5.0 out of 5 stars Typhoon of Steel
Although best known in the West for his samurai flicks such as The Sword of Doom And Kill!, almost 1/3rd of director Okamoto Kihachi’s work was war films. A soldier himself during the Second World War, he knew first hand the trauma and cost of total war. It is never simply a battle between soldiers, and non-combatant citizens often pay the heaviest toll of all.
“Battle of Okinawa” (“Gekido no showashi: Okinawa kessen”) is Okamoto’s attempt to tell the story of one of the bloodiest battles of the US/Japan war. Unlike such films as Tora! Tora! Tora! and Letters from Iwo Jima, this movie is told entirely from the Japanese point of view, or more particularly the Okinawan point of view. These are the people…general, barber, soldier, nurse, farmer, student, prostitute…who lived and died under the “typhoon of steel” lasting 82 days and ending with 1/4th of the civilian population of the island dead along with roughly 66,000 dead Japanese soldiers and 12,000 American.
A movie without main characters, an ensemble cast of familiar faces play the various walks of life bound up in the conflict. Kobayashi Keiju (Chushingura) plays the old Gen. Ushijima, a man trying his best to fight a hopeless battle with dignity and honor. His two aids, Tamba Tetsuro (Three Outlaw Samurai) and Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri) are the classic Hawk and Dove, with Tamba pushing for a glorious all-out attack and Nakadai wanting to go defensive and save lives. Tanaka Kunie (The Wolves) plays a hapless barber who joins the military staff in order to provide for his family, who has been sent to the mountains to hide. Ozora Mayumi (Samurai Banners) is a cheerful prostitute-turned-nurse who tries to keep spirits up while everything turns bleaker. There are many, many other characters that appear and disappear, live and die, in an eye blink, but add to the overall tapestry.
Politically speaking, as all war films are political, the general message is “war is bad for everyone, but especially the losers”. Although told from a Japanese perspective, there are heroes and villains enough to satisfy, and this definitely isn’t a “poor Japan”-type of flick. The soldiers try to believe they are dying for a good cause, but that belief becomes harder and harder to maintain. The civilians want to support their country, but they end up being slaughtered by ally and enemy alike, and sometimes it is easier just to kill themselves and get the job done early. The massive suicides of the Okinawan people are covered in this film, although the controversy surrounding it remains neutral in tone.
Almost a documentary more than a movie, the different character threads are intercut with actual war footage and voice over. This affects the pace of the film, which is slow and sometimes undynamic. Okamoto makes sure that the history is correct, and doesn’t sacrifice reality for drama. Not that it is by any means boring, but there is something quite studious about it. Animeigo clearly recognizes this, as some of the bonus features are intended to be used in a classroom setting for those studying WWII. I could imagine this film to be quite the effective learning tool for high schoolers, putting a face on the enemy and understanding the true cost of war.