Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kinji Fukasaku's yakuza and youth-shock films (Battle Royale) can be called violent escapism,
but Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is a serious film about the ugly injustice of war that
makes other protests about corrupt martial systems that condone official misdeeds seem weak. American
movies about WW2 don't have to take into account situations confronted by the Japanese. With their
armies cut off on Pacific islands, thousands upon thousands of Japanese soldiers were left to starve.
Order broke down and in some cases cannibalism occurred.
right to the heart of the issue by saying that looking for honor and righteousness in war deeds
is an exercise in futility. Trying to get an unjustly executed man restored to a position of honor
means forgiving them all, the good and bad alike. Either that, or one has to charge them all with
murder. Neither choice is acceptable.
26 years after the surrender, Army widow Sakie Togashi (Sachiko Hidari) is denied
compensation or respect for her husband Sergeant Katsuo Togashi (Tetsuro Tamba) because an unreliable
military record lists him as a deserter. The pension officials give her a list of names of men who
served with her husband, a sergeant. She travels to Tokyo and listens to their accounts to piece
together what really happened in the last few days of the war. The real story of her husband's fate
is more horrible than she can imagine.
Fukasaku investigates incidents a quarter of a century old by sending a weary war widow on a
quest not unlike the search for Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Just as Orson Welles' newspaper
reporters found larger mysteries about Charles Foster Kane, Mrs. Togashi encounters a web of
misinformation. It slowly parts, but the truth it reveals gives her no peace.
Mrs. Togashi still speaks personally to her lost sweetheart and yearns for closure to his story, which she
thinks will be a relatively simple task. Instead she learns the truth of the war, a
truth almost forgotten in the transformed industrial landscape of 1972.
Her first witness, Private Tsuguo Terajima, is a broken man who dwells in a trash dump. He's never
gotten over what happened and has lived as an unemployable hermit ever since. His face carries a shame
that he dare not share with Mrs. Togashi, at least not at first.
The second witness is an actor, Tomotaka Akiba. He does a comedy skit about a silly soldier who thinks the
war is still on. The audience is encouraged to shout out what they think. Younger men shout
"We lost," but a middle-aged man raises his arms and yells, "We won!" In his dressing room, the
actor details the horrors that ensued when order broke down on an East Indies island. He describes the chaos
of starving men and collapsing morale that led to depths of behavior nobody wants to remember. Officers
and men stole food, desertions were common, and some soldiers turned to cannibalism.
The third witness, Corporal Noboyuki Ochi is an ex- military policeman blinded by bad liquor that circulated
in Japan after the war. He introduces the dispiriting idea that Sergeant Togashi was killed by a firing
squad for desertion - but claims that he did not officiate.
(spoiler) Fourth witness Lieutenant Tadahiko Ohashi is now a university professor. He talks to Mrs.
Togashi while students erect anti-American protest banners. He has objective knowledge of Sergeant
Togashi's case, which has been kept almost completely secret. Ohashi's truth not only turns out to be more
horrible than ever, it implicates the first two witnesses as partially guilty parties. But the
real culprits were a fanatic home guard officer whose actions forced Sergeant Togashi to rebel, and
Major Takeo Senda, who cruelly used his authority to execute men without courts-martial after
the surrender, when he had no authority to do so. Before she's through Mrs. Togashi confronts Senda as
well, and finds a retired fat-cat hiding gross crimes behind what he keeps referring to as "a model
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is a searingly honest movie on a deadly serious subject. Japan's
stance regarding WW2 is much the same as any country's situation when trying to deal with a controversial past.
The majority wants to forgive, forget and sweep any untidy problems (and the people attached to them)
under the carpet. Other voices realize that the 'honorable silence' about the past perpetuates lies not
only about the particular war situation, but about war itself.
There are no innocent parties, only victims. By the rule book, Mrs. Togashi's husband broke military law and
committed atrocities, along with thousands of other soldiers who had to do so to survive. That Imperial Army
officers assigned blame under these conditions and executed men in the name of honor and morale is obscene.
Not only did the Army staff treat their soldiers as expendable, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun shows
officers hoarding the available food while letting mad-dog fanatic junior officers loose on the men. Sergeant
Katsuo Togashi has to strike back against one murderous officer, just to survive.
This is a Japanese movie that shows the barbaric Army practice of executing captured Allied soldiers as
a matter of course. It's just the kind of behavior that was routine for both sides, yet is
forgotten in war celebrations that pretend that soldiers always conducted themselves honorably.
(spoiler) Everyone one keeps telling Mrs. Togashi to "get over it," and after learning of unbelievable horrors
and the despicable behavior of men she doesn't believe to be evil, we see her giving up her dream of restoring
her husband's honor. There is no justice to be found and no honor to be celebrated; the weak suffer and
the rich are able to maintain illusions about "honorable war records." When we last see Mrs. Togashi, she's
walking among dozens of anonymous people on the street.
We're told in the DVD extras that Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is where Kinji Fukasaku first started
experimenting with hand-held camera work. The independent production came about from his directing the
Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! The half-documentary feel is much more impressive here than
in Fukusaku's Yakuza epics. Characters are introduced with frozen frame title cards
and flashbacks are mostly in B&W except for emotional climaxes. A lot of use is made of still frames. Real
footage of Emperor Hirohito officiating at a war memorial is integrated without editorial comment. Fukasaku
succeeds in imparting a strong documentary feel.
Sachiko Hidari is said to be the wife of a famous director, and Tetsuro Tamba is one of the better-known
Japanese actors in the West, having played a major role in the Bond film
You Only Live Twice. All of the acting is
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun plays like an alternate history of Japan behind the Official
Success Story. I would imagine that it is considered controversial over there - in other words,
marginalized and ignored the same as American protest films. This is by far the best Kinji Fukasaku film
Savant has yet seen.
Note: There are some non-exploitative but strong images of cannibalism in the film. They're nothing
compared to the film's overall sense of outrage.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is a stunning enhanced widescreen
transfer of excellent materials. Audio is clear and the English subtitles easy to follow.
Subtitle translator and Fukasaku expert Linda Hoaglund voices a thoughtful and educational commentary
track that covers both filmic and historical aspects of the show, one of the few films that began with
Fukasaku purchasing book rights. Fukasaku scholar Yamane Sadao provides an interview featurette covering
the show's place in the director's career. There is also a trailer; liner notes by Tom Mes refer almost
exclusively to the film's historical context.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun rates:
Supplements: Commentary by subtitle writer Linda Hoaglund, interview segment with Yamane
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 6, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson