Tetsuro Tamba / sgt. Katsuo Tomikashi
Sachiko Hidari / Sakie Tomikashi, the widow
Yumiko Fujita / Tomoko
Noboru Mitani / pvt. Tsuguo Terajima
Paul Maki / Paul
Kanemon Nakamura / Tesinjara
Shinjiro Ehara / Ochi
Isao Natsuyagi / Teacher
Koichi Yamamoto / Actor
In scope. In colour (the present) and black and white (the past).
Viewed with e-subtitles in French at La Cinémathèque française (Bercy, Salle Georges Franju), 28 July 2014
Synopsis: "La veuve d'un sous-officier condamné par une cour martiale et fusillé au lendemain de la capitulation s'élève contre le refus des autorités de lui verser une pension. Elle mène sa propre enquête auprès des anciens compagnons d'arme de son mari et finit par apprendre l'effroyable vérité."
A remarkable war film structured as an investigation of a widow, Sakie Tomikashi (Sachiro Hidari), 26 years after the end of WWII. Her husband Katsuo has been executed on the front right after the war. There is no official record, and she embarks on a journey to interview the front comrades to find out what happened. She is not getting any war widow's pension, but it is not mainly about that.
Kinji Fukasaku's film follows the Citizen Kane / Rashomon structure, and it brings to mind also The Man of Marble (made a few years later), but the subject is diametrically opposite: this is the story of the truly unknown soldier, the one on whom records have vanished.
It's not a nice story. Little by little pieces of the puzzle emerge. In New Guinea there were no provisions left. Soldiers were starving to death. Sweet potatoes were stolen. Even cannibalism was not unthinkable. Men were getting insane. Even the lieutenant went berserk, forcing sick men to hard labour, beating them to pulp, committing the crime of having an American prisoner-of-war brutally executed, and ordering his men to a general attack after the declaration of peace.
Each of the four witnesses tells a different story, but nobody remembers for sure at first. There is a story of a hero at the battlefield, the story of a potato thief, the story of a cannibal, and the story of a sergeant who killed his lieutenant. Each story reveals a new aspect of the war. Even the officers' viewpoint is included: punishment was necessary to maintain order. And that order made post-war Japan the second greatest industrial power.
To be sure, Katsuo had broken the law, but so had everyone else, and most blatantly and repeatedly his immediate superior, the lieutenant.
In his film Kinji Fukasaku casts a multi-angled view on war, but the flashback structure offers also a series of reflections on modern society. Official patriotic flag ceremonies are seen in the opening and in the ending. War criminals have been rehibilitated and paths have been opened to them even to the top position of the prime minister.
Many soldiers have never recovered. "My true life ended with the war", states Corporal Akiba. Sergeant Ochi has become an alcoholic who has lost his eyesight by bad sake; he is also a brutal wife-beater and rapist; in the last glimpse of him he is taken in his coffin to the funeral. "Everybody died the same death", he had said to Sakie. "We all perished on the front". One of the front mates is now an actor, reenacting the madness of war night after night. Another has married the daughter of a farmer and never looked back. Yet another hailed from Hiroshima; his entire family perished in the nuclear holocaust. But "the country had wanted war".
The most striking fate is that of Tsuguo Terajima. Of Katsuo's platoon he is the single survivor. Too weak to move, he had remained in the camp where the mad lieutenant had been slaughtered and buried; only an arm remained. That he ate, and strengthened, he followed the others and told what happened, undermining their official story that the lieutenant had committed suicide having heard of Japan's defeat. All the four others were executed. Only Tsuguo survived. Unable ever again to settle with ordinary life, he lives isolated in a junkyard, literally in a pigsty, for ever in no-man's-land.
Fukasaku juxtaposes war hell with images of modern Japan: skyscrapers, lay figures, and traffic jams.
Among the memorable images is the final handful of rice requested by Katsuo before the execution.
Fukasaku's cinematic means include - newsreel footage - photo montages - information bulletins - statistics - factual captions - - - and zooms - handheld camera - extreme high angle shots - close-ups - freeze frames - tilted angles - slow motion - splatter.
The style is not elegant, but there is a sense of anger and urgency. There are affinities with Oshima and Fuller (Verboten!).
There is a sense of complexity in Sakie's journey to discover the truth, and in the dramaturgy of the irreconcilable differences between the views of the witnesses.
Gunki hatameku motoni belongs to the war films that matter because it conveys Fukasaku's first hand war experience in a unique and unforgettable fashion. Like in Leo Tolstoy's Sevastopol Tales, there is only one hero in this story: the truth.
Gunki hatameku motoni is an anti-war film which is also profoundly an anti-authoritarian film.
Thanks to Sachiro Hidari's deeply felt performance the woman's perspective becomes central in a way that is rare in war stories.
I enjoyed the photochemical quality of the print that seems to convey the original and authentic visual sense. It is a used print, maybe even a vintage one, and I don't mind some scratches in a print radiating such good basic health as this. The scratches are its well-earned war scars.