Deep inside Olaf Möller’s After Victory program is Fighting Soldiers (1939), the kind of wartime soldiers-on-the-front documentary that might not get a second glance if it was American. But it’s not; it’s Japanese, directed by Fumio Kamei, and as such it reveals moving images of Japanese soldiers that are shocking precisely because they are so ordinary. This may too be why Kamei eventually fell afoul with the authorities, as Fighting Soldiers is also a rich document of the interstitial life of the soldiers, the morning drills, the marches and mechanized troop movements, the cleaning, sleeping, reading letters, sitting around. Despite the title, these soldiers don’t fight, they live and work, and Kamei, assisted by camerawork both lyrical and material, often utilizing long takes and direct sound, by Miki Shigeru (who was shooting films for Kenji Mizoguchi during this same time), pays a respectful and moving homage to the regular life of the Japanese soldier in China. Apparently regularity lacks the honor and depreciates the image of the Japanese warriors, but an aside about how while soldiers sleep they here the braying of the company’s donkeys, the several long takes, looking like a Griffith silent, of a presumably reenacted day in the life of a battle HQ (endless documents and orders, people rushing in and outside), a sentry’s out of focus silhouette with the night’s moon in sharp focus, a long take of morning’s roll call—all images are as fresh and humanizing as if they were taken today. It is that rare thing we search for in cinema, a document and a work of art in one.
A far more cryptic and aggressive look at a near contemporaneous time in Japanese history is Kiju Yoshida’s Coup d'état (1973), the last film the director made before taking a 13 year break from the cinema. Centered around the revolutionary activities surrounding author Kita Ikki in the 1930s, which included multiple assassinations and attacks on political and business leaders by several conflicted and confused military, ex-military, and civilian groups, Yoshida’s film takes an abstract and theatrical (perhaps Noh) approach to the turmoil by eliminating most major events. The film focuses instead on the inscrutable inner attitude and external strategy of Ikki, and humanizes this cryptic element through the melodramatic tortured conscience of a young army officer torn between (or stuck in the grey zone between) the revolt movement and national duty. In its abstraction Coup d'état reveals the complete strangeness ingrained in the pre-war revolutionary ideologies that called Japanese to pay ultimate respect and homage to their country and its leadership by radically and violently attacking it. The film’s very short distance from political unrest and student movements in Japan in the late 1960s finds very topical relevancy, as Yoshida strips away the specificities of the historical era to capture on a knife’s edge the hope, dejection, and complete anguish of Japanese who wish to change so much.