Thursday, September 10, 2015

The fact-based The Emperor in August (film review)

Kyoto's Nijo Castle is one of the buildings in Japan
where the imperial chrysanthemum crest can be seen

The Emperor in August (Japan, 2015)
- Masato Harada, director
- Starring: Koji Yakusho, Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomo Yamazaki

One week ago, Hong Kong and mainland China observed a "one off" public holiday to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender, an act which brought the Second World War to an official close.  The previous Thursday, a historical drama depicting events that took place in Japan in the final days before the country's surrender was announced by Emperor Hirohito (who's post-humously known in Japan as the Showa Emperor), in a speech broadcast on radio to the nation, opened in Hong Kong cinemas.

Although the Japanese ruler is indeed shown playing a key part in proceedings (and the push to get his country's government to agree to accept the demands of the Potsdam Declaration calling for all of Japan's military forces to lay down their arms), he (who is sensitively portrayed by Masahiro Motoki) actually has less screen time in The Emperor in August than two members of the country's six-man Supreme War Council for the Direction of War charged with overseeing the nation's affairs.

The first of these, Kantaro Suzuki, was an admiral and former grand chamberlain chosen by the emperor to bring the war to an end.  In his late 70s (and hard of hearing!) when assigned this important task, he's impressively essayed in the film by 79-year-old veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki as a wise man utterly loyal to the emperor, and commited to suing for peace pretty much right from the beginning of his tenure as Japan's prime minister.

Both Emperor Hirohito and prime minister Suzuki are depicted in ways meant to show their human qualities.  But the personality who is the heart of this film as well as its most complex character is the Minister of War, General Korechika Anami. A dedicated military man, and loving husband, father and grandfather who fears that surrender would bring about the nation's demise and knows that it'd be the first time ever that the imperial Japanese army had lost a war, he is masterfully portrayed by Koji Yakusho (playing a character which recalls the one he played in Admiral Yamamoto but is miles away from the likes of his  characters in the original -- and far better than its Hollywood remake -- Shall We Dance? and The World of Kanako).

One of the shocks that come when and from viewing this film set during World War II is how many of its (real life) characters don't seem like they'd be that out of place in contemporary Japanese society; not least because, even those wearing military uniforms display some unmartial qualities.  For example, Emperor Hirohito -- who's only ever seen clad in military uniform -- is soft-spoken and given to doing such as removing weeds from the imperial garden with his own hands.  And prime minister Suzuki is a grandfatherly figure with a sense of humor that can diffuse tense situations and also make himself the butt of jokes.  Then there's General Anami being a lover of art and calligraphy who hangs examples of such on the walls of his office and home.     

Considering how "civilized" much of the behavior depicted in The Emperor in August is, those moments when somebody shouts out in anger, or worse, really can unsettle.  And while those more knowledgable about this period of history would not be surprised to see certain emotionally charged and dramatically tense events occur in the last few days before the fateful August day when the vast majority of his subjects heard Emperor Hirohito's voice for the very first time, this (re)viewer at least found certain events depicted in the film revelatory and was inspired to get (more) information about them post viewing this fascinating cinematic offering.

The Emperor in August's director said he was compelled to make this remake of a 1967 film which had the same Japanese title (but was given the title The Longest Day for its international release) because of such as new research having arisen about what had happened in the dying days of the Second World War. Harada is also on the record as saying that his is an anti-war film.  I just hope that when Japanese people watch this Japan-centric work, they'll not only get the message that the Second World War caused Japan great damage and suffering but, also, that that was the case for much of the rest of the world -- not least those territories which had fallen under Japanese rule -- as well.    

My rating for this film: 7.0

No comments: