Tag Archives: WWII

The Best World War II dramas about combatants

There are a very large number of movies set in and around the Second World War, including the various holocaust/Jewish survival movies such as

The Shop on Main Street (directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Europa, Europa (directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

Misa’s Fugue (directed by Sean Gaston, 2012)

Opansi put (directed by Mate Reija, 1963)

Schindler’s List (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman, 2008)

Higher Principle (directed by Jiri Krejic, 1960)

Devils on the Doorstep (directed by Jian Wen, 2000)

The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens, 1959)

The Cranes Are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

The Seventh Cross (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1944)

 

and many about the traumas of war on civilians, including

Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément, 1952)

Two Women (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1961)

Malèna (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000)

Au revoir, les enfants (1987), and Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle

Empire of the Sun (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1987)

Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler, 1942)

Hope and Glory (directed by John Boorman, 1987)

Army (1944), Port of Blossoms (1943 and 24 Eyes (1954) (directed by Kinoshita Keisuke)

The Fifth Seal (directed by Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Grave of the Fireflies (anime directed by Takahata Isao, 1988)

Don’t Cry, Peter (directed by France Stiglic, 1964)

plus Night of the Shooting Stars (the Taviani brothers, 1982), also involving confused noncombatant males in an Italian village,

This Land Is Mine (directed by Jean Renoir, 1943) with a French coward finding courage,

Hangmen Also Die (directed by Fritz Lang, 1943) with a Czech family

Closely Watched Trains (directed by Jirí Menzel, 1966) with a young Czech rising to the occasion and sabotage

Written Off (directed by Aleksander Djordevic, 1974)

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (directed by Louis Malle, 1987)

Hiroshima, Mon Amout (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959)

and some Chinese films with longer historical arcs, even though the war there began earlier than in Europe (and Siberiade, which also has a long temporal span)

 

I have also excluded prisoner camp/escape movies such as

Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “A Man Escapes” (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut)

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

King Rat

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Railway Man

 

I have excluded these war-related genres and also movies focused on commanders such as Rommel (The Desert Fox) and Patton, and those involving Humphrey Bogart reluctantly getting involved (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not) to focus on dramas centering on combatants (air, land, and sea). I am saving comedies for another list.

My final prefatory note is that I am well aware that the three of the four most recent entries of my list all have some vociferous detractors. There are bases for criticism, though the vehemence with which some have been pressed puzzle me.

(15) Like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Enemy of the Gate” (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starts by throwing the audience into the chaos of war, in this case the German attack on Stalingrad. The terror of the evacuees is compellingly portrayed, but a hero is needed. In the rather unlikely person of the almost-too-handsome Jude Law as a shepherd from the Ural Mountains, one is manufactured. The propaganda machine is nearly as much of a focus in the movie as is the duel of wits between the Soviet champion Vassily Zaitsev (Law) and an aristocratic German officer sent to eliminate him, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Both are superb marksmen, so the duel ultimately depends not on their marksmanship but on information. Gabriel Thomson’s Sasha is insufficiently realized, and I think that the rivalry for Tania.(Rachel Weisz) between private solider Zaitsev and officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is his de facto publicist, is a distraction. Bob Hoskins’s scenery-chewing Kruschev is not a distraction, because the considerations of building a hero to rally the people of Russia is absolutely central (in both Soviet and Nazi warmakers’ views). The cinematography and set construction would be hard to fault.

(14) The great American poet of violence, Sam Peckinpah, also directed a duel within an army movie. From the title, “Cross of Iron,” it is obvious that the army is the German one. It has Maxmillian Schell was the well-connected, vainglorious captain sending a subordinate who sees through him, is considerably more competent and cares about his men (James Coburn) to be eliminated. (James Mason is quite unlike Lee Marvin as the colonel in command, however.) In my view, it drags often and is inferior to “Attack!” The movie about Germans I’m including is the ultimate submarine movie Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in. I have not seen the director’s cut, and my memory of seeing the movie in its theatrical release in 1981 is hazy. Human beings in a small underwater metal tube commanded by a savvy professional not wrapped up in Nazi ideology is also on view in “The Enemy Below.” The focus of “Das Boot” is entirely on the German sailors. If I remembered it better or watched the director’s cut, it would probably make my list.

(13) The earliest Hollywood movie that I’ve seen that shows some real agony rather than the “natural” triumph of the American military in WWII is William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The ersatz heartiness of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and some sentimentality of his narration (and the mascot dog) slightly undercut the gritty realism. There is the usual wide range of American types thrown together and Robert Mitchum as a brave and resourceful and caring lieutenant (later promoted to captain) whose unit the famous correspondent keeps finding in the Italian campaign. (The cast was heavily populated by recent G.I.s and war correspondents playing themselves.) The pace seems slow after decades of subsequent WWII movies, but the grand-daddy remains moving in my opinion. I find it more realistic and less sentimental than John Huston’s documentary “The Battle of San Pietro,” noting that it was heavily censored—and the combat scenes staged/recreated. And less sentimental than John Ford’s “Battle of Midway,” the other heralded US combat documentary from the war.)

(12) That Clint Eastwood shot a movie almost entirely in Japanese is pretty astounding. That it is very good is not astounding. I think that in general he should empower an editor to prune his movies, though I didn’t feel this about “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi  (Ken Watanabe) tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top three slots on my list!)

(11) The concluding piece of a trilogy, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has haunting scenes of a bombed-out church, a chase, and a liaison formed near the end of combat in Poland. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic young actor whose early death cemented his reputation as “the Polish James Dean.” It has some slow stretches, but is very visually striking. The preceding (1957) “Kanal” set largely in the sewers of Warsaw as the Red Army waits for the Nazis to kill off rebels is also very impressive. (The First, “A Generation” [1955} is about Nazi-occupied Poland, but not about combatants.)

(10) Terrence Malik’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line (199) by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity and the great Fred Zinneman film, though about soldiers and ending with the Japanese attack on Hawaiian military installations on Dec. 7. 1941 I don’t consider a World War II novel or film) is also very visually striking with some slow stretches that seem like dawdling for those seeking nonstop action sequences. Using different techniques than Spielberg’s in “Saving Private Ryan,” Malik plunges the viewer into ground-level action (and the pauses with death continuing to lurk). It also contains revelatory performances by James Caviezel as Private Witt and Sean Penn as Sergeant Welsh.

(9) Stephen Spielberg’s many detractors level the charge of sentimentality at the last part of Saving Private Ryan (1999), too. The Omaha Beach landing in it is the most compelling part and far superior to depictions in other movies (such as “The Longest Day” and “The Big Red One”), and it juxtaposes intense action scenes with genuine character development, including Matt Damon’s title character’s, Jeremy Davies’s clerk, and Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.

(8) I think the best WWII straight-ahead heroic action flick is The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1961. Based on a hugely successful novel by Alistair MacLean (who also wrote Ice Station Zebra and The Eagle Has Landed, both of which were turned into less memorable action movies). Gregory Peck was at his most strong, laconic, and  heroic, leading a motley crew on a seemingly impossible mission (to neutralize the title artillery on a Nazi fortress on an Aegean island). Anthony Quinn was flamboyant and ethnic (Greek), David Niven was wry (maybe even flippant) as an explosives expert. Both were in top form in their specialties. I have not included the later, somewhat similar raid by “The Dirty Dozen” directed by Robert Aldrich, despite the performance by Lee Marvin, mostly out of repugnance for a mission to incinerate civilians, which even wives of German officers and local French prostitutes were.

(7) Robert Aldrich’s Attack! is primarily a duel movie, though the duel is between American army (reserve) officers, the politically well-connected cowardly captain played by Eddie Albert and the seething lieutenant played by Jack Palance, who promises to come back and rip out the captain’s heart if he again fails to provide support for a platoon sent into the lion’s mouth. The combat scenes are excellent, and both the interior and exterior black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Biroc are notable, but it is the performances of Albert, Palance, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Lee Marvin that make the movie, overcoming some lame attempts at comic relief and an ending I find difficult to credit. I also think that Aldrich’s sardonic 1970 “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson is very good and undeservedly forgotten.

(6) In my view, one of the best WWII action movies is the little-heralded 1965 John Frankenheimer movie The Train. I enjoy movies about duels of wits (such as The Enemy Below, Enemy at the Gate) and this one features a formidable German officer played by Paul Scofield and a resourceful French railroad controller played by Burt Lancaster. It has great railroad sequences, including a real crash. The DVD has a fascinating commentary track by John Frankenheimer (who reported that Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts). Jeanne Moreau needlessly slows things down, but Lancaster and Scofield are superb, as is the black-and-white cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

(5) Although the glamorous fly-boys are more a staple of movies about World War I than about World War II, and about the Korean War than World War II, they are not lacking altogether. The Air Force entry on my list, however, goes to one that does not glamorize. Twelve o’clock High (1949), one of the many movies starring Gregory Peck that was directed by Henry King. Peck plays a hard-driving general (with the unsbubtle name Savage) whipping into a shape a demoralized unit and pushing himself to breakdown. The supporting players, including Dean Jagger’s that got him a well-deserved Oscar, are convincing, but it is Peck who makes “Twelve o’clock High” a masterpiece.

(Peck also anchored “Pork Chop Hill” the greatest American-made Korean war movie. And he carried the unjustly forgotten “The Purple Plain” as well.)

(4) Roberto Rosselini’s Paisà[/n] is more uneven than “Twelve o’clock High.” It portrays a series of episodes in different locales from Sicily to the Po River estuary as the American Army pushed the German one north through Italy. The focus is more on relationships between the American troops and the Italians being liberated (but in dire straits) than about American-German combat and might be consigned to the “effects on civilians” subgenre. The battle scenes in the marshes are very unusual, though the most memorable sequence involves an African American MP and a desperately poor young boy who steals his boots when the MP passes out drunk in the rubble of Naples.

(2 and 3) Some of Rosselini’s film has a documentary look, some is actorly. Most of the movies on my list get down and dirty. The top spot goes to two very extreme (hyper-real?) 1950s movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) and The Harp of Burma (Biruma no tategoto, 1956). “Fires” portrays the desperation of Japanese soldiers on the Philippines at the end of the war, a tubercular one (Tamura, indelibly portrayed by Eiji Funakoshi) in particular, and “Harp” a haunted Japanese solider (the lute-playing Mizushima, portrayed by Shôji Yasui) burying the dead in Burma after failing to convince a company of his compatriates dug-into a mountain redoubt to surrender. “Harp” is more lyrical, though both are desolating reflections on life and death, compassion and ruthlessness.

(1) “The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer,” directed by Kobayashi Masaki has a harrowing performance by Nakadai Tatsuya dying in the snow trying to get home from Soviet captivity. The whole trilogy is gripping.

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©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my overview of Korean War movies here.

Clint Eastwood’s film in Japanese: “Letters from Iwo Jima”

One of the most surprising WWII movies projects is the 2006 one almost entirely in Japanese that Clint Eastwood directed and co-produced,, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Iōjima Kara no Tegami), the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers” (which is more about the post-combat experiences of the US Marines in the iconic photo raising the US flag at Iwo Jima, which we now know was a staged reraising…). Surprisingly, the movie in Japanese did better at the US box office than the one in English had, as well as receiving more critical acclaim. (And it did very well in Japan, being #1 at the box office there for five weeks.)

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The movie opens in 2005, excavating buried letters then flashes back to 1944, when Pvt. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker in civilian life with a wife and young daughter rashly advocates surrendering to the numerically (and in firepower) superior US marines. Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando) beats him for this offense, though Tanida is stopped by the newly arrived commander, Gen. Kuribayashi Tadamichi (Ken Watanabe), who does not want to waste men like that.

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Kuribayashi learns that the Japanese fleet he has counted on for support (or evacuation!) has been destroyed. Kuribayashi knows the beach will be taken, and has his troops dig in (tunneling supplementing the caves already of Mount Suribachi on the island).

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The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top slots on my list!)

The movie shows that Japanese propaganda demonized Americans, just as American propaganda demonized Japanese.

BTW the movie was mostly shot in inland California (around Barstow) with only one day shooting on Iwo Jima. Though shot in color, the color is so washed out that it often seems to be in black and white.

Eastwood was nominated for the best director Oscar, he and Steven Spielberg for best picture. The sound editing won the Oscar and Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis were nominated for bext original screenplay (somewhat strangely in that it is heavily based on Gen. Tadamachi’s posthumous “Gyokusai sōshikikan.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Five stories by Endô Shûsaku

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After Mishima Yukio, Endô Shûsaku (1923-90) is the Japanese novelist of “the third generation,” i.e., those who began publishing after WWII, who has been most translated into English. His tale of the persecution of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese converts in the 17th century, Silence (Chinmoku) has been filmed in Japanese (by Shinoda Masahiro) Portuguese, and in English (by Martin Scorsese).

The first of the five stories in Five by Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel, “Unzen,” also reaches back to the 17th-century persecution, apostasy, and torture, as a 20th-century Japanese man, Suguru, seeks out sites, particularly the “Valley of Hell,” in which Christians were partially boiled before being burned alive (singing a hymn). Suguru lacks their conviction, and his story lacks any closure.

The second story, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” is more mundane and, for me, more moving. The title character, Mr. Chiba, has been taking ballroom dancing lessons for his health, though they exhaust his legs and back. The story is not about his stint as a dancing student, however. Rather it is about trying to come to terms with his dying brother, who is only three years older than he is, and Whitey, the mutt he adopted thirteen years earlier (that is, a very old dog). Mrs. Chiba suggests that one dies to save the other, an explanation I don’t credit, but his feelings about his own mortality and that of the two creatures closest to himI found affecting.

The story that seems to me to reveal the most about Japanese people and worldview in the collection is “Japanese in Warsaw.” In the latter years of communism in Poland, a Japanese student in Warsaw is a guide for Japanese tourists. They have not interest in Polish history and are appalled at the shoddiness of tourist facilities. Their paramount interest is in hooking up with white women, so that Shimizu feels that he must be a pimp (albeit one who does not take money from the females whose bodies are rented). There is a Catholic angle to this story, and to the next one.

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(Endô in 1954)

The Box” of the tale’s tile contains some old (wartime) photos, postcards, and a Bible. The narrator who bought the box (and had spent time evacuated to Ueda during the war) seeks out someone who knew the recipient of the postcards, the daughter of a missionary (from a country that was neutral during WWII; I’d guess Swiss in that her name was Lougert) who was tortured a bit by a diffident secret police agent so that she would spy for the Japanese. The narrator speculates that the cards contained Bible-coded messages. (She was not tortured for being Christian, btw).

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(Ueda region (Shinano) in winter)

The final story, “The Case of Ibose,” is actually the first chapter of Endô’s 1993 novel Deep River, involves the death of a dutiful wife who was more concerned about her husband being able to take care of himself without her than with her agony and oncoming death from cancer (which her husband refuses to acknowledge to her, though lying to patients about the seriousness of their ailments was very common practice in Japan). It is moving and is fairly self-contained (though her dying wish for him to seek out her reincarnation propels him into a trip to India with three other Japanese).

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I prefer the stories without the weight of Catholic martyrdom, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “The Case of Isobe,” along with the tangential Catholic martyrdom one, “Japanese in Warsaw.” Despite its apparent focus on varying religious beliefs, “Isobe” has interested me in Deep River.

In addition to translating multiple works by Endô (including another collectio of stories that I don’t like as much as this one, Stained Glass Elegies, Van Gessel wrote about Endô in The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Costs of imperalist delusions borne by ordinary children: “Kabei”

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Though born way back in 1931, Yamada Yôji, after directing 41″Tora-san” movies,  emerged as the Ichikawa of the third millennium—at least its first decade. Although not showing the same characters, the three revisionist samurai movies  — “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “The Hidden Blade” (2004), “Love and Honor” (2006) — are thematically related in showing samurai more interested in life and love than in death and honor.

His 2008 film “Kabei: Our Mother” shows the heroism of the wife of an anti-imperialist philosopher detained in 1940 for “thought crimes.” One of these is calling the invasion of China a “war” rather than an “incident” (though “crusade” would be OK). The often kindly chairman of his neighborhood association explains that the alliance with Nazi Germany is a step toward world domination. After the US and the UK are taken care of jointly (this is 1940, not 1942), Japan will take on and conquer Germany. He has not the slightest doubts in Japan’s manifest destiny… though he cannot decide which way the committee should bow when the Emperor is away from his main Tokyo palace.

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There is no need to tell, to comment, just showing the indoctrination to which Yamada himself must have been subjected does just fine. The story of Nogami Teruyo’s childhood (she is nine when her father is tied up and taken away by the police at the start of the movie) shows her mother, whom the family calls “Kabei” (Yoshinaga Sayuri) struggling to maintain the morale of her jailed husband, Nogami Shigeru, whom the family calls “Tobei” (Bando Mitsugoro) and vulnerable daughters, twelve-year-old Hatsu (Shida Mirai) and nine-year-old Teru (Sato Miku). She is aided by a loyal former student of her husband, the awkward Yamazaki (Asano Tadanobu, closer to his role as “Last Life in the Universe” than to Ganghis Khan in “Mongol” or the fierce workingman in “Hana”), who is very myopic and blind in one ear.

Although I don’t think that it needed to take 133 minutes, nothing springs to mind to cut. Well, the voiceover over the closing credits, but that would not affect the running time… Maybe some of the singing could have been shortened, though it is always showing something about the situation of the family and/or the nation.

The film is shot with restraint, often from an Ozu-like height (probably the eyelevel of the nine-year-old, as well as that of an adult kneeling on the floor) by Naganuma Mutsuo (who also shot “The Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade” for Yamada, and Shintaro’s “Zatôichi”).

In close-ups during the movie, I thought that Yoshinaga was old for the part (and confirmed that she was born in 1945: so that she would have been 54 when Teru was born and is eleven years older than Bando, who plays her husband), but she is so compelling as a frail but resolute reed pillar of the family that I got past that. (Mrs. Miniver did not have such youngsters to try to protect and did not have to deal with the opprobrium of treason with which her father and neighbors viewed her absent husband.) BTW, Yoshinaga’s distinguished career included playing the title roles of Ichikawa Kon’s “Ohan” in 1984 and “Tsuru” in 1988. She won best actress awards from the Japanese Academy for both.

In addition to Yama, she is aided by her sister-in-law (who eventually returns to Hiroshima). And Kabuki’s very blunt brother also stays for a while, though the only sense in which he helps out is in making it possible for Kabei to speak frankly, which she cannot otherwise do anywhere, even at home.

More chilling even than the official name of the sedition law (“Peace Preservation”) is Tube’s mentor who views it as a bad law but prefers bad laws to no laws and says that the law will decide whether Tobei is a criminal (that is, won’t say he is no criminal). In that sequence, as in a dinner with Kabuki’s police chief father, women attempt to soften smug male implacability.

There are no DVD bonus features, only four trailers for other Strand releases.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Shimao stories

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The Sting of Death” and Other Stories that Kathryn Sparling’s selection of six stories by Shimao Toshio begins with the last nights of WWII, continues to the days after the unconditional surrender, includes the most famous of his “surrealist” stories, and three from the self-lacerating accounts of his wife (Miho) deranged by jealousy, then institutionalized (with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”), He stayed in the asylum to care for her. Fear that she would kill herself hangs over all three of the (byôsai-mono) sick-with-jealousy wife stories. Unlike his delusions in “Everyday Life in a Dream,” his wife had a basis for her increasingly paranoid jealousy: her husband had had a long-term relationship with another woman than her, the mother of their two children. Her jealousy, nonetheless, far exceeds any rational bounds, and the self-criticism already very salient in the earlier stories crests as he defies the stricken wife.

He met her back on Kakeroma island (in the Ryukus between Okinawa and Kyushu), where he commanded a base of torpedo (kamikaze) boats. She was a teacher and locally elite — and Roman Catholic, the Ryukus having been heavily missionized during the Meiji reign (and highly suspect for subscribing to an “enemy religion” during the Pacific War).

The brief accounts she wrote (included as an appendix in this only Shimao book in English) portray an officer who was very kind and solicitous of the fishing folk. He was much more self-critical, not only of his relations with the locals but his remoteness from the men under his command (often sleeping during the day after spending the night with the local woman based on Miho).

Orders came to man the boats, and Lt. Shimao chose himself to lead the contingent that would go out and try to ram US vessels (only one of the four was put on full readiness). The order did not come. Instead, the Emperor commanded that soldiers and sailors stop dying in his name (i.e., surrendered). Some of the men on the base wanted to go out to be killed, but their commander insisted that they follow the orders issued directly by the Emperor. He also went to the village to read the text of the imperial broadcast, since there were no radios there.

The shame of survival (shinisokonau—failing to die (for the Emperor)) persisted after Shimao’s return to Honshu. “Everyday Life in a Dream” is pretty self-lacerating, beginning with unease that having written about his war experience (failure), he had nothing about which to write. He was arranging participant observation with a gang, but was distracted by a former classmate who had developed leprosy, etc.

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The first of the “sick wife” stories, “The Sting of Death,” describes breaking up with his long-term mistress after his wife learns (from his diaries) of his adultery and desperately concerned that she will commit suicide. (I don’t understand the relevance of the title, which derives from First Corinthians 15:55 “O Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”—a couplet defying rather than venerating death in the Japanese manner, celebrating the grace of “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Granted, the “sting” is “sin” in the Pauline epistle)

“Out of the Depths” and “The Heart that Slips Away” are clinical descriptions of the guilty husband and the crazy wife. He converted to his wife’s Catholicism in 1956 and the quest for martyrdom for his sin (adultery) strikes me as based on guilt rather than shame (i.e., Christian rather than traditionally Japanese).

Prefiguring Oe Kenzaburo, Shimao relentlessly reworked the materials about his sin and penitence, including a novel also entitled The Sting of Death. Apparently, the Japanese reading public was fascinated with these self-lacerating accounts. I prefer the life of absurdity as the leader of a group of men waiting to die in torpedo boats who was reprieved (like Dostoevsky’s execution) and then had to cope with being in command of a unit of a navy that had been abolished, i.e., the first two stories, “The Farthest Edge of the Islands” (before surrender) and “This Time That Summer” (after it) and Miho’s alternate (local/native) perspective (in which he was more or less deified, as he would later deify her, albeit for her suffering rather than for his compassion). (I wish that Sparling had included Shimao’s most famous (in Japan) later and seemingly even more self-lacerating version of his end-of-war experience, “When We Never Left Port.” In his later years Shimao was a curator of the Amami Ôshima Museum wrote travel articles and articles about traditional Okinawan culture rather than more fiction.)

Sparling has rendered Shimao’s knotty style (hyper-long sentences, vague anaphora) into quite readable English. The obsessive self-criticism and self-abnegation comes through very clearly. I think only the first two stories have much appeal for American readers, though I realize there are Anglophone admirers of Dostoevsky (and Oe). As Sparling wrote: “There is no escapism in Shimao’s fiction. Even the dreams and the fantasy are intensified experiences of individual reality. These stories are painful to read; there is a[anacut1] masochism about them.”

Sparling analyzes the stories, particularly “Everyday Life in a Dream” (11 pages of discussion for a story that runs 13 pages), at length, as well as discussing stylistic attributes that defied translation.

(After moving back to the Ryukus, Miho functioned, becoming a feminist writer herself and living another twenty years after Toshio’s death. She and their daughter talk in one of Sokurov’s “Oriental Elegies,” “Dolce” (2000).)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

For an overview of Shimao’s writing and three of his contemporaries (the “third generation”) see Vann C. Gessel’s Sting of Death.

“The Sting of Death” and Other Stories that Kathryn Sparling’s selection of six stories by Shimao Toshio begins with the last nights of WWII, continues to the days after the unconditional surrender, includes the most famous of his “surrealist” stories, and three from the self-lacerating accounts of his wife (Miho) deranged by jealousy, then institutionalized (with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”), He stayed in the asylum to care for her. Fear that she would kill herself hangs over all three of the (byôsai-mono)-with-jealousy wife stories. Unlike his delusions in “Everyday Life in a Dream,” his wife had a basis for her increasingly paranoid jealousy: her husband had had a long-term relationship with another woman than her, the mother of their two children. Her jealousy, nonetheless, far exceeds any rational bounds, and the self-criticism already very salient in the earlier stories crests as he defies the stricken wife.

He met her back on Kakeroma island (in the Ryukus between Okinawa and Kyushu), where he commanded a base of torpedo (kamikaze) boats. She was a teacher and locally elite — and Roman Catholic, the Ryukus having been heavily missionized during the Meiji reign (and highly suspect for subscribing to an “enemy religion” during the Pacific War).

The brief accounts she wrote (included as an appendix in this only Shimao book in English) portray an officer who was very kind and solicitous of the fishing folk. He was much more self-critical, not only of his relations with the locals but his remoteness from the men under his command (often sleeping during the day after spending the night with the local woman based on Miho).

Orders came to man the boats, and Lt. Shimao chose himself to lead the contingent that would go out and try to ram US vessels (only one of the four was put on full readiness). The order did not come. Instead, the Emperor commanded that soldiers and sailors stop dying in his name (i.e., surrendered). Some of the men on the base wanted to go out to be killed, but their commander insisted that they follow the orders issued directly by the Emperor. He also went to the village to read the text of the imperial broadcast, since there were no radios there.

The shame of survival (shinisokonau—failing to die (for the Emperor)) persisted after Shimao’s return to Honshu. “Everyday Life in a Dream” is pretty self-lacerating, beginning with unease that having written about his war experience (failure), he had nothing about which to write. He was arranging participant observation with a gang, but was distracted by a former classmate who had developed leprosy, etc.

The first of the “sick wife” stories, “The Sting of Death,” describes breaking up with his long-term mistress after his wife learns (from his diaries) of his adultery and desperately concerned that she will commit suicide. (I don’t understand the relevance of the title, which derives from Frist Corinthians 15:55 “O Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”—a couplet defying rather than venerating death in the Japanese manner, celebrating the grace of “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Granted, the “sting” is “sin” in the Pauline epistle)

“Out of the Depths” and “The Heart that Slips Away” are clinical descriptions of the guilty husband and the crazy wife. He converted to his wife’s Catholicism in 1956 and the quest for martyrdom for his sin (adultery) strikes me as based on guilt rather than shame (i.e., Christian rather than traditionally Japanese).

Prefiguring Oe Kenzaburo, Shimao relentlessly reworked the materials about his sin and penitence, including a novel also entitled The Sting of Death. Apparently, the Japanese reading public was fascinated with these self-lacerating accounts. I prefer the life of absurdity as the leader of a group of men waiting to die in torpedo boats who was reprieved (like Dostoevsky’s execution) and then had to cope with being in command of a unit of a navy that had been abolished, i.e., the first two stories, “The Farthest Edge of the Islands” (before surrender) and “This Time That Summer” (after it) and Miho’s alternate (local/native) perspective (in which he was more or less deified, as he would later deify her, albeit for her suffering rather than for his compassion). (I wish that Sparling had included Shimao’s most famous (in Japan) later and seemingly even more self-lacerating version of his end-of-war experience, “When We Never Left Port.” In his later years Shimao was a curator of the Amami Ôshima Museum wrote travel articles and articles about traditional Okinawan culture rather than more fiction.)

Sparling has rendered Shimao’s knotty style (hyper-long sentences, vaguae anaphora) into quite readable English. The obsessive self-criticism and self-abnegation comes through very clearly. I think only the first two stories have much appeal for American readers, though I realize there are Anglophone admirers of Dostoevsky (and Oe). As Sparling wrote: “There is no escapism I Shimao’s fiction. Even the dreams and the fantasy are intensified experiences of individual reality. These stories are painful to read; there is a[anacut1] masochism about them.”

Sparling analyzes the stories, particularly “Everyday Life in a Dream” (11 pages of discussion for a story that runs 13 pages), at length, as well as discussing stylistic attributes that defied translation.

(After moving back to the Ryukus, Miho functioned, becoming a feminist writer herself and living another twenty years after Toshio’s death. She and their daughter talk in one of Sokurov’s “Oriental Elegies,” “Dolce” (2000).)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Short fiction by Kojima Nobuo, 1952-61

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Kojima Nobuo (1915-2006) was drafted in 1941, shortly having graduated with a degree in English literature (his graduation essay was “Thackeray as a Humorist”) and had an absurd military career: first ordered to forget English, he later was detailed to translating intercepted American military radio transmissions. The rest of his unit was deployed to Leyte, where they were slaughtered

 

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Japan is the prototypical shame-based culture and the protagonists of Kojima fiction (including a Nisei leading character) are often paralyzed by fear of doing something shameful. Surviving the war was shameful (not that easily distinguished from “survivor guilt”), if not as shameful as surrendering before the Emperor ordered it.

As Van C. Gessell explained in The Sting of Death, the writers who emerged after WWII and many others of their generation were

“trained not so much to kill as to die, and armed with the instruments of their annihilation, they were sent forth on a mission they loathed and ultimately failed to accomplish. And though they may have been pleased to fail in the deepest recesses of their hearts, they were also publicly embarrassed by that fact. The rush of circumstances made them into unwilling survivors, since the death that was supposed to be their goal and their national duty had conveniently eluded them…. Those who returned alive, for whatever reason, had somehow failed in their calling, had managed to incur shame without committing a shameful act. Fort this generation, the stigma of survival, the return to a ruined and defeated homeland from which they could no more retrieve their youth, and the humiliation of foreign occupation all combined to complete the uprooting process.”

The infantryman narrator of Kojima’s breakthrough fiction, “The Rifle” (1952), melded with his rifle as infantrymen everywhere are urged to do. When it was taken away from him (before Japan’s surrender), he felt lost. Before that, he had been ordered to shoot and bayonet a Chinese woman. No explanation was given him, and he was traumatized by his part in one of the many atrocities the Japanese Army committed in China (and elsewhere). Lawrence Rogers’ introduction likens “The Rifle” to Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman.” The obsessiveness about a physical possession seems to me more to resemble Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” as other Kojima fiction brings Dostoeveseky’s Notes from the Underground to mind.

“The Rifle” was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, which Kojima won for the novella Amerikan sukūru (American School, 1954). Its shame-drenched protagonist, Isa, is an English teacher terrified of having to actually speak the language to a native (certain to be shamed by mistakes and/or being incomprehensible). He is trapped, in borrowed and acutely uncomfortable shoes, in a group of Japanese teachers of English who visit a school for the children of American soldiers and officials. The American teachers are paid ten times as much as the Japanese ones and the school is posher on about the same order of magnitude.

In contrast to the shy and chronically ashamed Isa, is the brash and opportunistic Yamada. Yamada is more than willing to celebrate the swordsmanship he used in decapitating prisoners (including captured American ones) during the war to another teacher, though toadying to the conquerors. He has appointed himself commander of the platoon of teachers, though a kind-hearted female teacher (the only female teacher in the group) Michiko speaks better English.

Michiko and a statuesque American teacher, Miss Emily, try to ease Isa’s physical discomfort, but embarrass (shame) him further as an isolated object of pity. And the principal of the school, Mr. Williams, outdoes Yamada at being a martinet, shaming Yamada. The Japanese males’ free-floating humiliation (from defeat and subservience to alien occupiers) is given some new occasions by the attempted solidarity exercise.

Rogers sees two stories from before Kojima’s American (University of Iowa) sojourn as homoerotic. I would have missed the homoerotic aspect of “Voices” (1955), though it has a man (who sells figurines he makes) taking an inexplicable (to the salaryman rushing to work) interest in Sashara. And Sashara, who works at the Defense Agency (no longer Ministry with the abolition of a standing army) enjoys the commands that drift in from the police academy, not consciously relating them to the commands he heard during the war in the army.

The longer “The Black Flame” (1957) has a protagonist enamored of a coworker, Hiroshi, and having an affair with Hiroshi’s wife, Rumi, to feel closer to his secret beloved. The couple have ceased to have sexual relations, so the narrator is not going where Hiroshi has recently gone, though he often urinates in the same urinal Hiroshi has just used. Though the narrator is enamored with Hiroshi, the story is almost entirely about the (adulterous) heterosexual coupling.

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Three of the nine stories derive from Kojima’s experiences and observations in Iowa. He did not want to stay in a dormitory and asked to be placed with American families. The wild — shockingly undisciplined to Japanese eyes with parents who do not try to control them — preschoolers in “The House of Hooligans” (1958) are perhaps a warning against accepting American permissiveness in child-raising. It is an amusing tale of culture shock.

More interesting (at least to me) is “Buffoon in an Alien Land” (1958) in which the narrator thinks about having sex with his (Mennonite) hostess, but is mostly buffeted by the demands to perform Japaneseness by his previous hostess, a remarkably brash Amish woman. She has decided that he will demonstrate how to make sukiyaki –with slabs of beef, frozen and canned vegetables — for/before 70 local women. That he has never cooked, let alone with Iowa-available ingredients (including Chinese soy sauce), is no problem in the view of Marcie. (Alas, the reader does not find out how it turned out or whether the rural Iowa women were enchanted with the “exotic” fare.) The typically timid Kojima alter ego is a keen observer of tensions within the marital relations of his hosts

Rogers (and I) wonder how fictitious those two stories are. The third and shortest, “A Certain Day” (1961) has to be, since it centers on a wife who accompanied the Japanese sojourner, who is an engineer, not a writer. She is startled to look out and see a cow next to the house (the basis for the cover illustration) and seems more comfortable in the alien land than her husband, though he has interacted more with Americans.

“In Our Forties” (1961) similarly displays a couple (safely in Japan) planning to build a house, prefiguring Embracing Family (1965), though the couple in the story are not as estranged from each other as that in the novel are. The wives are more decisive, less concerned about “public opinion” than the husbands in both. These ineffectual males, and the ashamed father in “The Smile” [1954] who is unable to love the crippled son he finds when he returns from the war, suppress their aggressiveness, but otherwise resemble married versions of the narrator of Notes from the Underground (and Shimao’s 1947 “Solitary Traveler”)—the pained, awkward Dosteovesky characters seem to have fascinated many Japanese of the postwar era).

Though I am interested in the psychic aftershocks of war and defeat, and the rapid social change of rebuilding Japan, it is the pained intercultural encounters that most interest me in the Kojima stories collected in the just-published Long Belts and Thin Men. (The title is Rogers’ not Kojima’s: when he first went to Japan soon after the war he was struck that many men were wearing belts so long that they extended to their backs. I suspect that rather than being a stylistic choice/ fashion statement that the explanation was that belts manufactured for American girths were dumped on the Japanese market, and then-impoverished thin Japanese made do. He does not seem to have asked anyone whether they felt that American were 1.5 times greater (in girth or anything else) than they were.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Ibuse short stories

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Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993) was a native of Hiroshima and is best known for his novelization of survivor documents (he was not in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on it), Kuroi Ame/Black Rain, compellingly filmed by Imamura in 1989. The novel won the Noma Prize, the most prestigious Japanese literary award.

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(portrait from the 1920s)

A collection of his short stories translated and introduced by John Bester was published by Kondasha in 1981. It had first been published in 1971  using the title of the longest story in it, “Lt. Lookeast,” then republished   (shorn of the novella “Tajinko Village”) using the title of his first published story, “The Salamander” (1919, retitled “Confinement” a few years later). The cast of the story is the salamander that has grown too big to fit out the entrance to a small, a frog who blunders in and is prevented from leaving by the salamander, and a shrimp laden with eggs that disappears from the narrative. The frog does not hate the salamander for trapping it, and the salamander feels neither guilt nor shame for its slow murder of the frog.

The 1926 story “The Carp” is not about the titular fish. It was a gift from a friend (based on Ibuse’s mentor Aoki Nampachi) who died. The narrator feels obligated to find new homes (ponds) for the gift entrusted to him by the now dead friend. “Savan on the Roof” centers on a wounded goose the narrator expects gratitude from.

Animals (prize bulls) are central to “Old Ushitora” (1950), one of the more frustrating stories that fail to deliver any ending, though something happens that cries out for a resolution. I’d make the same complaint about the historical tale of an official inquest, “Yosaku the Settler” (1953) and “Lt. Lookeast” (1950), though the backstory is complete. The story conveys the disenchantment of rural youth who had been drafted for the militarism that has been preserved in the brain-damaged title character, who does not know that the war is over (though he is back in Japan, not cut off in a jungle like other Japanese soldiers who fought on or at least hid after Japan surrendered). The martinet’s crippling was quite inglorious.

“Plum Blossom by Night” (1930) has an ending, a trick ending that I also don’t like. “Life at Mr. Tange’s” (1931) doesn’t really have an ending, but does show something about class and social relations in prewar (WWII) Japan. “Pilgrim’s Inn” (no date indicated) is a sketch of a situation that also casts some light on rural poverty.

I don’t think that there is much that is imagined, except in “The Salamander,” and this collection of sketches did not build a clamor for translations of more of the large corpus of Ibuse publications.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray