film. It adds to a ‘docudrama’ style.
- The Revolt is at first and foremost a fictional story, with historical events as a backdrop. Strangely, some historical figures are replaced with fictional counterparts. For example, Lieutenant-Colonel Sabruo Aizawa, who assassinated the Control Faction General Nagata, is renamed Kanzaki and given a connection to Captain Miyagi.
- Some comparisons should be made to Hideo Gosha’s 1989 historical drama 2-26 (known in the West as Four Days of Snow and Blood). While Gosha’s movie is more accurate (with more attention focused on the actual ringleaders Ando and Nonaka) it should be remembered that The Revolt is first and foremost a melodrama and not a docudrama. Both are equally valid as films.
A collection of trailers for The Revolt: