29 February 2020 | topitimo-829-270459
Okamoto's epic is informative, but also slightly misleading through its subjectivity.
Okamoto Kihachi's "Nihon no ichiban nagai hi" (Japan's Longest Day, 1967) is an epic film made to honor the 35th anniversary of the Toho Studios. Based on actual history, the film relates the ending of World War II from the Japanese perspective: the final 24 hours before Hirohito's famous radio speech. With a running time of 157 minutes, the film takes its time to paint a thorough portrait of this important day, and the Japanese mentality at the time. We are introduced to dozens and dozens of characters, and the star-studded cast includes many of Japan's most famous actors.
There is a lot of merit to this film. At times, it feels almost like a documentary, and the audience gets a very detailed look into the discussions surrounding Japan's decision to surrender. Though the film is long, it is never boring, and Okamoto never loses his grip on the narrative either. This director sometimes - especially in chambara films - has trouble keeping his films cohesive in style: many of Okamoto's films juxtapose entertainment and serious subject matters, and this does not always work for him, as it can lead to the films becoming inconsistent viewing experiences. That does not happen here. Okamoto is serious through and through, but also manages to abstain from preaching. The number of different perspectives in the film is admirable, and also increases its resemblance of the similar-sounding predecessor "The Longest Day" (1962), which was about the Allied invasion of Normandy.
However, the film's Japanese perspective also translates itself into subjectivity, which makes some elements of the film thematically misleading. In the aftermath of the war, during the American occupation, the Japanese could not make war films. When they returned to the subject in the 1960's, it was a bit of a challenge. Like any nation, Japan wanted to honor their fallen soldiers, but also to denounce the war. After the war, the Japanese majority started to believe, that the war had been caused by a small group of militarists within the country's leadership. This eased the atmosphere, as it was viewed that the majority of Japanese people had nothing to feel guilty about. This kind of black and white division neglects the general attitudes held by the people before the war, the heavy nationalism that lead to imperialism, and the Japanese way of considering themselves better than their surrounding nations and thus entitled to annex territories from them. The division into good characters and bad ones is very much visible in "Japan's Longest Day". Much of the government officials in the film are portrayed as sensible and yearning for peace. The prime minister Suzuki - who was anti-war in real life, as well - is portrayed by Ryu Chishu, actor known for his roles as wise father figures in the films of Ozu. The government is shown to be clean, and thinking what is best for the people. To counter this, there is a small group of militarists who oppose the notion of surrendering. They are shown to be hot-headed, and dumb. I know the film is based on reality, but this kind of a divide between good and bad characters does not feel realistic. The film's finest performance is by Mifune Toshiro as Japan's minister of war, because his character is shown to be nuanced. He is torn between his loyalty to the emperor and his worry about the soldiers coping to the situation. In the scenes between Mifune and Ryu, the general atmosphere of defeat gets its finest presentation.
Another issue with the subjectivity is one that plagues many Japanese war films. The film shows us the suffering of the Japanese people during the war, but fails to mention the suffering caused by them. Also, in the narration by Nakadai Tatsuya, it is noted that the peace enjoyed by Japan in the present day, was earned by the soldiers who died in the war. Again, this is a nice sentiment for the fallen, but it would ring more true to the international audience, had Japan not been the aggressor who initiated the war.
All in all, the flaws are minor, and are pretty understandable: of course a Japanese film is going to be Japanese with its perspective. The film is admirably anti-war, as are most Japanese war films. And as it should be.