The General is thinking about Okinawa

Finished watching THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA — it’s what I call an epic! Justifies its runtime and intermission more than WILD ROVERS did.

I was, at times, skeptical. The main thing I knew about Okinawa was that civilians suicided in groups, clustering around grenades distributed by the army. With horrible results. This comes and goes in the movie with very little impact, covered by the voiceover man and quick cuts of extras writhing in corn syrup. But then, there are so many terrible stories for the film to cover.

The incessant VO should be a problem, but adds to the intermittent docu quality. All the standard ways of dispensing info are used: VO, captions introducing characters and places, stills, archive film. Miraculously, it all kind of congeals into a coherent factual drama.

The bombing stops for a couple of seconds while our man processes some more terrible news

Tatsuta Nakadai has one of the greatest faces in cinema — not just because he’s preternaturally handsome, but because his face can express incredible depths of emotion with a single expression, either modulated only slightly, or frozen into an unchanging study.

Of course he’s a great physical actor too.

I slightly worried that the army on Okinawa were portrayed too sympathetically. There are a few bad eggs. And when we see them laughing about how their missiles are giving American troops brain damage, we think, “OK, these are not the goodies. They’re just all we’ve got.” But the island’s population was convinced that they had to die for the Emperor, and the army was largely responsible for that belief. One third of the civilians perished either from bombing and shooting, or starvation and disease, or suicide.

Masaru Satô’s beautiful music at times seemed problematic: he’s just too jaunty. Yet I think there’s something going on. When we see groups of volunteer students, or factory workers, charging into battle, the music is upbeat and light. Then they’re all massacred by machine gun fire, group after group. The music continues. Director Okamoto cuts to dead silence, though, when he flashes up school photographs of the real people we just saw briefly animated by background artistes.

So it’s pretty strong. I did feel increasingly desperate. “You feel desperate,” Pauline Kael would say, using the Pauline You.

The movie is huge, but not huge enough to show cities being devastated — we get a street or a building at most. Lists of casualties are always a thousand times greater than the numbers we see onscreen. Still, the integration of special effects — I’m presuming the fleets of warships or bombers aren’t real, life-size reconstructions, but miniatures — are seamless. The spectre of GODZILLA’s miniature landscapes is never raised.

Maybe all war movies should be told from the viewpoint of the aggressor and the loser. As with DAS BOOT, you catch yourself rooting for the protagonists to kill their enemy — but you do catch yourself (there’s that You again). All war movies tend to implant you into the perspective of a combatant, you identify, and then you cheer them on. The concept of “anti-war” goes out the bullet-ridden window. Though a Japanese audience would possibly have a closer relationship to even the most militaristic characters here, the fact that their culture was transformed by the atom bomb and the surrender means that they would probably be echoing me and James Donald as they watched in horror: “Madness! Madness!”

And those compositions!

9 Responses to “Endgame”

  1. A lot of the civilians at Okinawa jump off cliffs

  2. That’s right… don’t think the film shows this. But lots of other methods are depicted.

  3. Some years ago the Berkeley Museum had an exhibit of modern Chinese art. It started with art from the Cultural Revolution, when only a handful of subjects were permitted, most of them variations on portraits of Mao, and said portraits had to meet a highly specific checklist — e.g., rosy cheeks and a celestial aura around the whole figure. Then very timid early experiments (vaguely expressionist woodcuts), through bold parodies of the Cultural Revolutionary style, up to plain old snarky modern art.

    Anyway — one of the most memorable pieces in my view was an installation involving looped battle scenes from two vintage movies about the Korean War — one American and the other Chinese. The films were projected on two perpendicular walls near the corner where they met, the American film on the right and the Chinese on the left. In the American film, you saw closeups of American soldiers only. Their gazes, and the direction of their movements, were entirely to the left, towads “the enemy,” — just a vague mass in their movie, but of course the Chinese movie was also to the left. In that movie, it was just the opposite — you were seeing closeups of Chinese soldiers only, gazing and moving to the right, towards THEIR enemy. Just a constant loop of “our” soldiers in combat against the enemy — but both sides were “ours” and both sides were the enemy.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Paul Fussell — himself a combat vet — wrote a book titled “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”. In the title essay he details how the Japanese and the Americans had been conditioned to regard each other as subhuman beasts; consequently there was a level of brutality beyond “normal” warfare (he describes a Life magazine photo of a pretty girl admiring the Japanese skull her soldier boyfriend sent home). Fussell’s argument is that a land war in Japan would in fact be more horrific to both sides than even the bomb.

    That was echoed in “The War”, a Ken Burns series that followed WWII through a handful of Americans from specific towns. Americans GIs became more brutal after seeing how comrades had been tortured to death, and their shock at seeing women and children leap from cliffs rather than be taken prisoner.

    One old vet talked about the horrors he had seen, and how once he was home he worried that he might never feel anything like normalcy. When he witnessed a bloody auto accident and became physically ill, it was strangely reassuring.

  5. The idea that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives has now been comprehensively debunked. The Japanese were ready to surrender, so long as they were allowed to retain their Emperor, and were terrified particularly of the Russians. The bombing was carried out essentially to intimidate the Russians.

    My understanding is that while Allied propaganda emphasised that the Germans and Italians were victims of their leaders, this policy was judged inapplicable to Japan, since it was known that Hirohito was not going to be punished for war crimes — his remaining as a puppet Emperor was going to be the only way to secure a future surrender. Thus, the propaganda blamed the Japanese themselves and dehumanized them, leading to brutality and war crimes.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Didn’t know they were strategizing terms of Japan’s surrender that far out. I always assumed it was capitalizing on existing American racism. But it might explain a peculiarity in two already peculiar Hal Roach Streamliners: “The Devil With Hitler” and “Natzy Nuisance” were both inept comedies with a trio of knockabouts playing Adolf, Benito, and a generic stereotypical Japanese.

    Understand that Hitler was never ready to surrender, sending out schoolboys as Berlin collapsed and reportedly fantasizing an alliance with America and England against the USSR — something that just might have flown some years earlier, but not after his war machine was smashed and the horrors were widely exposed. Was there ever talk of using the atom bomb on Germany or were they too much “like us”?

  7. They had to have an exit strategy because they had to figure out what kind of ending to the war was desirable/possible, right from the start. Removing Hitler and Mussolini was possible and necessary, removing Hirohito, they knew, could not be done.

    Of course blaming the Japanese as a people capitalized on existing racism (and tied in nicely with Truman’s own well-documented racism).

    The bomb apparently wasn’t ready in time to be used on Germany — would it have been? Perhaps, in that situation, it would have seemed a step too far, purely for racist reasons. Though surely Hitler couldn’t have been persuaded merely by the threat of a new weapon, and he doubtless would have preferred to be nuked than to surrender.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Thanks for mentioning the “Pauline ‘You’ ” It was a rhetorical slight-of-hand she used far too frequently and rarely honestly.

  9. It was Gerald Peary who pointed that one out to me. It’s very tempting and appealing and never really kosher unless you’re describing something genuinely universal.

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