The New York Film Festival's retrospective Velvet, Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating The Nikkatsu Centennial features a tremendous discovery: Tomotaka Tasaka's Mud and Soldiers, a Japanese war film made (or at least released) in 1939.
One must keep in mind that for the majority of Western film viewers, the idea of a war film from the Japanese side of the 15 Years War is probably restricted to the spare distribution of the startling but politically and aesthetically conventional The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay. In contrast to that narrative of contemporary history and propaganda, Tasaka posits an experiential, borderline avant-garde combat film in Mud and Soldiers, where texture of the film frame blends with the texture of the daily life of the Japanese soldiers marching and fighting on the Chinese mainland.
The "story" is actually not one (there are no real characters, except for a beleaguered, pudgy corporal, no psychology), but rather a "narrative" in the same sense as American combat films of the Korean war: an endless series of movements and fighting directed through and to the entirely abstract objectives of unnamed towns, hills and landmarks. The physical toil and exhaustion of a war effort is reinforced as strongly as the arbitrary nature of the Sino-Japanese combat and the indomitable terrain of the Chinese, who are absent from the landscape, having apparently laid down endless tracks of steppes between themselves and their foes so as to absorb the attention and efforts of the Japanese.
As per its title, the film's cinematographic focus is on men and the earth, with elaborate tracking shots following marching, running, crawling men, unconventional uses of focus to turn movement into abstract motion, and high activation of different areas of the frame and space (a machine gun fired in foreground bottom of the frame, tracers hitting a target in the distant background in the top of the frame, soldiers crawling in the middle). Tasaka explores the idea of the combat film film as bleakly repetitive, arbitrary, and vacant of morality, and provides a film form to match with soldiers as much recorded in documentary movements across China as they are rendered grainy, unhuman streaks of graphic rhythm and motion across the film frame.
It is a truly unpleasant picture of war, one perhaps as close as we can get to a true anti-war film; and all that Tasaka leaves us with for hope are the film's still moments, often of interiors, dense frames packed with men and depth, a cluttered, tired picture of communal humanity gathered and bonded over the incomprehensible goal of crossing landscapes in war. Except, these portraits of huddled-brotherhood are violently contrasted to one of the film's most enduring images: a near 360-degree pan around a Chinese machine gun bunker, the only time we see the Chinese up close and alive (previously, we see a pile of bodies, killers unidentified), and they too are in their own forlorn hovel, sticky and dense with smoke and blood, and Mud and Soldier as it does throughout, turns our picture of men and war inside out, directly and forcibly engaging the tactility of the film image to measure the effort expended and toil undertaken for nonexistent purpose.
The only point I might disagree with you about is that it’s an anti-war film, perhaps because I think it may be impossible to make an anti-war film. I definitely agree, though, that the movie did not glorify war or manipulate the viewer into cheering for the cause as much as I thought it would.
I think Tasaka downplayed the glory of war mostly because he did not channel our feelings towards one brave protagonist. This goes back to one of the points that you raised: that is, that this is one of those rare films, like Potemkin, that has no protagonist. I think Eisenstein organized his story without one central character so that we would identify with the masses as a whole, but I think Tasaka did it—to some extent, at least—to keep us from identifying with the mass of soldiers and their goals. It would be a stretch to claim that he didn’t let us identify with the soldiers at all—remember the tender way he dramatized the reaction to the death of one comrade and the way he made us cheer for another’s return to the front after an injury. And by not showing us the victims, he prevented us from identifying with their suffering. Nevertheless, it did seem to me that Tasaka was intentionally downplaying the interpersonal connections between the soldiers on screen and between the soldiers and the audience as a way to distance us from our innate desire to applaud for “our side” in the war.
One of the things that struck me most about the movie was the formal incongruity between Tasaka’s mesmerizing depiction of some war scenes and his seemingly shoddy handling of some conversation scenes. I thought initially that he’d merely been lazy or that war conditions had forced him to rush some of his work, but the obvious attention he played to the formal structure of the film as a whole made me believe that his seeming shoddiness had been a conscious decision.
There were a few scenes, for instance, when Tasaka shot a group of soldiers relaxing at night, sitting in a circle together and talking quietly. Even an inept director from 1914 unaware of recent trends that emphasized close-ups and shot-reverse-shot patterns would have filmed these characters more tightly, with their feet at the bottom of the frame and the top of their heads at the top of the frame. A modernist director of the 1960s might have placed the men in the far distance as a visual commentary on the insignificance of even the most brutal human war compared to the enormity of nature. But Tasaka most often filmed these groups in the middle ground, depersonalizing them in such a way that he didn’t make it seem as if their insignificance had any larger meaning. Framing them like this merely made them seem banal.
It would be easy to dismiss the seeming carelessness of these group scenes if not for the formal brilliance of much of the rest of the film. In my admittedly imperfect memory, the first half of the movie was dominated by recurring close-ups of soldiers’ feet tramping through mud. I remember the second half dominated by a series of luxurious tracking shots in which the camera glided near the ground to capture lines of soldiers above stealing through fields of tall grass. And there was that one incredibly long sequence that had some of us chuckling deliriously when the soldiers kept firing relentlessly and without purpose on one building which disintegrated brick by brick by brick by brick, and then, after a long pause, showed them firing at the building again.
So he was portraying the pointlessness of war amid the beauty, but there was beauty.