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Through Japanese Eyes: World War II in Japanese Cinema

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eternal zero 2

A film about kamikaze pilots has been playing to packed theaters from Hokkaido to Kyushu since its release in December of 2013, becoming one of the top-grossing Japanese productions of all time. In addition to attracting the admiration of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, “The Eternal Zero” has drawn a fair amount of criticism for being the latest in a string of recent films that mythologize the Japanese role in World War II.

Any Japanese film concerning World War II is going to be closely scrutinized by Japanese and international audiences alike. Most Japanese films produced in the first few decades following the war focus on human tragedy while keeping away from anything that could be construed as glorifying combat or defending Japan’s military adventurism. To avoid possible offense, American and Allied Forces in Japanese productions have usually been faceless, instead being represented by their machines of war (as opposed to contemporary Hollywood productions that often include rather negative stereotypes of Japanese soldiers). Americans and the Allied Forces are also rarely even named, usually referred to simply as the enemy.

However, Japanese films generally fail to explain the cause of the war, which has led to a spate of recent movies that cast Japan in a more sympathetic light. With bigger budgets and slicker production values than the stark and repenting post-war movies, these films portray a more romantic view of the fight against the West where Japan is a victim, not the aggressor. As Japanese films become more revisionist, great concern has already been expressed about the current generation of movies such as The Truth about Nanjing which boldly dismisses war atrocities as Chinese propaganda. The film’s director has stated that the Japanese leaders executed for war crimes are martyrs like Jesus Christ.

These are a several notable films about World War II produced in Japan:

eternal_zero

The Eternal Zero (Eien no Zero) 2013 – Using a flashback narrative, The Eternal Zero follows two siblings as they try to learn more about their grandfather who apparently was determined to survive the war but decided to die as a kamikaze. Some domestic and foreign critics have dismissed the film as shameless nationalistic propaganda. They argue that instead of being patriots who willing sacrificed themselves for Japan, kamikaze were actually vulnerable young men who were radicalized or pressured by fanatics into pursuing an “honorable” death.

Yamato 2006

The Men of the Yamato (Otoko tachi no Yamato) 2005 – The Men of the Yamato is a big budget production with a story structure and visuals clearly modeled after Hollywood blockbusters. The film depicts the fate of the world’s largest battleship and members of the crew as they are sent on a desperate mission to Okinawa where — spoiler alert — the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy is destroyed by U.S. Navy pilots.

Deguchi No Nai Umi

Sea Without Exit (Deguchi no nai umi) 2007 – Kaiten pilots operated one-man submarines that served as human-guided torpedoes, making them the underwater counterparts to the better known kamikaze who attacked from the air. Sea Without Exit chronicles a star baseball player and his three fellow kaiten pilots as the struggle between a sense of patriotic duty and the fear that their lives will be wasted in a war that is already lost.

Fires on the Plain2Fires on the Plain(Nobi) 1959 – After receiving an Academy Award nomination for his 1956 anti-war film The Burmese Harp, director Kon Ichikawa explored even darker themes in Fires on the Plain. The plot concerns a group of Japanese soldiers trapped in the Philippines with little food or supplies because of the tightening noose of the Allied Forces. A brutal film, the graphic depiction of the soldier’s efforts to survive through murder and cannibalism was met with critical disdain upon its release.

zero cover

Zero Fighter(Zerosen moyu) 1984 – Zero Fighter covers the history for the famed plane from its design and early dominance in the air until the end of the war when it is eventually outclassed by advanced enemy aircraft attacking in superior numbers. If the special effects seem strangely reminiscent of Japan’s popular superhero and monster movies, Zero Fighter was produced by the same studio and special effects team responsible for several Godzilla films.

For Those We Love 1 2007

For Those We Love (Ore-kimi) 2007 – Written by Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara, For Those We Love tells the tale of several young kamikaze pilots as remembered by the matron of the local restaurant they frequented while waiting for the final mission. Considering Ishihara’s right wing political views, it probably should come as no surprise that the kamikaze pilots are glorified as heroes who died protecting their homeland rather than tragic causalities of Japan’s imperialistic ambitions.

Grave of the Fireflies poster

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) 1988 – Grave of the Fireflies is a widely acclaimed animated film that follows an orphaned brother and sister as they struggle to survive in a Japan devastated by war. Film critic Roger Ebert ranked it as one of the best war films ever made, stating that its emotional breadth almost moved him to tears. The popularity of the movie in Japan has spawned two live action versions.

Merdeka 17805

Merdeka 17805 2001 – The producers of Merdeka 17805 claim the film commemorates Japan’s role in bringing independence to Indonesia by ending Dutch colonial rule, but the release was met with criticism for offering a revisionist view that presents Japanese military aggression as being merely a desire to protect Asia from the West. Scenes depicting Indonesians kissing the feet of their Japanese liberators as well as soldiers slapping the faces of Indonesian recruits were deemed highly offensive to the nation’s Muslim population.

Battle of Okinawa 1971Battle of Okinawa (Gekido no showashi:Okinawa kessen) 1971 – As the title states, Battle of Okinawa is a drama about the last major confrontation between Allied and Japanese Imperial forces. While the film faults Japanese leaders for failing to provide their soldiers with sufficient resources to defend the island from the Allied onslaught, the Okinawans caught in the middle of the fighting are portrayed as the true victims.

Nihon no ichiban nagai hi

Japan’s Longest Day (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi) 1967 – Even after two of their cities had been devastated by atomic bombs, hardliners within the Imperial Japanese military were still prepared to fight to the death. Japan’s Longest Day recounts the true events of August 14-15 when a group of fanatical soldiers attempted a coup to prevent the broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s message of surrender.

Ashita e no yuigon2

Better Wishes for Tomorrow (Ashita e no yuigon) 2007 – Like the 1998 film Pride: A Fateful Moment about Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Better Wishes for Tomorrow attempts to humanize a Japanese leader on trial for war crimes . Responsible for the execution of American airmen, Tasuka Okada is portrayed as a dedicated family man who acted out of love for country. Both films seem to imply that any atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war were negated by Allied bombing of civilians.

  • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

    Regarding the ‘avoidance of possible offense’ in Japanese war movies leading to the portrayal of the Allies as faceless, it is important to note that Japanese war movies of the Pacific War era also erased the enemy from the screen. In other words, this was a trope of Japanese war movies, not a peculiar post-war sensitivity. The focus in the Japanese film is on the group, not the individual, on the stoicism, dedication and suffering of the Japanese soldier, not on heroics. There’s simply little space for the enemy in wartime films, except as an misfortune to be endured and overcome. (It’s notable that post-war films such as Okinawa Kessen also treat the Americans more as a natural disaster than an enemy.)

    John Dower has written extensively on this and I recommend his essay on wartime cinema in his book Japan in War and Peace. You’ll find Japanese audiences received very different propaganda to the output of Hollywood.

  • Pacha

    If these movies are called propaganda, what would one call films like “pearl harbor” and “the bridge on the river Kwai”?!

    • Spider58x

      Which part of Pearl Harbor was propaganda? I have yet to see the film so i don’t much about it.

      • wordtoyourmother

        What makes them different is, that while US movies may romanticize the war and the lives of individual solider, (movies like Pearl Harbor are really just romance movies), revisionist movies turn historical reality on its head. Hiding Japanese military expansionism; presenting it as saving China, when in actuality Japan raped, pillaged, and enslaved across China; attacked the United States; captured and brutalized not only soldiers but European civilians too; emasculated the emperor so he had to acquiesce to Japan’s military; conducted medical experiments on humans including on POWs; captured Chinese women and some European, Australian, New Zealand women and forced them into sex-slave camps; subjected POWs and captured civilians to death marches, subjected POWs to horrendous conditions in ships just like the slave ships 300 years ago; tortured and even skinned alive their captured enemies in the field; subjected POWs to brutal conditions in POW camps; subjected captured civilians to brutal conditions in camps; in at least New Guinea, ate their captured enemies; convinced civilians that Americans would do such horrible things to them that terrified villager were committing mass suicides; and used the Japanese people themselves as nothing but cannon fodder, are what makes the revisionist movies propaganda.

        There are worried voices coming from Japan itself and there have been for at least 20-25 years; voices worried about the changes in Japanese school curricula because truth has been removed and replaced with glossing over, hiding, and glorifying Japan’s history of brutal military expansionism. Professors and writers of textbooks were replaced for it. The reason for the worry? Glorifying war, warriors, and Japan as special and entitled and therefore expansionism was a noble and righteous path is what led to the alliance with Germany and the war with the US in the first place. It is why Japan’s military managed to control the emperor and civilian government during that period, and silence the critical voices from within their own ranks so that they could pursue their agenda of conquering the world. Those who are well-educated in their own nation’s history and those who were there at the time fear a repeat of history if younger generations are ignorant of their country’s true history and radicalized through school and propaganda again.

        There is a reason generations of Japanese after WWII abhorred glorifying war and intentionally taught their young what their country did to bring down horrors upon themselves. They were smart and did not want to be misled and tempted back into any repeats of that history. (It also helped their economy to no longer pay for their own military protection from other military expansionist countries). Over the decades though, those with the same mentality as the old warriors worked in the background to change Japans view of itself, and their first tool was the same as the old, school curricula, and now mass media is added. It is working just as radicalization of the young has worked elsewhere.

        Anyone who believes our own revisionists who paint Japan as a victim of western (particularly American) goading and aggression and unnecessary brutality needs to study more, ask someone who lived through a POW camp, ask a WWII veteran about fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, or about readying themselves to probably die there after already surviving the war in Europe, and talk to the Chinese first, followed by Aussies and New Zealanders. After becoming well-informed, challenge the revisionists who are not accurate in their biased teachings.

        If we will not accept the German’s hiding what they did to the world, and we will not accept our own country pretending we’ve never engaged in aggression of any kind or brutality against any particular peoples, they why would we accept it from Japan?

        Believe me, with Japan’s history of racism (because they believed they were the only peoples with a direct link to deity and so their place was Lord over all other races and cultures) and brutality against not only non-Japanese but against their own people as well, their WWII generation of military leaders would have most arrogantly been happy to commit the same atrocities against the revisionists defending them. In fact, if the Japanese military at the time had been able to get to the H-bomb first, they would have rushed to use it on us and any one who stood in their way, just as the Germans were racing to do.

        I think movies portraying the suffering of Japanese soldiers is appropriate, as the rank and file suffered immensely. You didn’t want to be anyone but a firstborn son in Japan, other wise you were forced off to war, and as time went on, forced off without even shoes on your feet and no food. If you were a pilot, you stood a high chance of being forced into martyring yourself as a kamikaze, and there was no refusing or surviving, because if you survived, you brought horrible shame on your entire family; you and they would suffer for it. It was the same for the one man submarines. The brutal treatment of Japanese soldiers by their leadership goes on and on. It was the same for the civilian population. It is good to know and understand the suffering of past enemies, and it is good for their own people. What isn’t good is pretending why they found themselves in that situation didn’t happen, and to hide where the real responsibility lay, at home.

      • wordtoyourmother

        posted to wrong person

    • wordtoyourmother

      What makes them different is, while US movies may romanticize the war and the lives of individual soliders, (movies like Pearl Harbor are really just romance movies), revisionist movies turn historical reality on its head.

      Hiding Japanese military expansionism; presenting it as saving China, when in actuality Japan raped, pillaged, and enslaved across China; attacked the United States; captured and brutalized not only soldiers but European civilians too; emasculated the emperor so he had to acquiesce to Japan’s military; conducted cruel medical experiments on humans, including POWs; captured Chinese women and some European, Australian, and New Zealand women and forced them into sex-slave camps; subjected POWs and captured civilians to death marches, subjected POWs to horrendous conditions in ships just like the slave ships 300 years ago; tortured and even skinned alive their captured enemies in the field; subjected POWs to brutal conditions in POW camps; subjected captured civilians to brutal conditions in camps; in at least New Guinea, ate their captured enemies; convinced civilians that Americans would do such horrible things to them that terrified villager were committing mass suicides; and used the Japanese people themselves as nothing but cannon fodder, are what makes the revisionist movies propaganda.

      There are worried voices coming from Japan itself and
      there have been for at least 20-25 years; voices worried about the changes in Japanese school curricula because truth has been removed and replaced with glossing over, hiding, and glorifying Japan’s history of brutal military expansionism. Professors and writers of textbooks were replaced for it. The reason for the worry? Glorifying war, warriors, and Japan as special and entitled and therefore expansionism was a noble and righteous path is what led to the alliance with Germany and the war with the US in the first place. It is why Japan’s military managed to control the emperor and civilian government during that period, and silence the critical voices from within their own ranks so that they could pursue their agenda of conquering the world. Those who are well-educated in their own nation’s history and those who were there at the time fear a repeat of history if younger generations are ignorant of their country’s true history and are radicalized through school and propaganda again.

      There is a reason generations of Japanese after WWII abhorred overt nationalism and glorifying war, and therefore, intentionally taught their young what their country did to bring down horrors upon themselves. They were smart and did not want to be misled and tempted back into any repeats of that history. (It also helped their economy to no longer pay for their own military protection from other military expansionist countries). Over the decades though, those with the same jingoist and nationalist mentality as the old warriors worked in the background to change Japans view of itself. Their first tool was the same as the old, school curricula. Now mass media is added. It is working just as radicalization of the young has worked elsewhere.

      Anyone who believes our own revisionists who paint
      Japan as a victim of western (particularly American) goading, aggression, and unnecessary brutality needs to study more, ask someone who lived through a POW camp, ask a WWII veteran about fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, or about readying themselves to probably die there after already surviving the war in Europe, and talk to the Chinese first, followed by Aussies and New Zealanders. After becoming well-informed, challenge revisionists who are not accurate in their biased teachings.

      If we will not accept the German’s hiding what they did to the world, and we will not accept our own country pretending
      we’ve never engaged in aggression of any kind or brutality against any particular peoples, they why would we accept it from Japan?

      Believe me, with Japan’s history of racism (because they believed they were the only peoples with a direct link to deity and so their place was Lord over all other races and cultures) and brutality against not only non-Japanese but against their own people as well, their WWII generation of military leaders would have most arrogantly been happy to commit the same atrocities against the very revisionists defending them. In fact, if the Japanese military at the time had been able to get to the H-bomb first, they would have rushed to use it on us and any one who stood in their way, just as the Germans were racing to do.

      Movies portraying the suffering of Japanese soldiers is appropriate, as the rank and file suffered immensely. Among young men, you didn’t want to be anyone but a firstborn son in Japan, other wise you were forced off to war, and as time went on, forced off without even shoes on your feet and no food. If you were a pilot, you stood a high chance of being forced into martyring yourself as a kamikaze, and there was no refusing or surviving, because if you refused or survived, you brought horrible shame on your entire family; you and they would suffer for it. It was the same for the one man submarines. The brutal treatment of Japanese soldiers by their leadership goes on and on. The civilian population received the same exploitative, callous treatment.

      It is good to know and understand the suffering of past enemies, and it is good for their own people. What isn’t good is pretending why they found themselves in that situation didn’t happen or to hide where the real responsibility lay, at home.

  • calfiatlux

    Uh, anyone who watched Eternal Zero, or read the book, would know that most Kamikaze pilots are portrayed as victims who were forced or pressured into their roles after being drafted into service during their college years.

  • jmjoker

    all of these movies are shameless denials of the truth- Japanese people should be ashamed of themselves for making this crap and for trying to lie to the world like they didn’t slaughter 30 million innocents

  • Tracey Thomas

    Can anyone tell me which of these films would be based off of literature, and one that is possible to find in the North American market? I’m looking to do my final essay for a grad course on Japanese internment camps/Allied internment camps during WW2 and the focus of the “Orient” and “Occident” gazes films written and directed by Brits/Americans vs Japan show portrayals of WW2.

    I’ve already got “River Kwai,” “Merry Xman Mr Lawrence” and an episode of “Teen Wolf” — I’m just missing the Japanese film. Much appreciated if anyone can answer!!!