Director Kihachi Okamoto is best known in the west for his jidai-geki and chanbara, violent swordplay dramas like The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968). But except for Samurai (aka Samurai Assassin, 1965), Okamoto's period films are actually among his weakest. After Akira Kurosawa left Toho Studios in 1965 for what he thought would be greener pastures in America, the company tried to mold Okamoto as his successor.
But while Okamoto's penchant for black humor would seem like a good match for Yojimbo-like chanbara, his sensibilities were better suited to crime films like The Age of Assassins (1967) and war movies such as Desperado Outpost (1959) and Human Bullet (1968), which are among his best works. Japan's Longest Day (Nippon no ichiban nagai hi, 1967), first released abroad under the basically meaningless title The Emperor and a General, was another prestigious project Toho dumped on Okamoto; it was to be the studio's big 35th Anniversary production.
But this time Okamoto fared better than he had with Toho's samurai dramas. Though it generally lacks the director's trademark black humor, Japan's Longest Day, about the 24 hours leading up to the Emperor's radio broadcast announcing Japan's surrender, is dripping with the kind of tragic irony in which he excelled. Though perhaps a little too densely intricate in its historical details for foreign tastes, this is probably Okamoto's best film.
The picture begins with a whirlwind prologue putting the 24 hours to be dramatized into context and introducing most of the key players. In the wake of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's leaders mull over the Potsdam Declaration, and after much deliberation turn to Emperor Hirohito (Koshiro Matsumoto) to make a final decision. He declares his desire to avoid an Allied land invasion and spare his subjects any further suffering. Though War Minister Korechika Anami (Toshiro Mifune) opposes surrender, loyalty to his emperor supersedes everything else.
However, a group of militant zealots (Toshio Kurosawa, Tadao Nakamaru, Makoto Sato, and Akira Kubo, later joined by Etsushi Takahashi), part of the emperor's own Imperial Guard, regard Japan's leaders as cowards who have taken advantage of the emperor at "a weak moment" and plan a coup d'etat to isolate Him while at the same time hoping their cause will quickly spread among the armed forces.** Key to their plan is preventing the broadcast of the emperor's pre-recorded message to the Japanese people, scheduled for 12:00 noon on August 15, 1945.
Japan's Longest Day is a terrific film. Needless to say, we already know how the story ends, but Okamoto and screenwriter Shinobu (Seven Samurai, Harakiri) Hashimoto, adapting Soichi Oya and Kazutoshi Hando's "non-fiction novel" about a lesser-known but real historical incident, builds palpable tension through deliberately-paced, believable character development and the general bureaucratic and military chaos amidst Japan's fall. When the situation finally turns violent a little more than halfway through the film it's very powerful because the foundation for its unleashing has been so carefully built. (Hashimoto's screenplay rightly won the Kinema Jumpo prize that year.)
Almost 40 years later, the film's graphic but dramatically justified violence is still surprising (and, for those interested in such things, it offers what is probably screendom's best hara-kiri/seppuku ever).
Though top-billed, Toshiro Mifune's War Minister is just one facet in a collage of dramatic incidents, his character initially, stubbornly at odds with Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai (So Yamamura) about furthering the war effort. Mostly Mifune's character functions as a kind of modern-day samurai, a man true to bushido until the very end yet wise enough to ultimately put his emperor's wishes and Japan's interests ahead of all else, and hopeful about his country's future.
The film was a prestigious production for Toho and features virtually every actor under contract, as well as respected stage actors like Kabuki star Koshiro Matsumoto as Emperor Hirohito. This was the first film ever to depict in dramatic terms a sitting Japanese emperor, and just how to photograph the man once regarded as a god was resolved by obscuring his face, resulting in some initially awkward camera angles that eventually work in the film's favor. For one thing, the round-face Matsumoto looked nothing like the thin, mousy Hirohito, but more importantly to imagine his appearance, much as the Japanese population did as they stood in unison to listen to his message, ultimately is a plus.
The best performances come from Chishu Ryu, the aging father of many an Ozu film, as Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki. Ryu's Prime Minister appears outwardly ineffectual but over the course of the film it becomes apparent that he's much shrewder than he first appears and capable of asserting himself when the need arises. Susumu Fujita (Sanshiro Sugata) and Kenjiro Ishiyama (Bos'n in High and Low) have good moments as middle-rank officers outraged by the uprising, while perennial Toho genre villain Tadao Nakamaru has probably the best role of his career as the most methodical of the rebels. Though by western standards Toshio Kurosawa's wild-eyed militarist may seem over-the-top, to everyone's credit all five of the coup's leaders have distinctive, complex personalities.
The impressive cast also includes heavyweights Takashi Shimura, Yunosuke Ito, Daisuke Kato, Jun Tazaki, Nobuo Nakamura, Michiyo Aratama (as the film's lone female character), Hisashi Igawa, Takeshi Kato, Yuzo Kayama, Keiju Kobayashi, and Koji Mitsui. (Tatsuya Nakadai narrates.) Skeletal Hideyo "Eisei" Amamoto, a longtime favorite of the director, has a very Okamoto-esque part as the crazed leader of a misbegotten Yokohama contingent intent on killing the Prime Minister - only they can't seem to find him.
The picture is crammed with fascinating vignettes, from the various government ministers weeping en masse at the emperor's declaration that Japan should surrender, to those highlighting little details throughout. Especially good are the revealing cabinet meetings where decisions about if and how to surrender get bogged down in minutiae about the terms of surrender and very typical Japanese deliberation, steeped in such ceremony and mass-indecision that the entire country is put at risk. This comes to a head when the official calligrapher (Yutaka Sada, the chauffer in High and Low) tries to rush through a draft of the surrender in artful kanji only to be told repeatedly of last-minute changes. No computers or copy machines back then.
The film was a big hit, the second-highest grossing domestic film that year and fifth overall, and placed third on Kinema Jumpo's "Best Ten" list.
Video & Audio
AnimEigo's handsome presentation of Japan's Longest Day is 16:9 enhanced preserving the film's excellent Toho Scope photography. The black and white film is brighter than the rather dark masters previously released in Japan home video versions. Overall an excellent transfer. The Japanese mono track is fine, while the English subtitles are very good with intelligent use of multi-colored text so that viewers can better follow some of the faster-paced dialogue and differentiate between spoken words and names, titles, and place names often supered over the action. When first shown in America Japan's Longest Day received mixed reviews, and undoubtedly this was partly due to inadequate subtitles, which this DVD rectifies. Full and Limited Subtitles are offered.
A 16:9 Trailer is included, along with trailers for other AnimEigo titles. A spoiler-filled Image Gallery is likewise 16:9 and fairly extensive, but the photos look small even on big TVs and, in a bad move, are overlapped, one atop the other. However, AnimEigo gets big points for making its Program Notes (more like annotations) easier to sift through.
Only 22 years had passed between Japan's "Longest Day" and the release of Okamoto's film - that's like making a film today about events in 1984. The last days of the war were still fresh in the minds of many Japanese, a country decimated by its own militarism, by Allied fire-bombing and the dropping of the atomic bombs, and a country terrified of an uncertain postwar world.
**This contradiction, obeying one's all-powerful emperor's wishes unless you disagree with him, continues to play out in 2006 with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's notorious visits to Yasukuni Shrine against the current Emperor's publicly expressed wishes that he not do so.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.