Saturday, February 5, 2011

REVIEW: Under the Flag of the Rising Sun

軍旗はためく下に (Gunki hatameku moto ni)

Released: 1972

Kinji Fukasaku

Tetsuro Tanba
Sachiko Hidari
Shinjiro Ebara
Noboru Mitani
Isao Natsuyagi

Running time: 96 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

One year before Kinji Fukasaku completed "Battles Without Honor and Humanity," the first of five films that would make up the ambitious "Yakuza Papers" series, he conducted a thorough study of the pain Japan’s people went through during and after World War II. 1973’s "Under the Flag of the Rising Sun" deftly shifts between the battlefront and the home country – both sites where permanent scars were inflicted in people’s lives.

Sachiko Hidari brings admirable degrees of emotion to her role as Mrs. Togashi, a war widow whose husband died in New Guinea sometime around the Japanese surrender on August 15th, 1945 – twenty-six years before the film’s present day. Since 1952, which was when the Military Survivor Benefits Law was enacted, she has repeatedly filed claims for her own benefits, only to be turned down time and time again. The reason for her repeated rejections stems from the mysterious circumstances and possible disgrace surrounding her husband’s death. The notice she received did not include a date of death, and the noted reason had been switched from “Died in Combat” to a more ambiguous, sloppily scribbled “Deceased.” The authorities claim that Sergeant Togashi was in fact executed for desertion, but Mrs. Togashi wants more convincing evidence of his fate. She is given the names of four men who served in her husband’s unit, but didn’t respond to the initial call for information on the case. She visits and questions each of them to see if she can learn the truth.

"Under the Flag of the Rising Sun" is reminiscent of David Fincher’s "Zodiac" in the way the past is tediously deciphered through unreliable or incomplete documents, records and hazy memories. Significantly, large portions of the film’s many flashbacks to the war consist of black-and-white historical photographs, implying that any recollection of previous events will be founded upon such lasting artifacts. In the early scenes in which it is made clear how little solid evidence there is on Sergeant Togashi's case, Fukasaku delivers an astute critique of bureaucracy while making clear just how challenging the widow’s quest is. The film could also be compared to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s "Maborosi" for how, as in that film, the past continually looms as an intangible yet heavy presence over the main characters in the present. The damage done by the war is made quite clear when Mrs. Togashi visits the retired soldiers, all of whom having seen better days. The first, Terajima (Noboru Mitani, who made a memorable impression in his debut performance in Akira Kurosawa’s "Dodes’ka-den"), lives as a hermit in a foul, trash-filled shantytown. The other men are barely better off: one ironically makes his living on stage by poking fun at Japan’s defeat, one is a cuckolded husband whose addiction to black market alcohol robbed him of his eyesight and the last is a literature professor stuck in a school built beside an airport runway.

One of the most intriguing features of "Under the Flag" is how, like in Kurosawa’s "Rashomon," each of the veterans’ stories of Sergeant Togashi is completely different, thus calling into question even further the ability to piece together the past. Terajima recalls how Togashi saved him from sickness and sure death, and voices his belief that he bravely fell in battle – an image that Mrs. Togashi would prefer to believe in. Yet the other stories put forth more troubling possibilities: an execution for stealing potatoes from farmers, punishment for descent into cannibalism, an act of treason against a brutal, unstable commanding officer.

What is most important about these conflicting stories is not which one is true, but instead the terrible conditions endured by the soldiers, the vivid depictions of which impressively rendered by Fukasaku’s bold use of lighting, freeze-frames, slow motion and switches between black-and-white and color. The noise and violence of battle, suicidal orders, disease, starvation, agonizingly drawn-out executions, desperate acts of theft, escape and cannibalism – all make up a patchwork of horrors endured in the jungle. As the widow learns more grisly details of what the men faced on a day-to-day basis, both the properties of right and wrong and the Japanese military’s own system of justice become increasingly twisted in both her and the viewer’s eyes.

“The government didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to start this war, but we’re the ones having to pay for all of it.” These words, spoken by Mrs. Togashi towards the end of the film, concisely sum up Fukasaku’s own clearly stated views. "Under the Flag of the Rising Sun" is not only a brilliantly directed, multi-faceted work of social criticism, but also a raw howl of anger and sadness against the injustice and stupidity of a nation gripped in the mad fever of war.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

No comments: