Fighting Soldiers

Original title
Tatakau Heitai
Japanese title
  • 戦う兵隊
Running time
66 minutes
21 November 2002
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Halfway through the 15-year war in China, the Japanese War Ministry enlisted Toho Studios' Culture Film section to produce a movie documenting the Japanese military operation in Wuhan. Toho chose Fumio Kamei, fresh from his work as editor on Toho's 1938 propaganda film Shanghai, to direct the new work. Kamei was shipped off to the front with a small crew including cameraman Shigeru Miki (known for his work on Mizoguchi's 1933 White Threads of the Waterfall / Taki no Shiraito), and the resulting footage was used to great effect, but to the dismay of the producers the completed film featured limp and listless soldiers on a desolated landscape where it should have been boosting morale and exalting the Japanese war effort.

In one oft-quoted episode, during an advance screening of Fighting Soldiers the chief of the Japanese Metropolitan Police Board's Thought Police stood up in his seat and protested, "These aren't fighting soldiers, they're tired soldiers!" The film thus failed to impress the government and was banned from release, its provocative images of the front never reaching the public. This certainly didn't score any patriotism points for the peace-wishing 30-year old, who after completing the legendary Kobayashi Issa in 1941 was arrested and detained for a year on the grounds of violating the so-called Peace Preservation Law. As such Kamei was the only Japanese film director to be jailed during the war, and Fighting Soldiers became a 'phantom' casualty of film history until an edited print was discovered on a sound stage in 1975. Today Kamei's film is widely recognized as a defining work of Japanese documentary cinema.

Where Frank Capra's Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy films conspired to use the enemy's own images against him, Kamei ironically took a similar approach to pictures of the front. The film was recorded with synchronized sound (Shanghai was the first Japanese documentary to do this) but no narration, and Kamei skillfully placed text intertitles throughout the film to create a dissonance between the rhetoric of wartime ideals and the reality of devastation that faced all life in China. Fighting Soldiers shows us one miserable example after another of the war's "successes". The film opens with a title explaining that the soldiers at the front showed a great deal of support for the film, but throughout the campaign, and especially when the troops eventually reach the crumbling streets of Hankou, they appear disinterested and totally fatigued.

When the titles tell us that "The continent is experiencing severe labor pains in giving birth to a new order," we see destruction - a burning village, refugees and homeless children, the face of an old man lost in shock and confusion. In one particularly jarring scene we read that the troops sometimes have to leave sick horses behind in order to pursue the enemy. "At times like this the soldiers are crying in their hearts but... it can't be helped." We then see a black horse standing alone on the side of a road, slowly wavering, stumbling and finally collapsing pathetically onto the ground to die. In the "battle" scenes, the soldiers are mere specks against a gray landscape while cannons and machine guns echo counter-rhythmically in the background. Kamei's vision of war is nearly numbing.

After 1945, Kamei worked in everything from PR films to fiction and drama, but he continued to tackle many taboo subjects in his ambitious documentary projects, including war responsibility, the aftermath of the nuclear bomb, and discrimination against buraku communities (Japan's "untouchables"). His body of work was a model for the generation of documentaries that appeared during the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. From Kamei's point of view however, Fighting Soldiers isn't exactly an "anti-war" film. Indeed, the film elicits more a state of melancholic shock from the viewer than a spirit to go out and fight. In his posthumously published book Tatakau Eiga - Dokyumentarisuto no Showa-shi (Fighting Movies: A Documentarist's Showa History, 1989), Kamei writes that he had little interest in outwardly opposing the war. Rather, he wanted to show the suffering of the land and people in China as honestly as possible:

"I wasn't enthusiastic to make an anti-war film, but I'm sure a movie by a person like myself, who wouldn't dance to the tune of the military, would have been seen in a very negative light. I never imagined that the film would be banned... However in my heart I dearly wished for an end to the war. Even on the battlefield, I didn't have any sense of the Chinese as 'enemy', and I couldn't hold a shred of hatred." (pp. 38-39)

The absence of a didactic anti-war stance in Fighting Soldiers creates an ambivalence that may be confusing for some. In an essay on Shanghai in the Winter 2002 issue of Eiga Geijutsu, director Noriaki Tsuchimoto relates a scene from the experience of the late documentary filmmaker Shinkichi Noda, who screened Fighting Soldiers before the Suginami Cineclub in the early 1970s. Rather than being impressed by the film, the documentary appreciation group greeted Noda with confusion and dissatisfaction. "We can't read any anti-war intent in this film." (Apparently even the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens had trouble seeing Fighting Soldiers and Shanghai as "anti-war" films.) Tsuchimoto suggests that this is in part due to the difference in context between the wartime audiences and filmmakers who could not openly speak out against the war, and the young activists of the postwar era who had much more room to protest, even violently, in public.

Yet as postwar Japan enjoyed increasing affluence, it almost seemed that radical political protest itself was swallowed up by the system, eventually so sensationalized and tied up in its own excesses that it became irrelevant, doomed to evaporate in the light of Japan's rising Bubble. The chilling strength of Fighting Soldiers may actually be in its subtlety, which prevents Kamei's message from slipping into a simplistic pro-war/anti-war dichotomy. Rather than shove "facts" down our throats, the film sabotages its own function as a propaganda film. It offers no simple answers - in fact no answers at all - and forces us to think, showing us that the simple truth may be vague, contradictory, and much more horrible than we ever imagined. The lessons learned from Kamei's masterpiece cast a dark shadow over the future of war representation in the cinema, and even today the film reminds us that when we hear the tanks and jets starting to rumble the best form of protest may not be a reactionary rush to take sides, but an honest and careful examination of the world around us.