Kihachi Okamoto's Battle Of Okinawa is an excellent film, being made mostly from the memoirs of Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as this film's creative consultant. It details almost every aspect of the pivotal battle with narration by voice actor Kiyoshi Kobayashi explaining what the film doesn't directly show. To the entire production crew's credit, almost every aspect of the film shines.
For the story, American battle forces in World War II are beginning the final push towards mainland Japan. The island nation of Okinawa stands between them and the mainland. To defend it, a task force consisting of the 32nd Army is assembled, led by General Mitsuru Ushijima, Lieutenant General Isamu Cho, and Colonel Hiromichi Yahara. However, several divisions are moved to Taiwan and the Philippines, reducing the amount of soldiers on the defensive. Yahara composes a bold plan to lie in wait of the American forces, utilizing Okinawa's natural landscape to combat the American forces. Women and children are moved to caves to shield them from the oncoming assault, but many of them help out with the defense also. Lacking air support and only having artillery as back up in the defense, can the 32nd Army hold out against the onslaught of the Allies?
The plotting is very much like a war documentary only with actors playing out the roles. Despite this, Okamoto's trademark black comedy is on display throughout the film. For instance, the nurse/comfort woman has all the great comic relief moments of the film, such as having to take a bathroom break when Okinawa is being shelled, and pretending to be dead after a shell lands yards from her. On the serious side, most of the minor characters, for instance Katsuhiko Sasaki as the communications officer, play some role in the long term plot and most are seen getting killed horribly by the end to add to the impact. The film is also paced very nicely. It doesn't leave out much of the Japanese side of the battle at all, while the edits between different areas are done flawlessly. Overall the plotting is done expertly, as Okamoto never loiters on a point too long.
The acting in this film is fantastically directed. The standout role is Keiju Kobayashi as Mitsuru Ushijima. Having just played another World War II authority figure, Hideki Tojo, in the previous year’s The Militarists (1970), Kobayashi brings all kinds of emotions to the table as Ushijima, from extreme anger, to maniacal laughter (when he finds out Simon Buckner was killed by artillery fire). The second leading man, Tatsuya Nakadai, gives an exceptionally well-done performance as Hiromichi Yahara. Yahara shows extreme reservations when planning the assault on Okinawa. Nakadai is fairly subdued compared to Kobayashi, but has a few standout moments in the film. Tetsuro Tamba, portraying the deplorable (in my view as Cho is the one who ordered the Rape Of Nanking) Isamu Cho, brings an air of psychopathic glee in scenes such as when Cho boasts about the allegations that a large percentage of US war wounded are brain-damaged. There are moments in the film where he shows more range, almost on the level of Kobayashi, but he never gets to shine as much. A special note should be given to the narration, which storyboards the events of the film, placing the drama against actual newsreel footage. Often, haikus are read as part of the narration, which gives the film a docudrama feel and enhances the scope of the film by many times.
Teruyoshi Nakano, in his first war film outing as chief director of special effects, gives a more subdued feel to his effects this time, as often, the effects are hidden among the sepia-toned newsreel footage. It’s very hard to tell which part of the footage is newsreel and which are miniatures. Nakano also films with director Okamoto on some scenes that have extensive effects work going on at the same time as the drama, such as when Japanese forces assault the landing American planes and destroy a number of them. The blood/gore effects Nakano and Okamoto slip in tend to range from slightly fake such as the arm flying off a soldier, to ultra realistic, such as one soldier being disemboweled by gunfire. Normally I’d neglect to mention things like this, but this is an R-rated film for a reason. The entire 5 minute finale brings the film above Saving Private Ryan in terms of graphic violence. I wouldn’t recommend this film for younger viewers at all.
The score by Masaru Sato, while not as noteworthy as his score for Battle of the Japan Sea (1969), still features a few notable cues. The main title music would be reused by Sato as the Okinawa theme in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), also set on Okinawa. There is a fairly nice cue used throughout the film, usually when kamikaze planes are taking off or attacking, that is a somewhat solemn yet stirring military march. Sato leaves much of the film unscored, but the sections that are scored are nice to listen to.
On a final note, one thing that bothers many viewers about this film is the portrayal of the US forces as faceless enemies, usually with their eyes obscured by their helmets. One can chalk this up to Toho not having many "gaijin actors" available, but it does seem fairly racist if not. However it is a film from the Japanese perspective, so it is somewhat forgivable.
I recommend this film wholeheartedly, although it isn’t for the squeamish, as the violence can get fairly graphic at times. Touches of dark humor throughout make it a nice film to watch. Nothing really is flawed in this film. For war movie enthusiasts and Okamoto fans, this is a great film.