Yesterday, August 15, was the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. It was on that date in 1945 that a recorded speech by Emperor Hirohito was broadcast to the Japanese people to formally declare surrender and end all activities related to the war effort. (My father, then stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, was one of the marines assigned to the invasion fleet being prepared to embark for Japan.) I used the occasion yesterday to finally watch a lengthy film (157 minutes) entitled JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967), which dramatizes the events of August 14-15, 1945, and the decision to agree to surrender terms and formally end the war. Available on DVD from AnimEigo, it was produced in black-and-white by Toho Pictures and directed by Kihachi Okamoto (SWORD OF DOOM), with an all-star cast of Toho stars, including Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Chishu Ryu, So Yamamura, Yuzo Kayama, Susumu Fujita, and practically every actor we know from every kaiju movie: Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Yoshifumi Tajima, with only Akira Takarada and Franky Sakai notable by their absence. Tatsuya Nakadai does the narration. There’s an extraordinarily large number of speaking parts, most of them military officers, and at a certain point, it becomes very difficult to keep track of who’s who and what their roles are in certain events. There’s only one woman with a speaking role in the entire film, a household servant in the home of Prime Minister Suzuki, and she’s seen briefly when a group of rebellious soldiers tear through the place looking to kill Suzuki. (The IMDB cast list identifies the character as Yuriko Hara, played by Michiyo Aratama, although the woman is never identified in the film.)
The first half of the film focuses on the cabinet ministers and their various meetings, with continued debate over whether to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration put forth by President Harry Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, with most ministers willing to accept the terms but the military ministers, led by the Minister of War, General Korechika Anami (Toshiro Mifune), putting up resistance. All this culminates in consultation with the Emperor who decides on surrender to avoid further damage to Japan from atomic bombs (which have already been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and an impending Soviet invasion. When he expresses this decision, many of the cabinet ministers drop to their knees and most of them start crying in paroxysms of grief. Eventually, they have to come up with the wording of the “Imperial Rescript.”
General Anami had expressed a desire to continue fighting and in the discussion over the wording, he offers the preposterous notion that Japanese military losses have been a matter of logistics. All the battles had been on small islands. If the army is allowed to defend their homeland, they’ll have ample space in which to fight. The Minister of the Navy, Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai (So Yamamura), is incredulous and starts rattling off statistics of the huge numbers of Japanese war dead in places like Burma and the numbers of soldier and civilian dead in the then-recent Battle of Okinawa, not exactly a small island. Anami insists that they all died out of a love for Japan (which would have been big news to the tens of thousands of dead Okinawan civilians caught between the Allied invaders and the Japanese soldiers occupying the island) and they will have died in vain if the wording of the surrender acknowledges Japan’s inability to continue waging an effective war. So they change the wording.
All of this takes a lot of bureaucratic back-and-forth, delaying the actual recording by several hours, even though it had been planned for 6PM on August 14 and the recording crew had been setting up at the palace all day. When the recording is finished around midnight, one of the palace chamberlains is assigned to store the records on which the surrender announcement has been recorded (78 rpm) until they can be taken to the broadcast studio the next day to be played over the air at 12:00 PM. This chamberlain uses the office of the Empress’s private secretary and stores the discs under some documents in a strong box in a cabinet. He’s the only one who knows where they are and if anything happens to him, there’ll be no broadcast unless the Emperor does it live, an option that had already been ruled out. (No one ever questions the viability of this plan; the records are simply turned over to the chamberlain and no one tracks what he does with them, nor is extra security provided.)
(During the whole process of negotiation over the wording of the Rescript and the frequent shots of the round table where the cabinet ministers sit for their meetings, I was reminded of the scenes of the War Room in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and the absurdity of the proceedings there.)
In the meantime, officers within the Military Affairs Section, led by Major Hatanaka (Toshio Kurosawa), hear about the impending announcement and are completely outraged. In their eyes, there can be no surrender. They are prepared to fight to the bitter end and they set about drumming up support among the officers in charge of different units and different armies for a coup that will involve taking over the palace and preventing the broadcast. They even try to enlist the aid of General Anami, who has gone home after signing the Rescript to prepare to commit seppuku.
Long, complicated story short: the coup leaders confront Lt. General Mori (Shogo Shimada) and kill him and his top aide and then rally the troops at their disposal to take over the palace and imprison anyone they find and then search the place top to bottom for the discs with the recording on them. They manage to deceive many top officers into thinking Mori signed off on this and that Anami is in their corner also. Eventually, a few key officers find out the truth and gradually put a stop to it all. In the meantime, other zones of resistance are shown: a unit of soldiers from Yokohama attempts to find and assassinate Prime Minister Suzuki (Chishu Ryu); a Navy officer commanding Atsugi Air Base, Captain Yasuna Kozono (Jun Tazaki), insists on defying the surrender; and a squadron of 36 kamikaze pilots stationed in Kodama is sent out to meet an American fleet of three aircraft carriers and 30 ships rumored to be on their way to the Boso Peninsula.
There’s way too much going on and too many details to keep track of. One needs a score card just to keep track of the different military units involved. Whole plot threads disappear when it gets inconvenient to keep them around so we never find out, for instance, what exactly happened to that fighter squadron. And when telegrams are worded and ordered sent to Japanese diplomats in the neutral countries of Sweden and Switzerland to convey the decision to surrender to the Allies, we never hear another word about them. After the coup has begun, I initially found it very hard to discern any notable opposition to it among any of the main military characters, other than Mori, the commander of the Imperial Guard, who is slain for his stance. Yet there has to have been considerable opposition since it was quickly suppressed. Eventually, General Shizuichi Tanaka (Kenjiro Ishiyama) of the Eastern District Army gets wind of it all, hurries to the palace and puts a stop to it. But this is very late in the film and by this point a lot of damage has been done, a lot of government and Imperial officials have been imprisoned, and the rebels came mighty close to finding the recordings. Eventually, as we all know, the recording was played and Japan surrendered. (Interestingly, the Emperor is treated here like Jesus Christ has sometimes been treated in Hollywood films—think BEN-HUR—in the way that he’s seen only from behind or from a distance, with his face blocked.)
It’s an incredibly suspenseful film. At every step of the way, anything could go wrong and derail the whole surrender process. (Admiral Yonai even says as much.) And I wasn’t so sure the film wouldn’t end with the failure to broadcast the surrender and the continuation of the war. The military officers who lead the coup are unmistakably portrayed as fanatics, especially the ones outside of Tokyo, like the monstrous individual with gnarly teeth in charge of the Yokohama unit which tries to assassinate the Prime Minister; the raving lunatic who sends 36 young pilots out on an absolutely hopeless kamikaze mission against a massive American fleet; and the Atsugi air base commander stricken with malaria who vows to fight to the death, claiming he’s following the Imperial will, if not the actual orders in the decree to stop fighting. On the other hand, I’m not so sure there wasn’t a veiled admiration on the part of the filmmakers toward Hatanaka and the young officers who lead the takeover of the palace by the Imperial guards. While it was clear to my American eyes that these young men were also fanatics eager to continue a self-destructive war to fulfill some mad ideas of honor and glory, they might also be subtly imbued with the stuff of noble, tragic heroes who waged a last desperate stand to spare their nation the humiliation of defeat.
And it’s quite obvious that those key military figures who were on the fence about a coup would have easily gone along with it had they been encouraged by higher-ranking authorities. One Imperial Guard commander, Colonel Toyojiro Haga (Susumu Fujita), is all set to join in because he’s been told that General Anami will be arriving to lead the effort. When he realizes he’s been deceived he is outraged and immediately orders a stop to the coup even though it’s somewhat out of his hands by then.
The film dramatizes in stark detail the mindset of the Japanese military during the war and their stubborn refusal to accept defeat even when their resources had dwindled and they had little to fight with except a fierce fanatical will to fight to the death. The army leaders think of the Japanese people as the repository of the Japanese spirit and never give a thought to the horrors they’re experiencing and the privations they’re suffering. As long as the soldiers have the support of the “people,” the fight can go on. We even see this demonstrated in a scene at Kodama where the kamikaze pilots are given a send-off by cheering, flag-waving crowds of women and children who sing a song of victory in battle against the hated enemy.
It also dramatizes the clunky bureaucratic nature of the painstaking decision-making process involving the different cabinet ministers and the Emperor and the negotiations involved in simply wording a telegram to respond to the terms offered by the Potsdam Declaration. The time between the decision to surrender and the actual recording of the announcement is painfully long and frequently interrupted by various obstacles. It took six whole days for the surrender to be announced following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. During that time, Allied planes continued conventional bombing raids on Japanese cities, including Tokyo. The night before the broadcast, in fact, B-29 bombers destroyed the city of Kumagaya, an event mentioned in the film. And then, once the recording is done, we have to hope and pray that the coup doesn’t completely block the effort.
One of the last sentiments expressed in the film by a high government official is spoken by Prime Minister Suzuki right after he has called on the cabinet ministers to all resign after the surrender. “From now on, Japan must be led by much younger people,” he tells one of his colleagues. Unfortunately, such a statement doesn’t offer much hope, given the context supplied by the film, since the younger men portrayed are the most fanatic about continuing the war and the few voices of reason come from the elders. Projecting outward, this advice was never taken up by the Japanese political establishment, which kept putting older men in positions of power, right up until the 21st century. The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who previously served as P.M. from 2006-2007, was the first Prime Minister born after the war. However, he came from a long line of politicians and his grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, who served in Tojo’s cabinet during the war and was held in prison afterwards, was Prime Minister from 1957-1960. I’m guessing that the filmmakers included that line as a message to the then-current administration in Japan. This was 1967, after all. But, alas, it went unheeded.
At the end of the film, we see blocks of text giving figures of war dead among Japanese soldiers and civilians, but not a word about the millions of deaths caused by Japan’s war of aggression in Asia and the Pacific.
I looked up the events described in the film in a couple of books I have. In Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins, 2000), by Herbert P. Bix, the actions of the rebellious officers are summed up in a couple of sentences on p. 519:
At this point an attempt by a small group of middle-echelon officers in Tokyo to reject Byrnes’s reply forced Hirohito to repeat his sacred decision on August 14. These last-minute coup attempts at the palace and at Atsugi air base did not amount to much and were aborted. Hirohito’s decision of August 10 had totally demoralized the military bureaucrats at Imperial Headquarters and stripped them of the will to fight. Once Army Chief of Staff Umezu had explained to his subordinates that the emperor ‘had lost all confidence in the military,’ those in favor of fighting to the finish abruptly gave up.
As portrayed in the film, the officers refusing surrender didn’t exactly come off as “totally demoralized.” When I looked up this incident on Google, I found a Wikipedia page devoted to The Kyūjō Incident, which basically described the events of the second half of the film in some detail:
And when I looked it up in John Toland’s The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire (Modern Library, 1970), I found a chapter that detailed pretty much everything that happened in the coup sequences of the film, right down to some of the dialogue. I’m guessing that Toland relied on the book that was the source for the film’s screenplay as the basis for his research, Japan’s Longest Day, by Oya Soichi.
Finally, here’s Akira Kurosawa’s description of the reaction on the street to the Emperor’s broadcast on August 15, as recorded in his autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography (Vintage Books, 1983), first quoted here in my piece on Kurosawa’s wartime film, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1943), published on September 17, 2012:
On August 15, 1945, I was summoned to the studio along with everyone else to listen to the momentous proclamation on the radio: the Emperor himself was to speak over the air waves. I will never forget the scenes I saw as I walked the streets that day. On the way from Soshigaya to the studios in Kinuta the shopping street looked fully prepared for the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million. The atmosphere was tense, panicked. There were even shopowners who had taken their Japanese swords from their sheaths and sat staring at the bare blades.
However, when I walked the same route back to my home after listening to the imperial proclamation, the scene was entirely different. The people in the shopping street were bustling about with cheerful faces as if preparing for a festival the next day. I don’t know if this represents Japanese adaptability or Japanese imbecility. In either case, I have to recognize that both these facets exist in the Japanese personality. Both facets exist within my own personality as well.
If the Emperor had not delivered his address urging the Japanese people to lay down their swords—if that speech had been a call instead for the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million—those people on that street in Soshigaya probably would have done as they were told and died. And probably I would have done likewise. The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life. We were accustomed to this teaching and had never thought to question it.
I felt that without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy. My first film in the post-war era, Waga seishun ni kui nashi (No Regrets for Our Youth), takes the problem of the self as its theme.
In any event, I did find it disconcerting to see so many beloved Japanese actors playing military fanatics. I’d only recently re-watched GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), in which Akira Kubo plays a goofy inventor who joins Nick Adams in battling an alien invasion. Yet here he plays one of the lead conspirators in the coup. And Jun Tazaki, who played the leader of the World Space Authority in the Godzilla film, plays the diehard Atsugi air base commander who holds out to the bitter end here.
On the other hand, some of the actors in the cast, most notably Takashi Shimura and Susumu Fujita, had even appeared in wartime propaganda films. And many of the older actors, Mifune included, had served in the Japanese military during the war.
Cut to yesterday in Japan, Emperor Akihito had this to say on the 70th Anniversary of the surrender:
…in contrast to what Prime Minister Abe had to say (or not say):