Wednesday, October 20, 2010

UNDER THE FLAG OF THE RISING SUN (1972) - a ballad of sadness and war, in that order

here's the trailer, albeit not round-eye friendly

Sakie, a World War II Army widow, has been denied any pension or benefits going on twenty years. As if the horror of her husband going off to war as soon as they started a family wasn’t enough, he dies under mysterious circumstances, and she is left to raise a baby, broke and alone. None of this is taken account within the heartless post war bureaucracy, where human beings are reduced to paper work. The little death notice card Sakie received states that her husband did not die in combat, but, as she learns, was mysteriously executed by court martial. Therefore, she is entitled to exactly nothing (bupkis, for any lawyers in the audience), despite her husband’s sacrifice to his country. She manages to overcome these hardships to reach present day in tact, only seeking to find the truth and hopefully clear his name.

This dynamic between Sakie’s modern day search for the truth of her husband’s demise (handled in Rashomon-style interviews with former soldiers of the same platoon) and the depicted flashbacks of war are comparable to the dynamic between bureaucratic record keeping and the chaos of warfare. These keeper of facts, history, and law wish to have things categorized, codified, and rendered logical. Yet, as we clearly see with the flashbacks, if it wasn’t already clear enough based on past history, these soldiers are thrust into horror and chaos, conditions that are completely antithetical to law, order, and reason. They are emotionally and physically pushed to unspeakable depths, transformed into murderous animals, and yet are held to a moral standard drawn up by some pencil pusher sitting in a cubicle.

The film also plainly illustrates how these soldiers sacrifice for their country but are not properly reimbursed. It’s easy to see the same dynamic at work in the U.S., what with veterans unable to find work and/or proper health care, forced to wander the streets as shambling ghosts of war. An obvious example in the film is the first ex-soldier that Sakie interviews. Disgraced, his benefits denied, he is forced to live on a garbage dump. Smelling of trash, he is too embarrassed to even go into town for supplies, reduced to live the life of a filthy animal. “Legally, I don’t exist”, he says.

Our guide through this massive chasm of disconnect is Sakie, a tightly wound bundle of quiet determination and anguish, portrayed by Sachiko Hidari in an incredibly heartbreaking performance both towering and serene. The director is Kinji Fukasaku, known more for Battle Royale and bunch of Yakuza flicks. He manages to bring some of his signature style to the table (freeze frames, slo-mo, off kilter angles), paired with some unflinching violence, to construct what might be his savage masterpiece; maybe the Japanese Paths of Glory.

Since Mr. Kinji normally does things the drive-in way (adhering to a credo of “blood, breasts, and volatile gangsters with dragon tattoos that cover their backs”), I’ll go ahead and tally up the drive-in totals. We have: bureaucracy-fu, firing squad-fu, gratuitous potato theft, shell shock-fu, depression-fu,
gratuitous patriotism, propaganda-fu, starvation-fu, malaria-fu, superior officer-fu, gratuitous cannibalism, failed decapitation-fu, and, of course, gratuitous atomic bomb-fu. Drive-in nomination for Kinji Fukasaku, for having the courage to honestly depict the dehumanizing horrors of war (as well as the pathetic attempt to sweep these horrors under the rug), and doing it the drive-in way.

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