Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
AnimEigo brings to Region 1 a superlative historical thriller, the true-life story of the final 24 hours before Emperor Hirohito broadcast his government's decision to surrender to the Allies, and thus end World War 2. Despite the title, the film has more in common with Tora! Tora! Tora! than it does with The Longest Day. Japan's surrender is an even more humiliating defeat than Pearl Harbor was for America, as large segments of the country could not imagine capitulation as anything less than the End of the World.
Toho's Japan's Longest Day is a sprawling epic starring practically every adult male Japanese actor in the studio directories. It builds slowly but surely to an exciting and violent coup attempt that makes us forget what the final outcome became. Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima chronicle Flags of Our Fathers is due for release this Fall, and this film makes excellent viewing for those interested in more historical context.
August 14, 1945: Both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs have fallen. The Japanese government tries to shake free of its illusions long enough to decide whether to accept or reject the Potsdam Declaration, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. The Emperor and his top civilian ministers want to cease hostilities immediately, to spare Japan millions more deaths on top of the millions it has already suffered. But the navy and army ministers ( Sô Yamamura and Toshirô Mifune) try to persuade the Emperor to reject the Allied terms in the belief that the nation has already chosen to fight to the death on Japanese soil. Meanwhile, the army staff and a teenage home defense battalion in Yokohama, convinced that 'cowardly' politicians have swayed the Emperor, fly into a militaristic, suicidal furor. As the ministers and military chiefs debate fine print in the official response, army officers plot to overthrow the Imperial guard. The Yokohama troops rush to Tokyo with the intention of assassinating as many government ministers as they can find!
American invasion planners were convinced that the Japanese military, which had controlled foreign and domestic policy for ten years, would never surrender, and that millions of American lives would be lost in the taking of the home islands. Japan's Longest Day uses expert narrative juggling to show how this almost comes about. We follow seven or eight story strands in the countdown to the historic Imperial address, the first time the Japanese people had ever heard Emperor Hirohito's voice.
In government chambers, the civilian ministers argue that the country can not longer resist, and that the Russians are sweeping through Manchuria and Korea intent on grabbing as much Japanese territory as they can before a surrender. The military sees the end of the warrior state of Japan as the end of Japan, period. Rather than have its Emperor -- worshipped as a deity -- subjugated to foreigners, the military argues that it is better for the nation to be utterly wiped out.
The army minister (Mifune) is eventually forced to bend to the Imperial decision for surrender, but he cannot stem the emotional reaction of his command, all of which seem to be under 40. Some gnash their teeth or burst into tears, and even the most rational believes that the officer corps' only recourse is to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. As it turns out, overeager young officers 'accidentally' assassinate the commander of the Imperial Guard, and then decide to usurp his office, forging orders to surround the palace and arrest the ministers. A couple of local commanders accept the new orders but the rebels cannot make other top army commanders budge. The army minister, for instance, has sequestered himself at home to commit suicide the old-fashioned way. His intention seems to be to take all the guilt on himself, thus freeing his officers to find a future in a non-military occupied Japan.
The tension climbs as the rebels try to locate and destroy the fresh phonograph recordings of the Emperor's surrender speech. They ransack the Imperial residence, trashing rooms and ruining ritual garments and objects that are probably sacred. When that search fails, one of the rebel ringleaders goes to a radio station and aims his pistol at the head of a broadcaster, demanding to be put on the air to explain his actions and confess his treasonous mistake. Unfortunately for him, the "Colonel Blimp"- like commander of the local army has already put a freeze on wildcat radio broadcasts. Meanwhile, a truckload of clueless high school cadets commanded by a genuine maniac attack the private residences of cabinet ministers with the aim of killing as many of them as possible. It's the Japanese equivalent of Seven Days in May: A modern government being overthrown by feudal methods.
Japan's Longest Day is given careful direction by Okamoto Kihachi, a prestige Toho director not well known in the United States. His B&W CinemaScope blocking is fine, as is his handling of the exposition-laden script by Shinobu Hashimoto. Kihachi always blocks the face of the actor playing the Emperor, in a gesture of respect to Hirohito.
Almost a half hour plays out before the film's main title appears. Re-formatted stock footage is used to illustrate the utter devastation brought to Japan by high-level strategic bombing. Hundreds of thousands have died in firestorms and dozens of cities have burned literally to the ground, two of them obliterated completely by the "new super-bomb." With millions of soldiers and civilians dead, the military still wants to fight. Curiously, none of the barracks or government buildings seen in the film appear to have been affected by the bombing, which adds to the feeling that the officers are in denial in regard to their country's ability to resist.
Tora! Tora! Tora!, the story of Pearl Harbor, is an unending parade of mistakes and blunders in the US government and military that denied American movie fans their Feel-Good Fix of war glory. Japan's Longest Day doesn't do that at all; it's about Lost Causes, not Stupid Mistakes. The question of what or who got Japan into its 1945 debacle isn't a part of the story; what we see instead is a uniformly honorable effort to do the right thing. With the exception of the foolhardy young rebels, the military isn't obsessed with its own glory; Mifune's Warrior for All Seasons suggests that loyal officers obligated to go down fighting should become useful policemen in the occupation that will follow. Mifune, of course, goes the noble route and undergoes a breathtakingly extreme death ritual right out of the 15th century. The statesmen are sincere and the Emperor's Chamberlains honest fellows who have difficulty closing the steel shutters on the windows (the palace is surrounded by machine guns) because they've rusted: They were left open even during the air raids. Never is it implied that any wrongdoing can be associated with the war effort. Is this historical blindness, or a more mature appraisal of political reality?
The movie doesn't judge the behavior of the young and hotheaded officers driven to violent rebellion, leaving audiences free to sympathize if if they so wish. Only the raving leader of the student corps is held up to scorn. One of the flying commanders sends Kamikazes off in hopeless death missions and has no intention of surrendering, an attitude the film both honors and endorses.
The acting is fine. Mifune is the star, of course, but the cast includes a long list of familiar faces: Chisu Ryu, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai (narrating), Sô Yamamura, Jun Tazaki, Nobuo Nakamura and many others. Helpful subtitles allow us to keep locations, people and ranks straight -- a great asset in a film as complicated as this one.
AnimEigo's DVD of Japan's Longest Day is a good enhanced transfer of this visually restrained picture. The widescreen is essential, as a pan-scanned copy would be impossible to follow. As enthusiastic as ever about helping to interpret Japanese cinema, Animego has two levels of English subtitles -- the second adds some definitions and clarifications of arcane terminology.
The extras support the film with detailed program notes, explaining the Potsdam Declaration and carefully delineating the historical and military context at the time of Japan's defeat. A still gallery and trailers are icing on the cake.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Japan's Longest Day rates:
Supplements: Text program notes, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson