Sunday, August 21, 2011

Japan's Longest Day (1967)

The emotional and spiritual antithesis cousin to America's 1962 War Epic on the invasion of D-Day, The Longest Day, Japan's Longest Day recounts the events leading up to the eventual total surrender of Japan during the middle of August in 1945. Specifically concentrating two-fold; 1st being the actual orchestrating of the surrender by the parliamentary council and representatives of the various Departments of government following the dropping of atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; 2nd what has come to be known as the Kyujo Incident, an attempted coup orchestrated by high ranking military officers to prevent Japan's surrender.

At the heart of Japan's Longest Day is the notion of the 'war mentality.' How to go about convincing people whom you have hammered in the notion that victory or death are the only two options, that surrender is not only viable but in the best interest of the country. It's a mentality deeply embedded in the mindset of much of the military command and the people themselves. For after a seemingly never ending collection of victories, Japan must now face a different question entirely: Surrender or enter what will surely end in the entire annihilation of its people.

That question and how the film tackles it is without a doubt the most captivating component of this film's 2 hour and 40 minute runtime, which feels stretched in even its most generous moments. And in no place is that better embodied than in the staunch coup supporter "Wide Eyes" (as I think he ought to be called) Major Kenji Hatanaka and the solemn transformation of Lt. Colonel Masutaka Ida. While Hatanaka, as a character, suffers from being overacted on the part of Toshio Kurosawa, Masutaka benefits from the careful and sublime handling by Etsushi Takahashi. And in a film with as many cast members coming and going as this one has, it's nice to have such strong constants to log in memory and keep track of.

Of course it doesn't hurt if that ensemble cast contains some of the best working actors in Japan circa 1967. Including, but not limited to, Kurosawa favorites Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Seiji Miyaguchi, the seemingly eternal Chishu Ryo, and So Yamamura. Don't worry if the names don't strike a cord, their performances certainly do. Each contributing exactly what is needed in the film's intentionally tedious opening hour to setup the powerful and emotionally tearing finale. Though Mifune, as one might expect, is the film's true leading figurehead as Minister of War General Anami, who finds himself torn between the love of his troops and the acknowledgment of the need for an end to the conflict. A truly captivating man - whom I recommend reading up on if you haven't heard of him - and Mifune handles with great care his inner turmoil.

Though the wide spreading cast does hinder the film in key moments, especially when you consider the film seeks to introduce each and every one of them by name and rank. In the end there's just way too many, especially among those who just disappear for long periods of time or only play a key part in one scene and are then never seen again. Simply put, not every character needed a name, and while I adore the film for its dedication to include everyone involved in the real life events, it weighs down the prevailing narrative and holds up the flow of the film on more occassions than anything ought to.

So by the time we actually get to the much eluded rebellion, there is a built in disenchantment with the prevailing tale. Especially for those who have come to expect a certain speed and flow for a film to take. So it is perhaps best that the second half of the film begins the way it does - with a pile of blood. In a Sanjuro style bloodbath battle, the rebellion kicks off and thus begins a race against politics and time to secure the Emperor - who receives some very generous treatment by the filmmakers (some of which I attest to him still being alive and in charge at the time the film was made) - and destroy all evidence of Japan's notion to surrender. This is where director Okamoto earns his keep several times over.

Carrying the weight of the first half, Okamoto builds up each character and molds them into the final form that would come to define them in history books for decades to come. Those who would rise to the occasion, stand against oppression, or simply resign themselves to a particular fate. The inner conflict between dedication to the country or to the emperor become torn along the way mean delude themselves into believing the sovereign nature of their own cause.

Despite some sluggish moments, and struggle between exasperating overactors and seasoned veterans maintaining a staunch status quo, Japan's Longest Day is an effective War Epic Drama with plenty of history for fans of way and an even greater collection of important figureheads whose words resound even today.

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