The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest of the entire war. More than 12,000 Allied servicemen were killed and nearly half, 48 percent, of U.S. servicemen that did survived suffered from "combat stress reaction," the highest rate ever recorded. The Japanese losses were even more spectacularly tragic. Roughly 66,000 soldiers were killed; only 7,000 were captured alive. But the greatest horror of those unimaginable weeks of in March-June 1945 was the civilian loss. It's estimated that 140,000 Okinawans - the elderly, women, children - died during the fighting, and a full third of those that survived were wounded.
Many of these civilians died at their own hands; so convinced by Japanese propaganda that the Americans were bloodthirsty, sex-starved savages that many committed mass suicide. Women jumped to their deaths from high cliffs, large families huddled together and blew themselves up with hand grenades provided by the Japanese military. (As the film shows, many survived the initial explosion, desperately slashing their own throats with razor blades or beat themselves unconscious in an effort to end their horrible suffering.) Others were shot by the very Japanese troops charged with protecting them, or forced them at gunpoint to commit suicide rather than surrender, though a handful of very conservative Japanese dispute this. As I write this, there is an enormous controversy here in Japan over new school textbooks that have subtly rewritten history to blur if not flat-out deny such compulsory suicides ever took place. This past September 29th, more than 100,000 outraged Okinawans, including survivors of the battle who witnessed such atrocities first-hand, staged an impromptu protest over this.
Part of the controversy and key to the Battle of Okinawa is that very early on the Japanese militarists opted to sacrifice the island so that rapidly dwindling resources could be better directed to the defense of the Japanese mainlands. Though it's only hinted at in the film, many mainland Japanese then as now tend to look down on Okinawans in a manner comparable to the poor (especially poor blacks) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Part of the problem with the film of the Battle of Okinawa is that Japan's leaders pretty much are resigned to Okinawa's fall barely 15 minutes into the film. For the next two hours and 15 minutes, the movie is a parade of endless tragedy, dramatized in the form of little vignettes, much like The Longest Day (1962) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). As in those films, there's no central character and the emphasis is on the intricacies of the battle: the strategies on both sides (though Allied troops are barely seen at all close-up), the mistakes, acts of heroism and cowardice and, this being director Okamoto's specialty, loads of tragic irony and gallows humor.
The closest the film ever comes to anything like characterization comes in the growing conflict between an increasingly mad militarist, Chief of Staff Major General Isamu (Tetsuro Tamba), and realist Senior Staff Officer Colonel Hiromichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), with low-key humanist Lt. General Ushijima (Keiju Kobayashi) caught in the middle. The Okinawan population is symbolized by a lowly volunteer barber (Kunie Tanaka), native to the island, who like much of the population is initially optimistic about the island's chances for victory but who grows increasingly fatalistic over the course of the film. Predating Steven Spielberg's much less subtle use of the same device in Schindler's List more than two decades later, a little orphaned girl is seen wandering the devastation throughout the picture; she obviously but effectively symbolizes difficult Japan's postwar future.
The once-sidedness of the battle, the lack of central protagonists, and the unrelenting grimness of the film, admirably authentic and unflinchingly violent and disturbing though it is, make it less compelling, indeed fascinating the way Japan's Longest Day is from start to finish. Battle of Okinawa is a treasure trove of minutiae for World War II buffs: the film's attention to historical detail is commendable, but as drama it's rather lacking. (Regarding the tile: the film was first released in the U.S. as The Battle of Okinawa. The DVD's onscreen title is Battle of Okinawa - A Tempestuous Annal [sic?] of the Showa Period, a translation of the full Japanese title, Gekido no Showa shi - Okinawa kessen. I prefer to translate the title as A Turning Point of Showa History - The Battle of Okinawa.)
The picture incorporates a mix of large scale (by Japanese film standards) battle scenes with extensive on-set special effects. Mixed in is a lot of World War II newsreel and other battle footage, most of it uncomfortably stretched to CinemaScope proportions from its original standard ratio screen shape, resulting in super-fat battleships and aircraft. Additionally, Toho's special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano, successor to the late Eiji Tsuburaya (who died the pervious year) provides limited but very impressive miniature and optical effects, notably extreme aerial shots looking down on the island as Allied ships and planes close in. These are unusually convincing; most viewers probably won't even notice that they are miniatures.
Other production aspects are top-notch. Beyond's Okamoto's excellent direction, which likes to focus in on little, telling details in cutaway close-ups, there's Masaru Sato's superb score. Fans of the Toho's Godzilla films will instantly recognize that several of Sato's main cues were carried over note-for-note for use in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), also set on Okinawa.
Video & Audio
AnimEigo has been extremely hit or miss with its Toho live action releases. The company's Samurai Assassin (1965), another Okamoto title, was an out-of-focus disaster of a transfer, totally unwatchable. Last spring's Shinsengumi wasn't much better; that transfer suffered from extreme combing-type defects. Battle of Okinawa at least looks great. The 16:9 transfer maintains the original CinemaScope screen shape, and the colors are good and the image impressively sharp. (A high-def transfer was done in Japan and the impressive results aired on NHK's high-def channel.) Oddly, the film retains its original title card but offers no other credits (nor does AnimEigo provide translated ones at the end of the presentation, as is their norm), which wasn't the case in the high-def version.
Unfortunately, the mono sound is appalling. Listening to the film, it brought back memories for this reviewer of 25 years ago when I used to watch Super-8 sound movies (including many features) on my old Canon projector, with the mechanical whirring of that machine dominating the room. The battle scenes almost drown this defect out, but during quiet moments the buzz is almost deafening. It's not clear whether Toho provided AnimEigo with a defective master or if they screwed up in the authoring, but in any case this definitely should not have been released the way it is. It's a problem that demands correction. If anyone at AnimEigo would like to make a comment about this problem and how it happened and what their plans are regarding replacement discs, I'll be happy to report it here.
Extras include an image gallery, program notes (more historical-based than cinema history), and a trailer.
Battle of Okinawa is a flawed but still very worthwhile film, especially for war buffs, and the picture is extremely well made if so fatalistic that it becomes dramatically moribund. The picture looks good but the sound is inexcusably bad, and that alone may keep some interested parties away and, until a corrected version comes along, I'm compelled to advise viewers to Skip It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.