Rikugun / The Army (1944)

10 03 2013

It might be some good luck on my part, but it seems that most of the WWII-era Japanese films I’ve managed to see haven’t seemed too propagandic.  I wouldn’t say they’re all subversive, but the restrictions that came into play in 1939 didn’t seem to trouble directors like Mizoguchi, Ozu, or Naruse. This film, one of Keisuke Kinoshita’s earliest efforts, is strikingly anti-war. Kinoshita’s pacifism would resurface, but it feels particularly strong here, especially because he’s projecting it in a film that was intended to be pro-war. It’s not exactly a great film, but it’s statement is particularly powerful considering the context.

1

The story begins with a young Tomosuke, being taught about his (and everyone else’s) duties towards the emperor. Years pass, Tomosuke was involved in a war peripherally and he now has a family. We see him force the same values into his son, Shintaro, who he fears to be somewhat weak, much like the way he was. Still, through the constant preaching from him and his wife, Waka, Shintaro grows to an athletic young man. He’s called into the army quickly, in a role that we expect to be of greater importance than Tomosuke’s.

2

On paper, this probably seemed like an ideal setup for the government officials supervising the film, but Kinoshita takes approaches all the concepts of duty, honor, and so on in a (justified) negative light. There’s scenes where Tomosuke, played by Chishu Ryu somewhat out of his element in a “louder” role, micromanages his son’s behavior. Oddly, he’s critical of his wife, Waka (Kinuyo Tanaka) when she does the same thing. It’s all very much on the nose, which would be problematic and enough to dismiss a film in a different context. However, the fact that Kinoshita managed to make such an anti-war film out from a pro-war sentiment is impressive enough on its own, even if the film itself doesn’t seem exactly like anything great.

3

There are many inspired moments here. The film might be worth a viewing on the grounds that this is one of the few times (the only?) where we get to see Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka be a married couple. Unfortunately, Kinoshita’s style doesn’t exactly give them time or space for performances they were capable of in the hands of much better directors. Still, Tanaka’s famous final sequence, while didactic, is absolutely wonderful. It begins with a minute-long static shot of Tanaka’s face, and then follows her as she tries to reach her war-bound son, in the middle of a military parade. This isn’t even the best film I’ve seen from Kinoshita but obviously, it’s hard to fault an effort as passionate as this one. Usually, this earnestness is a fault in his films, but he channels into a nice way here.

4

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