“Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is a Japanese WWII film by Kinji Fukasaku. It was Japan’s nominee for Best Foreign Film for the 45th Academy Awards, but it did not make the cut. It should have. It came out in the 1970s when it was possible to criticize the war and the emperor. It opens with “Our military has always served at the discretion of the Emperor”. By the end of the movie, you’ll be wondering why. This is followed by footage of the Emperor giving a speech and laying a wreath to honor the dead. But there is no honor for Sgt. Katsuo Togashi (Tetsuro Tamba) because he deserted on New Guinea and was executed for it in August, 1945. Because of his dishonor, his widow Sakie (Sachko Hidari) cannot get survivor’s benefits. She believes he was innocent and to prove it she determines to seek out four of his comrades. The movie follows her odyssey to find the truth. As she interviews each veteran, flashbacks support their stories. Those stories are sometimes contradictory, however. The mystery deepens. Was Togashi a hero or a traitor?
The film bears the stamp of Fukasaku. He was an early practitioner of the shaky camera style. The cinematography is intriguing. There are some hand-held camera-work and quick cut editing. Most interestingly, Fukasaku uses freeze-frames. He inserts photos instead of footage. Some of the pictures are gruesome. They reflect the experiences of the Japanese soldiers. The horrific vibe is not limited to the photos as there are scenes of extreme violence. Since the flashbacks are set in the last months of the war, the hardships the Japanese soldiers encounter are realistically appalling. You will definitely come out of this movie with more empathy for the common Japanese soldier. And Japanese viewers in 1972 learned that not all of their warriors were fanatics. What Togashi and his mates go through is reminiscent of “Fires on the Plains” and the movie makes a good companion to that movie. For instance, there is a reference to cannibalism in this movie. Just don’t watch them back-to-back. That would be too depressing.
“Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is the rare war mystery. It has a touch of “Rashomon” in it. The men Sakie tracks down offer contradictory and self-serving versions of what happened to her husband. One of her interviewees thinks her husband was executed for stealing potatoes. This makes the final result unpredictable. And that makes the movie very entertaining. The acting is stellar and the characters are indelible. I hesitate to deem it great, but it is certainly a must-see for serious war movie fans.
GRADE = B+