I haven’t seen any other films of Fukasaku Kinji (Graveyard of Honor, Battle Royale,Yakusa Papers), so have to accept on faith that “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” (Gunki hatameku motoni, 1972) was a departure from his studio-shot, mostly yakusa movies. The movie is rather jumpy, though the handheld camerawork by Segawa Hiroshi (who shot the Teshigahara/Abe Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another) is steady, but given to frequent zooms and some odd angles. The extensive flashbacks are mostly in black-and-white, but sometimes bleed into color.
The movie is a sort of “Rashômon” attempt by the widow (Hidari Sachiko) of a sergeant (Tanba Tetsurô) who was slain on the New Guinea coast just before or just after Japan surrendered in 1945. She has been denied a military widow’s pension each year (she applies each year on the date of the surrender) and access to the emperor’s public appearance mourning the dead, because the fragmentary records indicate that Sergeant Togashi was court-martialed and executed for desertion. There is no actual record of the court martial, and survivors contacted by the Ministry of Defense did not respond to its inquies, and thus have not provoked a change of the decision to deny her recognition as a war widow.
Mrs. Togashi is not after money but feels that the spirit of her husband will not rest until she resolves what happens. She refuses to believe that he deserted under fire. Ministry officials give her the names and addresses of four survivors who did not respond to their inquiries, and she sets off to talk to them, hoping they will exonerate her husband. The five stories (the first man is reinterviewed with questions that trouble the widow from the stories she elicited after his) differ considerably (more than those in “Rashômon”).
The least credible comes from the highest officer, Major Senda (Nakamura Kan’emon), who evaded conviction of war crimes (crimes corroborated by a lieutenant who served under him) and has prospered in the postwar recovery. I can’t go into the stories Mrs Togashie is told. All except the bland lies of the major reveal the horrific condition of the Japanese troops cut off from supplies, out of ammunition, dying of starvation exacerbated by dysentery and malaria (like the Japanese soldiers in Burma in Ichikawa’s “Fire on the Plains”). Two of the stories involve cannibalism, one of these also includes maggots swarming on the cut-up human flesh. Two involve suicide. There is also a repeatedly botched decapitation of an enemy (Australian, I think) pilot, and soldiers are shot in most of the flashbacks (mostly by other Japanese). And fragging (slaying a hated, sadistic and otherwise deranged lieutenant). Indeed, the fragging stories are the closest to heroic representations in the movie.
Sgt. Togashi may have been executed, but only Major Senda claims that there was a court martial, records of which must have been lost. Mrs. Togashi does not attain peace of mind or evidence sufficient to convince the Ministry of a mistake, but seems to realize that closure and certainty are not possible from the chaos and continued self-serving representations of memories. I’d think that she gathered a stock of material for nightmares ever after and shed any hope that her husband’s spirit will be able to rest in peace.
I’ve mentioned Ichikawa’s harrowing “Fire on the Plains” (his “Burmese Harp” is not quite as bleak). “Flag” is far more harrowing than the widows’ quests in “Maborosi” or “A Very Long Engagement,” or even “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (1987), which documents a survivor of the New Guinea “front” finding “the truth of the past to be elusive” on his own round of encounters with former comrades in arms even more removed in time from the horrors of 1944-45.
English-language subtitler of “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun,” Linda Hoaglund on a commentary track and Japanese film historian Sadao Yamane in an interview provide a lot of information about Fukasaku and the film, and the bonus features include a theatrical trailer.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray