Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (5/5)
November 25, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is an absolutely superb and highly engrossing, haunting and powerful anti-war film from my favorite Japanese director: Kinji Fukasaku. Fukasaku is the man responsible for everything from the stunningly brutal Battle Royale to the campy The Green Slime to highly entertaining Legend of the Eight Samurai to to the gritty and superb Graveyard of Honor. There's something for everybody to love in his repertoire of cinema. Under the Flag of the Rising Sun could be his finest film, a war film very much on par with such works as Der Untergang and Full Metal Jacket. Fresh from co-directing the Japanese segments as Akira Kurosawa's replacement for the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fukasaku was so grabbed by the subject material of the book from which this film is based that he bought the rights for it using the large paycheck he received from Tora! Tora! Tora!, penning a script with The Island and Onibaba (1964) director Kaneto Shindo.

The film's main character is a widow, Sakie, whose husband was executed in New Guinea, allegedly for desertion, at the tail end of World War II. Every year, on the anniversary of Japan's defeat, she goes to Tokyo to try and get information on how her husband really died and get his name cleared so that he can honored in the Emperor memorial service. She is finally given a list of men who served in the same battalion as her husband, whom she proceeds to track down. In the style of Kurosawa's Rashomon, each tells a very different interpretation of how her husband died, from that he died heroically charging into battle to that he was executed for committing acts of cannibalism.

If there's one thing I will say about Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is that it's not for the squeamish. It's highly upsetting and emotionally devastating, but it's also a highly important and powerful film about the horrors of warfare. It's likely the most graphic film to bear the famous Toho logo. Kinji Fukasaku, in his raging condemnation of war and the cruelty of man, spares little detail, showing starvation, pestilence, executions and even cannibalism. The film has many disturbing and shocking moments, made all the more potent by many real life black and white World War II stills that Fukasaku utilizes often in the film. Fukasaku, however, never veers into exploitation territory like many other directors have when covering disturbing historical subject matter. The film is quite a powerful one, making a very valid point: it was the government of Japan that started the Pacific War, so why must its people suffer because of it? Between this, Battle Royale and Battles Without Honor and Humanity, it becomes quite obvious: Kinji Fukasaku had no love for mankind and its cruelty and that's what made him Kinji Fukasaku. It's quite a daring film, really, considering it comes from a country well known for its conservatism.

Technically, the film is simply masterful. First off, Fukasaku's direction is absolutely superb. Interestingly enough, it was in this film in which Fukasaku began experimenting with several filmic techniques that he would become well known for using with his yakuza films such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Graveyard of Honor: gritty, handheld camera work, alternating film stocks, freeze frames and stills. All these techniques work incredibly well and really add to the film's emotional wallop. The film frequently switches from color to tinted black and white for the flashbacks to New Guinea, occasionally warping back to color for emotional impact. The cinematography by Hiroshi Segawa, who prior to this lensed Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another, is superb and the film, as I said, utilizes handheld cameras for most of the camera movement and this film is also one of Fukasaku's first to use tilted or dutch angled shots, which would also be utilized by several of Fukasaku's Nippon contemporaries, including Shunya Ito for his stellar Female Prisoner Scorpion films. The music is not by Fukasaku's usual composer, Toshiaki Tsushima, but by Kaneto Shindo's composer Hikaru Hayashi, who provided the booming score for Onibaba (2004) years prior and gives a more understated and melancholy score here. The score is, at times, quite beautiful.

The acting is simply superb. The sadly just recently deceased Tetsuro Tamba, who worked with Fukasaku from every thing from his early film Greed in Broad Daylight to his space opera Message From Space, stars as Sgt. Togami and I really think this could be his finest hour. The film, however, really belongs to Sachiko Hidari as his widow, still, grieving for her beloved husband 30 years later. The rest of the cast are not too well known. In terms of character development, the film belongs mostly to Hidari's character, who, in her quest to find out the truth, goes through several emotional phases before she realizes that her husband's soul will never rest in peace. She also, after spending the whole film trying to get her husband's name cleared so that he can be honored by the Emperor, comes to the realization, after hearing Terajima's final story, that it's not that he is unfit to be honored by the Emperor, it's that the Emperor is unfit to honor him. For, as I said, a film coming from Japan, this is quite a daring message.

All and all, the film is fantastic and one of my very favorite films, though I can't say I would recommend it to those more familiar with Toho's lighter fare.