The opening scenes of this Japanese WWII film throw us straight into furious action.
Japanese troops holding the islandof Saipan are being hurled from their defences by US bombardment. Then, interesting contemporary footage of the assault plays as an American narrator explains that four months have past since the official surrender of the island. Next, we are shown ferocious dramatised shots of the fighting, worthy of the explosive chaos which opens Saving Private Ryan. Artillery, rattling gunfire, wounded Japanese soldiers crying out for their mothers; this is a shocking opening which instantly grips its audience.
Once the smoke has cleared, we are introduced to the film’s most compelling character: Captain Sakae Oba (Yutaka Takenouchi). Respected by his men as a compassionate master tactician, Oba manages to be both a fierce fighter and a proud, honourable leader. Following a final banzai attack in which most of the Japanese force is wiped out, Oba and the remaining band of loyalist soldiers entrench themselves on Mount Tapochau, refusing to come down and surrender. Oba makes use of guerrilla tactics and traps to confound the marines trying to flush them out, at each stage his resolve to keep fighting strengthened.
The film cleverly switches its perspective, in one shot showing gung-ho US marines throwing grenades at Japanese civilians shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Nips’, and in the next showing Japanese troops appearing out of nowhere to slaughter unsuspecting marines. Each act of violence spurs the victims on to commit further bloody acts of revenge, until the only two voices of reason are Captain Oba and his American counterpart, Captain Lewis.
The dialogue among the American troops is a bit clunky, their banter-filled camaraderie cringe-worthy at times. The cigar-chewing, ignorant colonel is clichéd to the point that I was worried he would come out with ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’ at the next moment of exasperation. But perhaps this was part of the plan. Semblances of back-story are provided for some of the Japanese fighters, but we learn nothing of the Americans, and therefore feel nothing for them. For a film which is supposed to show the battle from both sides, this seems a little misleading.
Much is made of Japanese honour, their obstinate refusal ever to surrender. We hear stories of civilians walking off cliffs to their deaths rather than giving themselves up, and see the four Japanese generals on the island commit suicide, urging all other soldiers to do the same. As the battle continues, the audience witnesses the battle raging within Oba: does he surrender for the good of the civilians he has with him, or maintain his honour and fight to the death? Is his mission to take as many lives as possible, or to save as many as he can?
Other characters and subplots are inconsequential, and scenes of Captain Lewis talking about his respect for the Japanese way drag on. The action scenes and the development of Oba’s character are, however, very impressive, and Takenouchi’s performance alone is enough to ensure that this film is not just another throw-away WWII DVD.
Few films successfully depict a battle fairly from the viewpoints of two opposing armies. The Battle of the Pacific comes very close.