This great recent Japanese epic is all but unknown here — and is the kind of adult historical show that we seem incapable of these days. The intense diplomatic storm at the end of WW2 with an Army command willing to sacrifice the nation in a national suicide pact, is given an exciting, thoughtful treatment
The Emperor in August
2015 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 136 min. / Street Date August 15, 2017 / Nihon no ichiban nagai hi ketteiban / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Tori Matsuzaka, Kikuo Kaneuchi, Misuzu Kanno, Katsumi Kiba.
Cinematography: Takahide Shibanushi
Film Editor: Eugene Harada
Original Music: Harumi Fuki
Based on the novel by Kacutoshi Hando
Produced by Hirotaki Aragaki, Nozumi Enoki
Written and Directed by Masato Harada
How does Twilight Time do it? Every time they offer a foreign title I’ve never heard of, it comes up a winner. 2015’s The Emperor in August will be classified as appealing to a niche audience, which is not the truth at all. Anyone with an interest in history, and the least bit curious about how the world got to where it is today, will find plenty here to entertain and inform.
Writer-director Masato Harada’s film is a dramatization of the last few weeks of WW2 in Tokyo, among the military leaders and government ministers trying to decide whether to surrender, or to order civilian Japan to fight to the death, in a homeland defense. This piece of history has been covered before in a B&W 1967 picture (on DVD from AnimEigo) called Japan’s Longest Day (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi). Using every familiar face in the Toho family of actors, it’s a very different take on the same subject. The emperor is still called Hirohito, whereas in this new 2015 show he’s not really named, but would be referred to as Emperor Showa. The old movie has a lot more action centered on the abortive coup attempt, but perhaps because the war was barely more than twenty years before, patriotic scenes replace any images of what Tokyo was really going through in the late summer of 1945.
The Emperor in August fashions several vibrant characterizations. Made for an audience two generations removed from the events in question, presenting the values of a different era. The forward-looking Japanese discard the past just like we do, perhaps even faster that we do.
In April of 1945, it is obvious that Japan is losing the war. The Navy is almost non-existent and the Army decimated; the U.S. is firebombing the larger Tokyo area, systematically reducing the metropolis to ashes. The Emperor (Masahiro Motoki) wants to sue for peace, and goes around protocol to assign a retired diplomat, Kantaro Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as Prime Minister, to form a cabinet to get the job done. The Army and the Navy protest all of this, demanding that the country never surrender and resist to the death. General Hideki Tojo unofficially inspires the army officer corps of young captains and majors to consider revolt, should ‘traitors’ try to put forth a surrender. To counter the militarists, PM Suzuki nominates General Korechika Anami (Koji Yakusho) to represent the Army on his cabinet.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not hurry the negotiations, which remain at a stalemate. Anami arranges for the wedding of his daughter, even though most of the city is burned out. Suzuki encourages what remains of his family in Tokyo to leave for the countryside, especially when rumors circulate of a possible coup. At headquarters, the idealistic (read: militarist-fanatic) young Major Kenji Hatanaka (Tori Matsuzaka) draws up plans to seize the emperor’s residence and assassinate the cabinet members considered pro-surrender. With the threat of an immediate invasion by the Soviet Union, Suzuki has to assure the cabinet that the surrender will provide for a political future that will retain the Emperor in position of authority — nobody will cooperate without that proviso. Suzuki also knows that the Army isn’t going to back down. At some point the Emperor, formerly an unseen presence to the public and a shadow behind politics, will have to come forward in person and take direct charge.
To put the comparisons away, The Emperor in August is shorter than Japan’s Longest Day and less detailed about the development of the coup attempts within the Army. But it throws a much wider net around the situation. It’s still a drama about diplomacy. There are no combat scenes. The Hiroshima mushroom cloud is an animated cutaway and maybe two more transitional shots show CGI-created aircraft. Yet we feel the context at all times. PM Suzuki looks out a window and sees 200 teenaged girls practicing martial drills with spears. A tour of the available weaponry to defend Japan takes a committee to a museum that features WW1-era rifles. The civilians may be fighting with 19th-century weapons and farm implements. It’s obvious that defending to the last ditch is the notion of military fanatics primarily concerned with the honor of their creed. By this time in the war, the notorious Tojo is basically on the outs. But when he shows up to undermine Anami’s authority with the cadets and keep the flame of defiance lit, he’s pretty effective.
Fanatic cadets under the guidance of militarist schemers like Tojo is what pushed Japan into war in the first place, with dreams of a manifest destiny in an ‘East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.’ When the tired, almost deaf diplomat Suzuki and the principled General Anami attempt to oppose the fanaticism, they take a big risk — the country has expended millions of lives in a warfare gamble, and nobody wants to hear that it has come to nothing.
Writer-Director Harada has given the film an epic feel, with a fast-moving narrative and impressive imagery. The Emperor worries about weeds in his garden but also knows that a reckoning is coming. PM Suzuki can’t bear to look at huge sections of Tokyo, the famed wood and paper city, burned to the ground. His limousine blows up a cloud of cherry blossoms, and he fears that the entire culture may be at an end. The General Anami character is as steeped in tradition and as blood-loyal to the Emperor as anyone, but he changes direction as soon as Suzuki assures him that Hirohito/Showa will not be sacrificed. Everybody’s loyalties are tested. Anami must be careful when he stalls the younger staff officers to hold off on their planned coup.
Although it’s nothing like the bloodbaths of the middle 1930s — ‘government by assassination,’ they called it — the film works up to a violent night before the Emperor’s surrender message is to be broadcast. Anami prepares to personally atone for the failure of the military, while the junior officers led by Hatanaka run wild and try to spark a full-on rebellion — a lot of which is carried out on bicycles. The heroes of the night may be the humble servants and chamberlains at the palace, who successfully hide the two copies of the Emperor’s recorded surrender speech, so the rebels can’t destroy them.
The details are great. Suzuki’s family thinks him a legend already — he carries four bullet holes from an attempted assassination, presumably in the run-up to the war. Anami is waiting for word about how his 20-year-old officer son died in battle. The junior officers operate in snobbish cliques, discriminating against ‘loser’ officers associated with generals or families ‘on the outs.’
Anami cherishes his personal connection to the Emperor, who has asked about his daughter’s wedding. When Anami needs to formally petition Hirohito at a cabinet meeting, and no protocol exists, he improvises, recreating a clearly ancient ritual of approaching the sovereign. It’s a strong reminder that Japan was a country suspended between a feudal death cult (the militarists) and a more reasonable appreciation of modern governance. Caught between two relentless enemies, the ministers consider the Soviets duplicitous, and call America barbaric.
Actor Koji Yakusho had a hit film on this side of the Pacific in 1996, with the romantic film Shall We Dance? Masahiro Motoki has won a lot of Asian and Japanese acting awards. To me he looks too tall and buff to be the rather tiny Hirohito/Showa. On the other hand, the actor playing Tojo (?) convinces us it’s Tojo we’re looking at the moment we see him — he even gets the bowed legs correct. Tsutomu Yamazaki’s well-known features include Kagemusha and Red Beard, and I’m shocked to admit that I didn’t recognize him as the unforgettable murderous medical intern in Kurosawa’s High and Low. Well, that was over fifty years ago.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Emperor in August is a beautiful rendering of this handsomely filmed suspense epic. The disc is encoded with two trailers, one of which has more of an ‘action’ feel than the other. The feature has English subs, but not the trailers. Harumi Fuki’s music score can be heard on its own isolated track.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes sketch the cinematic and historical dimensions of the film with great clarity. We really appreciate a Japanese movie that is able to put history in a fair context. The 1967 film seemed intent on presenting the militaristic angle in a generally positive light — after all, the stoic icon Toshiro Mifune played General Anami. This new picture has time for telling personal details. When General Anami first went to war, he wrote a note pledging his life to the Emperor. When he gives his wife the note near the finish, it’s not a gesture of fanaticism but an act of familial love. But no matter how pure and beautiful it may be, a system in which good men like Anami need to atone for the sins of others . . . they can have it.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Emperor in August
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, two original trailers, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 6, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson