1944. A young man is returned to his old barracks after release from 30 months in jail. This time still counts in his seniority, which is fortunate, because the newer the recruits, the worse they are treated. And life's tough for the raw recruits. These university graduates are belittled, mercilessly bullied and given the worst jobs. And when they goof off or stuff up, they are slapped and kicked with abandon. News is trickling into the barracks that Japan is losing the war. Soldiers worry about which among them will next be sent to fight in Manchuria.
Shot in stark and grainy black-and-white and with many jarring jump cuts, the grim and grimy reality of army life permeates every frame. The atmosphere is completely convincing, the acting uniformly first-rate and the characters totally believable. Although proceedings turn to overplayed melodrama at the climax, the direction is nearly perfect and the script and pacing are superb.
There are also some laughs and even a few songs ! The men spontaneously break out in patriotic anthems and comic laments (e.g. Who is the greater fool - the altruistic volunteer or the reluctant draftee ?). Some of the humour is cruel, in the Punch-and-Judy vein. There is far more slapping than an average Three Stooges episode. One hilarious scene involves the discovery of a book in a raw recruit's kit. The book is called "Social Methodology". The sergeant who discovers this book accuses the soldier of being a socialist, then slaps him hard before he can plead a denial. As the soldier pleads his innocence, the sergeant becomes angrier. "This is a book about socialism. It says so on the cover". More slapping.
The main character is Kitani, the discharged prisoner, and the main story follows his attempts to clear his name and take revenge on the man who put him there. However, there are a large number of other characters, many of whom are memorable. Anzai, the raw recruit who can't do anything right. Soda, Kitani's sensitive friend. Somei, who serves time in the freezing watch-house but stays remarkable cheerful.
But, most striking of all, no-one is portrayed as a total monster, even the brutal higher-ranking officers. It would be hard to imagine any of these soldiers appearing in a POW drama, brutalizing captured Allied troops. Most of the time, the soldiers behave more like easygoing members of Hogan's Heroes than the feared and brutal fighting units so feared and respected by the Allies.
There are a few problems with this film. The editing is both great and terrible. Scene length is never too long and the pace is tightly controlled, but there are often gaps of more than a second between cuts. This is jarring and works against the flow of the story. And the print we saw at the Japan Foundation (blessed be their name) was scratchy and in pretty poor condition. And, as mentioned above, the climactic pursuit scene is madly overdone, complete with a hysterical soundtrack.
But these are minor quibbles. This is an anti-war movie par excellence. The post-WWII occupation forces discouraged the production of war movies, but it is easy to see why this one was allowed to be made. A must-see for any film fan.
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