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Film review: war trickles to an end in Japanese drama The Emperor in August

Masato Harada's film is an elegant yet overly detached account of events leading up to Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 10:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 10:48am

The filmmaking world’s mythical quest for objectiveness in political dramas continues with The Emperor in August, an elegant yet overly detached account of events leading up to Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Non-history buffs probably need not apply.

Adapted by writer-director Masato Harada (Chronicle of My Mother) from a 1988 book by Japanese historian Kazutoshi Hando, the new film aims to put nuance over sentiment in its effort to rework materials previously tackled in the 1967 movie Japan’s Longest Day, directed by Kihachi Okamoto and based also on Hando’s earlier writings.

The action of Emperor begins in April 1945, when navy admiral Kantaro Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) reluctantly comes out of retirement to become the beleaguered nation’s prime minister under the plea of Emperor Hirohito (Masahiro Motoki), who’s posthumously known as Emperor Showa. Meanwhile, the former aide-de-camp Korechika Anami (Koji Yakusho) is appointed army minister to anchor the cabinet.

After it breezes past footage of the firebombing of Tokyo on May 25, as well as several tediously reconstructed meetings that the emperor holds with his war council in the imperial palace’s bomb shelter that June, the film abruptly wakes the slumbering members of its audience with the thunderous bang of the Nagasaki bombing on the morning of August 9.

Emperor then morphs into an incessant torrent of short scenes, each of which is marked with onscreen texts that pinpoint, often unnecessarily, its exact time and location. Combining the precision of a thriller and – for at least a third of the film – the intensity of a siesta, it gives an immersive impression of how time ticks away before the pacifist emperor’s surrender announcement on radio six days later.

In-between, we witness the cabinet members’ reaction to the bombings and the Soviet Union’s betrayal, with their stance to fight on evolving through countless debates into an acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. The only suspense comes with a last-gasp coup d’état incited by major Kenji Hatanaka (Tori Matsuzaka), who wishes desperately to keep the war going on home soil.

Though he’s named in the title, the emperor charismatically portrayed by Motoki remains a one-dimensional role; his humanistic concern for the people over national polity leaves little to the imagination. As the de-facto protagonist here, Anami is the only one to benefit from a full character arc, coming across as a war hero who has finally outlived his purpose.

While the rebels’ attempt to lure the army into joining the coup serves as one of the few dramatic interests in this meandering film, viewers intrigued by the Japanese psyche at the time may be frustrated by the lack of any perceptible moral in the elusive narrative. There isn’t even a hint throughout this mourning drama of Japan’s role as a perpetrator of the war.

The Emperor in August opens on August 27