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Fierce antiwar satire with a bleak sense of humor and a raw homemade feel
In the days after the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Japanese soldier in the closing days of WWII becomes assigned to a suicide squad training for the Final Fight, the desperate plan and huge manslaughter prepared by unyielding Japanese generals against an Allied land invasion of Japan. You'd be forgiven for thinking this is a grim-as-can-be downbeat war movie in the vein of FIRES IN THE PLAIN. Kihachi Okamoto may be most well known in the West for his SWORD OF DOOM, one of the darkest most nihilistic chambaras in movie history, but that's more of an exception than a rule in Okamoto's oeuvre. A streak of bleak dark humor and biting satire runs through his work, not always in subtle ways but never done without a certain taste and affection for the absurd and the tragic, and The Human Bullet is no exception. When it veers close to anti-war sermonizing ("when kids hold grenades it's hopeless, you should be getting an education") it grates with the rough edge of too much explicitness and not enough subtext, but it becomes an exhilarating movie when it's allowed room to breathe and play around in its own comedic absurdism without taking itself too serious as a satire that must hammer home some political point. When it's allowed the sheer pleasure of painting surreal images like that of a man in a bucket strapped next to a torpedo (see screenshot above) or a foxhole buried in a sand hill in the middle of nowhere and affords for itself the narrative freedom of no concrete urgent plot to drive forward but instead the loose interconnectivity of a vignette structure, a series of encounters between the Japanese soldier and a motley crew of bizarre characters as he trains himself for the coming Final Fight, these perhaps giving the film a slight handicap of repetitiveness because the film's point is made with enough clarity in the opening scenes where the starving soldier caught stealing food from the army's granaries is forced by his sergeant to go around naked to show everyone he's a pig, but it remains a pleasant breezy watch.
This is a low-budget movie (when a plane attacks the soldier in the torpedo we only see the ripple of its fire and most of the movie is shot outdoors with a small cast) with a raw unpolished edge, lots of hand-held shots and experimental non-narrative cutting that in a way places The Human Bullet in the outer perimeters of the Japanese New Wave map (although Okamoto was and would continue to be a studio filmmaker working for Toho first and foremost). In its combination of fierce antiwar satire, bleak humor, sardonic wit, and irreverent attitude, reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE, yet with a more homemade feel than Kubrick would ever allow for one of his movies, The Human Bullet is one of those cult movies in search for an audience. Like most cult movies it's not perfect or ever truly aspires to that kind of formally accomplished film-making, but it makes sense in a "let's get on with it" level. This is the kind of movie that doesn't allow realism to distract it too much from its overarching aesthetic, a movie that doesn't allow its viewer to be concerned with the fact that a man holed up in a bucket in the middle of a sea can survive ten days without water and remain freshly shaven because more outrageous images are soon to follow.
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