Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (Japan, 1972)

Somewhere around 1970-1971, the great director Kinji Fukasaku used his salary from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to purchase the rights to Shoji Yuki’s novel, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, which he then produced and released in 1972. The resulting film is a superb examination of the horrors of war and its lingering effects on the collective psychology of the Japanese nation. A deeply thought-provoking and visually astonishing piece, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun ushers a new phase in the director’s career, one which combines his well-recognized youthful rage with a newfound maturity of style that will result in some of the filmmaker’s most memorable creations.

The film revolves around WW2 widow, Sakie Togashi (Sachiko Hidari), who is desperately trying to unearth the true fate of her husband, Sgt. Katsuo Togashi (Tetsuro Tanba), during the war. For almost 20 years, Sakie has been unable to collect the pension entitled to her as a war widow because the records show her husband died a deserter. However, the records are questionable and the evidence incomplete. Condemned by the indifference of bureaucracy, Sakie has no choice but to investigate the truth herself. In an exemplary display of non-linear storytelling, Sakie manages to piece together the story of her husband through the inconsistent narratives of his comrades, who she painstakingly tracks down. Her discoveries far exceed her expectations, revealing both the atrocities and absurdities of war.

There’s a long history of Japanese cinema exploring the nation’s psychological fallout in the years immediately following World War II. Many classics come to mind: Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956), Imamura’s Pigs and Battleship’s (1961), Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959-1961), Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and even Isao Takahata’s animated masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – all films which reflect the complexity and diversity of the Japanese attitude towards the War. While much of Europe took to existentialism and its vague prescriptiveness, Japan remained contemplative, without easy answers to guide its postwar consciousness. The cinema and literature of the time attempted to understand not only the psyche of the Japanese as an individual, but that of the Japanese as a nation. The zeitgeist of the post-war years features an intricate blend of guilt, anger, shame, pride, and perseverance that is perhaps impossible to deconstruct – or even understand – by anyone but those who experienced it. 

From a certain point of view, Fukasaku’s cinematic career can be seen as a long Sisyphean struggle to deconstruct this complicated mix of feelings. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s biography that he had a very personal relationship with the war. Like many of his generation, Fukasaku felt betrayed by the hypocrisy and deception of the powers that be, a theme that features prominently in all his films up to the very end of his career. In Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, Sakie’s journey in post-war Japan is very much a journey of disillusionment towards the powers that be. She starts the film eagerly hoping for the emperor’s blessing and ends it with nothing but contempt for just that same thing. What begins as a fervent quest for honor (clearing her dead husband’s name), turns into a silent acquiescence while the widow walks defeated among the crowd in the closing scene of the film.

Of course, Sakie’s journey is only half of the story. The rest is spent in the trenches with the Japanese soldiers struggling to make do in the deteriorating state of the Army during the final days of the war. Here, Fukasaku pulls no punches. From petty theft to botched executions to outright cannibalism, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun contains some of the most terrifying scenes Fukasaku ever shot. The inclusion of actual war photographs into the film adds a whole new metafictional dimension to the narrative, serving as a prompt reminder that while the characters may be fictional, what they represent is 100% real. Stylistically, this is a culmination of everything the director had accomplished until this point. Far beyond simple experimentations with form and style, Fukasaku masterfully combines all the tools in his repertoire to deliver an ultra-real, heightened experience of the war. The black-and-white documentary style pays off, and so does his brief switch to color in two key moments during the war segments of the film.

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is without a doubt one of Kinji Fukasaku’s best films, though sadly one that is often overlooked. Besides its ample artistic merits, the film stands as an invaluable remnant of a generation that has all but disappeared. In a world that grows increasingly dismissive of the past, it is important to occasionally revisit the lessons that people like Mr. Fukasaku are trying to impart.