May 18, 2017
Army – Japan, 1944
In Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a recently married young woman is visited by two officials who inform her that her husband has been drafted. They then remark how proud she must be that her husband has a chance to fight and die for the Emperor. The camera cuts to a close-up of her, and her expression is not that of someone beaming with nationalistic pride. The implication here is crystal clear: Fighting in a war is not something to be celebrated. To get the opposite view, look no further than Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1944 film Army, the most blatant and unsettling piece of propaganda that he made during the war. In fact, watching it, I was left with only one interpretation: that the war was going horribly and support for it was waning. Why else would the powers-that-be feel the need to hammer home its messages so forcefully?
There are two persistent themes in Army, and each one is likely to be problematic for contemporary viewers. The film is, one the one hand, a historical justification for Japan’s war against both its neighbors and the United States. Starting in the late 1800s, the film takes viewers through approximately forty-five years of conflict. The film’s early scenes detail a series of military victories that did not lead to worldwide respect and glory. Instead of being recognized as a great military power, Japan is ganged up on, forced to give up territory, and excluded from the world community. Each humiliation builds up resentment, and promises of eventual revenge become increasingly common. In this part of the film, the Japanese army is spoken of in reverential terms, and practically every character worth anything has as his goal enlisting and fighting (and dying) for Japan’s honor. There is certainly some truth to the sentiments expressed in these moments. The problem comes in just how many of these scenes there are in the film.
The film’s second theme is much more disturbing. The film appears to be trying to speak directly to the parents of Japanese soldiers, both drafted and undrafted. And its message is this: The death of your sons is an honor, and you are selfish for putting your concerns about your sons’ well-being before the nation’s future. Perhaps to illustrate this, at one point in the film, a mother matter-of-factly proclaims that parents raise their children for the emperor and then hand them back to him to do with as he pleases.
Neither of these things are necessarily deal-breakers in a film. After all, many films have focused on characters whose values the audience may not share. However, by my count, Army contains a nationalistic message every five to ten minutes, and every other one is shouted by characters that see the slightest jest or skepticism as an act of betrayal. At one point, a character that the audience is seeing for the first time launches into a tirade after a soldier’s father seems “too concerned” with the well-being of his son, who is stationed where the harshest fighting is taking place. This character later apologizes, for what I’m not exactly sure.
The tragedy in all this is that the film’s heavy-handedness diminishes what the film does well, for at its core, Army is about a family’s quest to serve its country. The first part of the film jumps ahead in time too abruptly, and this prevents viewers from being able to invest or empathize with some of the characters, yet the movie’s point is well made. To people who lived in the trying times that immediately preceded and followed the turn of the century, nationalism did come first, and serving in the army likely was seen as an honor. Army could easily have followed this family as it looked for a way – any way really – to serve the nation. Unfortunately, we get too little introspection and far too much bombast and bravado.
No, let me rephrase that. It was not the bombast and bravado that most alienated me as I watched the film. It was the consistent barrage of a one-sided view that I fundamentally disagreed with and which I imagine much of Japan opposes today. The notion that a generation was expendable, that parents were weak for caring too much, and that past slights, however harsh, justify later atrocities is something so foreign to me that I felt somewhat livid – enraged at the characters for being so militaristic, frustrated at the screenwriter for hitting me over the head with supposed noble truths and false validations for aggression, and incensed at the director for not being able to reign it all in and show a view of wartime Japan that would be able to be watched in the years that followed the war. Instead, we get Army, a forgettable, infuriating mess of a film that will stand as a testament not to the human spirit during a brutal war, but to the influence of its war machine and the terrible messages it set out to spread. To buy into Army, you must believe that the purpose of life is to serve and die. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the song that plays towards the end of the movie. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II box set)
*Army is in Japanese with English subtitles.