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I have a desire to look deeply into films from 1971 and came upon this oddity which is on R1 DVD, but still pretty much unknown. It is directed by Kihachi Okamoto who was a versatile director, happy directing comedy alongside such far as Dai-bosatsu tôge / Sword of Doom (1966), perhaps the greatest chambara movie going. As well as that The Battle of Okinawa stars Tetsurô Tanba and Tatsuya Nakadai, the two most famous Japanese actors of a generation disregarding Mifune. No slouch at directing himself (Onibaba, Kuroneko) Kaneto Shindô was involved in writing the script. So there's pedigree aplenty for the movie.
The Battle of Okinawa ended very shortly before the atomic bombings ended the entire conflict in the Pacific. It was a battle of cataclysmic ferocity that accounted for the lives of a quarter of a million people, which included a third of the island's civilian population. It was almost the end of a civilisation and a way of life, Okinawans having a distinctive culture that was almost obliterated here. The Americans never left, almost a fifth of the island is still occupied by US military bases.
The movie is both educational on the tactical side of the battle, but also revelatory about Japanese culture of the time. The military triumvirate on the Japanese side consisted of General Ushijima, and his two subordinates Lieutenant General Isamu Cho (Tanba) and Colonel Hiromichi Yahara (Nakadai). Ushijima is an almost catatonic buddha who admits having inferior tactical knowledge and so chooses sides in arguments between Cho and Yahara. Cho tends to favour aggression, Yahara is always more moderate. Nakadai here wears the same expression on his face all the way through the movie, maybe he grimaced and the wind changed, for he wore it all the way through Hideo Gosha's great movie The Wolves, also released in 1971. Joking aside though it's an iconic expression, which is awesomely fatalistic, seeming in one go to express the sheer lunacy of the pro-imperial attitudes in the army, and the desire to die. Yahara's appears to be the greatest lunacy though, he opts to let the American forces land unopposed in order to conserve ammunition, which would be needed for later in the battle.
There are many terrible things that happened during the battle, so many families committed suicide in order to avoid contact with the American troops. It's still a point of controversy as to how willing they were, and how much they were forced to by the army. Families gathered round in circles and unpinned grenades, the survivors attempted to batter each other out of their misery. Quite spectacular suicide missions are commemorated. For example a plane landing in a US-controlled airfield (the rest of the squadron succumbing to anti-aircraft fire), troops disembarking and throwing grenades at the US planes, entirely without hope of surviving It's quite interesting to discuss whether the movie glorified the resistance, certainly suicide missions are shown as heroic, whilst entirely unpalatable to the Western eye, but also the movie does question whether there is more to life, a greater reason to live than merely to serve the Emperor.
Some disappointments from a cinematic point of view, firstly the archive footage that announces the film is shot in 4:3 but here massively stretched to 2.35:1, which looks pretty sloppy. Then the film is not very well budgeted I feel so the action often looks kind of fake, but also there wasn't enough cash in the kitty to get Americans over, so the American soldiers (who generally hide their faces, are seen from behind or in the distance) are played by Japanese as well. Luckily we don't see Americans very often, their presence is only known via artillery bombardment, and when we do it's not Thompson sub-machine-guns that they're carrying. Actual combat scenes are very stylised and reminiscent of jidai-geki such as Ran in the way that the platoons of soldiers behave. It's fortunate that the Americans don't play a part in the movie, to the defenders on Okinawa they may as well have been Martians, the issues here were all Japanese, about what attitude to take in the face of cultural destruction and overwhelming incursion. That's not to downplay the loss of American life, but that would simply be for another movie.
I felt in the end that the film was a fitting testament to the deaths of the defenders of Okinawa and the populace. The movie kind of captures an essence of bravery, lunacy and hollow childlike subservience, as well as the sheer devastating horror.
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