The Kinoshita Project is a chronological exploration of all the Keisuke Kinoshita movies offered through the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.
With a title as bold and singular as The Army, you would expect Keisuke Kinoshita’s third feature* – a film actually sponsored by the Army Ministry of Japan – to be a real barnburner, full of action, bravery, and flag-waving patriotism. The opening shots of army columns, cannons, and battle would lead you to believe that your expectations are about to be fully met. And then, in the strangest way, they are not met at all. In fact, the entire movie is a recapitulation of our own unmet expectations, as the film’s central characters’ desires for front line battle service go unmet. After the first couple of minuets, neither filmgoer or movie character will be privileged to even one gunshot or fight. This is not The Patriot.
For a wartime propaganda film, The Army is decidedly strange. It almost functions as an un-war movie; its characters don’t go off to war and they don’t even participate in homeland war efforts like making munitions. The film’s design is never to convince potential soldiers that battle is exciting; rather, it aims to convince Japan, as a nation, that it is ready to fight and win.
The Army is loosely structured around Tomohiko, an Army Captain who never sees a moment of battle. The film follows him during the Japan-Shino war and the Russo-Japan war as he is confined to his bed and given other, less exciting military duties. Tomohiko is a sickly man, constantly frustrated by his own “cowardice” and inability to serve on the battlefield. During peacetime, Tomohiko and his wife run a store and have two children of their own; one sickly, like his father, and the other a strong baby. Though their oldest child, Shintaro, is constantly weak and a sissy to boot, the parents are determined to see him enter the army and fight in battle. Tomohiko, constantly bothered by his past defeats, is perhaps living vicariously through his son; if Tomohiko couldn’t serve his nation, then maybe his progeny could be healthy and brave enough to fight for Japan in World War II.
As it turns out, Shintaro is able to overcome his cowardice and serves in the army. We never see him fighting, but the movie’s cheerful ending suggests that, unlike his father, he has overcome his bodily ailments and gained the necessary courage to fight.
This trajectory suggests that Japan, tired of being defeated in past wars and unrecognized as a great nation, was finally strong enough to defend itself and claim its rightful status. The Army would have played to a ready audience of Japanese citizens in 1944. The intent of the film – to rouse the nation into believing that this time Japan would surly win – would have raised hopes across the nation as World War II was drawing to its close. That intent seems more pitifully ironic than inspirational today. Perspective is everything.
The retrospective irony of The Army almost makes it seem as though Kinoshita’s film is an intended farce, a critical reworking of Japan’s own blind pride, unearned megalomania, and unblinking determination.
Though The Army is littered with old men moaning about their lack of battle experience and at the same time proffering no uncertain advice on soldiering and patriotic philosophies, this near-farce has its apotheosis in one scene in which two old men – who haven’t served in battle during any war – have an argument the notion that Japan could’ve lost to the Mongols if it hadn’t been for “The Divine Wine” (or Kamikaze), two wind storms that saved Japan in 1274. One man suggests that if Japan did not have “The Divine Wind”, they might be a Mongol nation now; his opponent in debate is affronted at the very idea that Japan could lose. Perhaps representative of the broader Japanese mentality, the second man believes that even suggesting that Japan might been defeated under different circumstances is to trample on the nation in the most unpatriotic of ways. The idea is unbelievable to him. The man who suggests the hypothetical loss has volunteered in the Russo-Japan War and organized a “Serve the Nation Club”. He is a clear patriot and an honest man; also, he’s a realist. As the argument progresses, the level of absurdity raises to the point that the two men agree they cannot work with each other any longer. Since Japan did not lose to the Mongols, the argument is only over what might have happened. The idea of patriotism (not just Japanese patriotism, mind you) never seemed more moronic than during this pointed scene.
Based on that conversation, which to my eyes has no farcical intentions, you’d be led to believe that the Japanese have no sense of imagination. We know that’s not true, but if The Army proves anything it is that the Japanese imagination (and maybe the collective imaginations of any nation) can be severely limited in times of war.
I am quite sure that Japan and its citizens were roused by The Army and felt that they would defeat the Americans. War propaganda films never look the same once the war is over.
*Kinoshita’s second feature, Port of Flowers, is unavailable at this time.
This concludes the second installment of The Kinoshita Project. Next we will cover Jubilation Street (1944).