Film Review: Battle of Okinawa

The film industry is always going back to World War II, and with good reason. Such a large, well-documented conflict that affected every area of human life is full of almost limitless stories to bring to the big screen. Japan, however, has never really delved too deeply into the subject on screen. Japan in general has controversially displayed selective amnesia when it comes to this period in history, in large part due to the horrible atrocities its militaristic government orchestrated. Thus, post-war cinema in that nation usually looks to feudal era for historic inspiration. But for a few years in the 60s and 70s, several directors were willing to tackle the subject.

Curious to check out a Japanese WWII film, I got my hands on a DVD for the simply titled Battle of Okinawa, based on the last great battle of WWII. Directed by war veteran Kihachi Okamoto, it’s practically a docudrama, with much of its information culled from the memoirs of Chief of Staff Hiromichi Yahara (Tatsuya Nakadai), a rare case of a high-ranking officer who did not commit ritual suicide when faced with defeat.

One thing I was wondering was what stance Okamoto’s Battle of Okinawa would take. Would it be pro-Japanese propaganda, or perhaps a condemnation of wartime behavior? What would American soldiers be portrayed like from the other side?

Aside from inspiring Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicides, atrocities are never mentioned. As someone with a good knowledge of the Pacific War, I found it disturbing realizing that most if not all of the military characters would have been involved in rape, murder, enslavement, and the like. If there is any criticism, it is leveled at high command for failing to properly support its army, mismanaging resources, and treating its soldiers as mere cannon fodder. The film also does not portray aggressive-minded tactics in a positive light, and in fact the most interesting conflict is built around this. Chief of Staff Yahara is the voice of reason, and advocates a defensive battle taking advantage of Okinawa’s caves and hills. Theoretically this could wear down the American assault, at least keeping the enemy force stuck in a vicious battle for months. On the other side is General Isamu Cho (Tetsuro Tamba), one of the architects of the Rape of Nanking, though the film fails to mention this at all. While aware of mistakes made by high command, he himself starts to push for a grand offensive, and once he gets his wish things go really downhill. Overseeing them is their commander, Mitsuru Ushijima (Keiju Kobayashi), who I think Okamoto intended to be a calming and thoughtful figure, but ends up looking too passive and therefore too willing to go along with suicidal tactics.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a lot of little characters. This is a docudrama, so there’s no deep study of anyone’s character, but there are standouts. The Okinawan civilians come off as very sympathetic. There’s a barber who used to be in the army who has a very optimistic attitude, students who are drafted into the army, and a group of volunteer nurses, including one former prostitute who provides some genuine, though dark, humor. The film presents the Okinawans, a minority within Japan, as pro-Japanese and eager to help out their rulers. While there were doubtlessly some genuine cases, reality was far different. The civilians were often forced against their will into doing manual labor or even fighting the invaders. The Japanese military would also use them as shields, take their food, and even commit some of the same atrocities practiced on other Asian peoples. After all, Japanese culture at the time was ridiculously arrogant and demeaning towards all non-Japanese. This isn’t to say that US troops didn’t kill them either, which is shown several times in the movie. American veterans have freely admitted that thanks to the confusion of the battle and the inability to tell some civilians apart from the Japanese, they would wind up gunning down many innocents and torching their houses. Despite the film’s refusal to accurately depict Japanese-Okinawan relations, it does a good job of showing the horror as the entire island’s culture is destroyed. Up to a third of the Okinawans were killed in the three months of the battle.

Of interest is the portrayal of the American soldiers. They barely ever appear on screen, mainly because Japan doesn’t have too many white people to use. The first onscreen encounter depicts the Japanese going up against a column of tanks, with no view of their occupants. When they finally appear, almost halfway through, their faces are half-covered by helmets. Only once, when a marine is bayoneted, does the audience see a full face. This makes the Americans look like impersonal killing machines, though to be fair Japanese soldiers were often portrayed as a bunch of babbling, kill-hungry monsters by Hollywood.

If you watch this film expecting awesome battle scenes, you will be disappointed save for some splendid explosives work. Thanks to the lack of white extras and possibly budgetary problems afflicting the Japanese movie industry at the time, it’s hard to show a full-fledged battle. There is a lot of violence. Early on groups of civilians huddle around grenades and blow themselves up, with all of the survivors grabbing branches and instruments so that they can finish each other off. This is done against the film’s oddly cheerful theme, creating an eerie soundtrack dissonance. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the Japanese are presented as doing a pretty decent job of fighting the Americans until about halfway through, when Cho gets his wish and a massive offensive is launched. Naturally, the technologically superior Americans mow down tons of Japanese. From there on it’s a losing battle which culminate in a lengthy sequence of suicides, ranging from women drinking poison to officers committing seppuku to a father hacking his own son to death. Almost every character ends up dead, though thankfully Yahara, who elicits much sympathy with his competence, makes it out alive by disguising himself as an Okinawan.

Overall, I would recommend this movie to history buffs, especially those who want to see a film from the Japanese perspective. But be warned, it does nothing to acknowledge or apologize for Japan’s war crimes. It does promote a strong anti-war message and a condemnation of an insane culture of ritual suicide. Okamoto refrains from having any of the characters speechify on the horrors of ritual suicide, opting for a more faithful presentation of how they would have acted. He also lets the visuals, what’s happening on screen, show how terrible war is and why it should be avoided in the future. It’s a brutal film that, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, moves along nicely thanks to fast editing and a grim but fascinating portrayal of one of the last great battles of history.

As a Godzilla fan I have to mention a couple other things. Battle of Okinawa was produced by Toho, the same studio which runs the Godzilla franchise. Doing the special effects is Teruyoshi Nakano, famous for his pyrotechnics heavy work in the 1970s Kaiju films. Watch Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla to see what I mean. This strength was valuable for Battle of Okinawa, which features tons of explosions, the highlight being a successful Japanese attack on an American airfield. Doing the music is Masaru Sato, who did a few of the Godzilla films. The main theme for the movie was actually reworked and appropriately used as the Okinawa theme in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. Ironically, a giant monster movie actually ended up being more accurate in its depiction of Japanese-Okinawan relations, as an old man shows bitter anger towards the Japanese (but more for ancient conflicts than WWII in particular).

Final Rating: 8/10

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