Now here's an experience. The Army is a Japanese propaganda film from 1944. If you're a film buff or you watch TCM a lot you've probably seen plenty of American movies from the '40s that were overflowing with patriotism. That didn't always stop the makers from producing entertaining and thoughtful films. They Were Expendable is a classic through and through. But a lot of movies from that period weren't that deft and a lot of them are too heavy handed for audiences. And we're not just talking about today's PC obsessed world. Many of these films fell into obscurity immediately after the war ended.
Then there are the films made by the Axis powers. Triumph of the Will is well known. I knew the Japanese film industry continued to function during the war but I'd never seen films from that era until I started this project. I rather enjoyed the 47 Ronin made in 1941. It is a classic tale that can be enjoyed today if you're a fan of Mizoguchi. The Army is of a different stripe. For most of it's run time it is a tub thumping endorsement of the militarist government of Japan. The film pleads with its audience to resist the Allies to the last man. Unfortunately that policy would have a great impact on the decision to unleash the atomic bomb.It's hard to watch this film without feeling a twinge. It's like seeing a drunk getting behind the wheel of a car knowing that he's going to kill himself in a crash.
The story follows three generations of the same family as Japan moves from a isolated feudal country to a modern nation at war with Britain, America and the Soviet Union. The story's main focus is on a father and his sickly and weak son. The mother and mother try to toughen up their son so he can be a soldier in the army. This is portrayed as being the highest honor. The mother states in the film that parents only watch over their children for the Emperor until they are ready to "give them back" as in send them off to fight and die in the wars. It's a chilling idea.
The film constantly uses Japanese history and tradition as an excuse for war. The father is a rabid chauvinist who insists that Japanese fighting spirit will over come all odds. That's the default message when a country is losing a war as Japan clearly was in 1944. The odd thing is the film manages to get some humor out of this character. The father is too combative and gets into arguments with his friends and coworkers about history.
What's fascinating is that this film was made by Keisuke Kinoshita who would make Apostasy just four years later. There it's Japan's tradition that are the problem, not the unquestioned truth as they are in this movie.
Despite the heavy handed propaganda the movie does end with a powerful sequence. The mother has stayed behind to care for the shop. But when she hears the music she rushes out into the street. The army is marching through the streets on its way to the front lines. The mother desperately searches for her son. She sees him at the very last and they exchange a look. There is no doubt that this will be the last time they will see each other. Somehow Kinoshita got that shot in there.
I really recommend The Army unless you're interested in propaganda films, Japanese film history or the career of Keisuke Kinoshita. The film has some great moments both as a film and a story but it was made to deliver a message. And the message drowns out the rest of the film.