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.
In modern-day Tokyo, an American businessman meets a grisly end underneath an oncoming subway train. But it was no accident. He was pushed, and furthermore, we know who did it. Michiko Suzuki, a seriously damaged young woman, is the murderer, but why did she do it? So begins The Last Train by Michael Pronko.
1931 was an important year in Japanese history. Casual research of this era will have a brief overview of the invasion of Manchuria in September, and vague references to a coup d’état which put the Army in charge. In truth, there was no armed coup d’état in 1931, at least none that were successful. However, the March Incident (Sangatsu Jiken 三月事件) came close.
Tokyo Black by Andrew Warren has everything that thriller readers like. A burned ex-CIA operative hiding out in exile. High-stakes geopolitical tension. A gang of villains ready to kill anyone to bring out their plans. And most importantly, lots of action.
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 deals with the internal politics of the Imperial Army and the two famous coup d’é tat attempts of 1932 and 1936.
Edogawa Ranpo has become synonymous with Japanese horror and mystery fiction. Using a pen name based off of Edgar Allen Poe, (try saying it three times fast), the author Taro Hirai wrote many short stories and novels as Edogawa Ranpo (sometimes Romanized as Rampo). Like his namesake, Ranpo wrote mostly horror and mystery stories, basically introducing the genres into Japanese literature. While Ranpo has a plethora of material to choose from, here are my recommendations on where to start with his writing and films based off his work.
By April 1945, the war in Europe was winding down but hostilities in Asia showed no signs of ending in the near future. Perhaps as an unconscious way to remind Americans that the fight against Japan wasn’t over yet, Blood on the Sun was released. It’s a surprisingly well-made thriller, with hints of noir, starring an impressive cast such as Sylvia Sidney, John Emery as the arch villain Baron Tanaka, and most of all, James Cagney.
Before World War II, there was precious little cinematic depictions of Japan from Hollywood, especially when compared to China. However, after Pearl Harbor, a slew of propaganda films were made to depict the Japanese enemy. Even among these, they rarely showed the Japanese home front and even rarer, the internal politics of Japan in the 1930s. Behind the Rising Sun is a surprising exception.