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We culturally isolated Americans are afforded a good look at a big scale Japanese war epic in 1971's Battle of Okinawa, a color and TohoScope account of the doomed defense of the island. Director Kihachi Okamoto's movie is a companion piece to his earlier B&W Japan's Longest Day, which covered the fascinating events surrounding Emperor Hirohito's surrender a few months later in 1945.
Okamoto again concentrates on the facts and refrains from making emotional or political statements. Although the Japanese military is on the defensive, the movie doesn't express outrage against the American onslaught. What it does demonstrate is that the misery and carnage suffered by the defenders turned Okinawa into a veritable Hell. 1
Battle of Okinawa is a complicated story extremely well told. Second-guessing from headquarters in Tokyo ruins the head general's defense plan. The only way to win is to go on the offensive, but with no aircraft or Navy support all attempts to meet the Americans head-on result in disaster. Bad planning allows the invaders to consolidate their beachheads, when Japanese cannons could have given them the same bloody reception that had been effective on Iwo Jima. The Americans quickly split the island in two and disrupt enemy communications. From that point on the Japanese have only the island's caves to protect them from constant bombs and shelling.
Director Okamoto enlivens the epic with scores of interesting character sketches. Top stars Tetsuro Tamba and Tatsuya Nakadai play officers with a strong difference of opinion on how to confront the Americans. It's obvious that neither of their ideas will result in success. The big general (Keiju Kobayashi) mostly sits in quiet contemplation, accepting the fact that horrible things cannot be avoided. We follow the fortunes of an entire range of secondary characters, from ordinary foot soldiers to a prostitute-turned volunteer nurse. Okinawa's governor appeals for the army to protect the civilians but the commander can do nothing.
A doctor runs a gory field hospital in a cave, assisted by an army of dedicated teenage girls. Other young women must be bound hand and foot to keep them from charging onto the battlefield to "kill Americans." Entire brigades are formed from untrained boy soldiers, who are mowed down like so much cannon fodder. A civilian becomes the barber for the officers, not knowing that a bomb has killed his wife. We periodically see his lost child wandering amid ruins and bloody corpses, not unlike the little girl in Schindler's List.
This Japanese war epic differs from many American combat films by not affecting a sense of personal outrage. 1960's Hell to Eternity takes place on Okinawa. Jeffrey Hunter's Marine watches helplessly as the Japanese bayonet his wounded, screaming best buddy. Hunter's reaction is to go on a "justified" manic killing spree. It's not much different from the blood lust in older John Wayne combat films, in which all Japanese opposition to the Marines or the Seabees was presented as a treacherous war crime. Battle of Okinawa shows both sides using whatever murderous advantage they can muster. Nobody makes a distinction between active combatants and the wounded; white flags don't count for much either. The Japanese carry swords for close fighting but the Marines are much better armed. The Americans have a 5-to-1 fighting superiority, so the outcome is never in doubt.
Battle of Okinawa examines in detail the disturbing Japanese attitude toward combat suicide, the will to self-destruction rather than surrender. Although he is told to avoid the 'death pact' scenario, the commander sets an example by killing himself in a formal ceremony. His top aide follows suit immediately thereafter, setting off a wave of spontaneous suicides. Troops charge enemy machine guns or blow themselves up with grenades. Volunteer nurses poison their patients and then take poison themselves or use grenades given them by soldiers. Warned that the Americans will rape and slaughter civilians, women and old men blow themselves and their children to bits, with wounded survivors beating each other to death. Some of this is horrific, but at least one mass suicide is treated as a solemn ritual. Nobody offers a shout of 'Banzai' or the like before dying. Combined with the knowledge that mass Kamikaze strikes against American ships were occurring at the same time, it's all very nightmarish. 2
Battle of Okinawa's attention to historical detail is impressive. Narration and B&W stock shots are enhanced by excellent special effects that show aerial views of fleets of ships on the move and waves of airplanes in the skies. Only in close combat do we see any American soldiers. At one point we hear but do not see an American soldier shouting in Japanese, telling civilians to come out of hiding. We assume that he's supposed to be the famous Guy Gabaldon of Hell to Eternity.
AnimEigo's DVD of Battle of Okinawa is an enhanced transfer with good color. Some scenes are grainy but overall the picture is more than satisfactory. Director Okamoto's battle scenes play well and we never think that the action is being presented on too small a scale -- as happens in parts of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima movies. Even better are AnimEigo's exacting English subtitle translations, which take the time to define unfamiliar jargon and the context they suggest.
Unfortunately, the disc has a flawed audio track. A loud buzz accompanies the opening logo, and although it lowers to a hum for the rest of the movie it is always there ... it's as big a distraction as the 60-cycle droning put out by old 16mm projectors. In his excellent DVDTalk review, Stuart Galbraith IV assures us that clean audio does exist for the film and recommends that viewers avoid the disc. Having put up with many substandard presentations to see desired movies, I'm not in total agreement with that. Battle of Okinawa's soundtrack is much less annoying than, for instance, MGM's distorted, headache-inducing tracks for The Thief of Bagdad and Duel in the Sun.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Battle of Okinawa rates:
1. In 1979 I saw a Japanese color feature about the last remaining defense squadrons trying in vain to stop B-29s from bombing Tokyo. (Stuart Galbraith probably knows exactly what this movie was.) The silver Boeings fly untouched high above the ceiling of Japanese fighters, and the film takes the attitude that attacking the Japanese mainland is an atrocious war crime. In one patriotic scene, a little kid stands on a fence and shouts at the sky, "Stay away from my country!" Battle of Okinawa is all the stronger for its avoidance of emotional appeals.
2. This aspect of the Okinawan defense is still highly debated in Japan, where some historical revisionists refuse to acknowledge that the Army encouraged civilians to kill themselves. War is obscene savagery, yet nationalists insist on emphasizing its glory.
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