Shuei Matsubayashi's Battle of ihe Japan Sea is perhaps one of the best, and only portrayals of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The whole film is done extremely well, right down to the musical score and effects. For an American, it may be odd seeing wars from the Japanese perspective (Matsubayashi was extremely right wing in the Japanese sense and imperialist, becoming depressed for many years after Japan lost World War II.) however the film treats the foreign sides surprisingly well compared to some other war films from Japan such as Battle of Okinawa (1971). The film is over two hours long in runtime, but is fun to watch.
As the constant narration explains, at the end of the 19th century, several developed European countries invaded China. After intense rioting in 1901, the troops defending the embassies were forced to return home. However, Russia stayed behind at the chief port guarding Manchu. The Japanese did not take this well. Russia ignored their pleas to leave, and Japan felt that if Russia took Manchu and Korea their own safety would be threatened. A proposal for war presents a problem, due to Russia's combined forces being twice as large as Japan's forces.
To counter this if war happens, Heihachiro Togo is given command. A proposal is to defeat the Russian navy in one fell swoop. The largest threat posed to Japan is the so-called Asian fleet and thus the best strategy would be to annihilate them first and foremost. On the day of the Santa Maria Celebration, the Japanese invade Port Jensen, ordering anchored Russian ships to pull away. After they did, the ships were assaulted by Japanese ships waiting outside the port. Meanwhile, off the coast of Port Arthur, Japan's main fleet discovered a Russian fleet. Four Russian battleships were sunk. However, Russian artillery bombarded the attacking ships and inflicted considerable damage. On February 10th, Russian ships attacked the Sea of Japan's fleet. In order to defeat them, Admiral Togo had the 2nd fleet lead by Lt. Admiral Kamimura counterattack. The battle sets in motion to decide the fate of Japan. At the same time, Major Genjiro Akashi makes negotiations with the Bolsheviks that could potentially change the face of the war...
The actors in this film provide a serviceable performance. Toshiro Mifune as Heihachiro Togo provides the standout performance. Showing an extremely stoic performance, Mifune projects authority in all his lines as Togo. Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune's frequent costar, gives another stalwart performance as Genjiro Akashi, whose confident attitude about the Russians and humanity in general makes his character very likeable. Perhaps the only bad point in the acting goes as always to the foreign actors. The foreign actors like Harold Conway don't seem to give much confidence in the performance, and they read all their Russian lines phonetically, even I, who speaks barely four words of Russian, think that the actors' enunciation of their Russian lines isn't very good. Thankfully, the rest of the supporting cast is handled well, played by longtime veterans of Toho such as Jun Tazaki and Kenji Sahara, mostly thanks to Matsubayashi's great direction.
Eiji Tsuburaya gives his final effects direction work here, and it is done fantastically. The art direction looks beautiful and the naval battles still look excellent today, with each ship hit by explosions taking noticeable damage. The ships themselves look great, with so much detail presented on each one it's hard not to praise Tsuburaya and his crew by the end of the film. The night shots look excellent with the ships against the backdrop, and the land battles are also done fantastically effectswise. Explosives go off all over the battlefield, and the aftermath of the battle is shown in tasteful yet heavy detail, with craters from shells all over and the corpses of soldiers litter the area. Camerawork and editing are tight as usual for Tsuburaya’s team. If you’ve only seen Tsuburaya’s work on the Godzilla series, you are missing out on his best stuff.
Music by Masaru Sato is very strong, perhaps his most rousing work ever attached to a Toho project. The main theme used throughout the work is an earworm and in a very good sense as it is rousing and very fitting for the film. The effective use of chorus and brass throughout the film makes for a very fun score to listen to and another great piece of music is the one used after the land battle portion of Tsushima is over…it is a song called “Sen Yuu”, a wartime song from the Meiji era. The score makes a good standalone listening experience as I have the soundtrack.
Overall, the film is a very good introduction to Toho's war films. Not too overtly violent or poltical like most Kihachi Okamoto works, it is easier for most American viewers to watch than some others such as Battle of Okinawa (1971) and Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972). Do I recommend it? Yes.