Girls und Panzer der Film (2015)

This film throws us straight into the action with a battle between Ooarai Girl’s School tank club and an international school. The story presupposes that you are familiar with the characters and the world, following on from the “Girls und Panzer” series. For those who are not, the film takes place in a world where there is such a thing as a school tank club, in which teams take command of tanks in large scale battles (as opposed to the usual sports clubs). Following this opening battle, the film’s plot kicks into gear when the girl’s school (which happens to be on a large carrier ship) is taken away. They manage to retain their tanks and organize a tournament against a University team, the prize of which is to be the saving of their school.

The film is directed by Tsutomu Mizushima from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, carrying on from the original series. It is a premise that is simple yet endlessly entertaining and the film gives fans exactly what they want. The battles which bookend the film are long and show a great deal of creativity. A historical supervisor was involved and it is interesting to see the large variety of different tanks and tactics discussed. The script is packed with fun dialogue, replete with historical references and meaningful quotations alongside the quirky, off-beat humour of a high-school comedy drama. The characters are all voiced by the original actors and do a great job with their characterisations. Although this film does not reintroduce characters, rather assuming foreknowledge of the show, there are many great moments that show the camaraderie and affection between them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi is a mix of soft melodies for the character moments and a bombastic action soundtrack during the battles.

Absolutely worth a watch for fans of the series; the film has a heartwarming message about friendship and co-operation. It is a meaningful lesson for the characters that could be said of any school activity. The fact that it is tank warfare offers an unusual element to the typical school drama of overcoming adversity to save the school. The historical parallels are never drawn too starkly, but it is interesting to note Japan’s relationship with war, particularly the Second World War. Almost all political notions are stripped from the story and the tanks and flags are decontextualised. The underlying humanity of the characters shines through and the positive aspects are emphasised. Following the battles, the girls always respectfully thank their opponents and ideas of honour and respect play a large part. Alongside this, virtues of quick-thinking, strategy, boldness, compassion and more are played out on the battlegrounds.

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Set in 1959, “No Greater Love” is the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy “The Human Condition”. This first part follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young man who is sent out to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1943. His job is to oversee the iron-ore mining operations. He travels to China with his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and soon comes up against fierce resistance in his attempts to improve the conditions of the workers. Despite his colleague Okishima (So Yamamura) being sympathetic to his aims, the foremen of the mines, in particular Okazaki (Eitaro Ozawa), treat him with contempt believing him to be weak. When the military police send hundreds of prisoners to be put to work, Kaji is left in charge of the men and tries to help them despite their distrust of the Japanese and repeated escape attempts.

“The Human Condition” is based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa with a screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama and director Masaki Kobayashi. The story is epic in scale, but manages to keep its central plot personal. Beginning with Kaji and Michiko, they act as a focal point for the horrors that are happening around them. Kaji represents the viewer in his disbelief and disgust at what he finds in Manchuria. But despite his best efforts he is unable to stop many of the atrocities. This creates a poignant narrative of humanity’s failure to effectively tackle its most vile elements. Despite a large cast of characters the film never feels overly complex, even when it comes to the escape attempts which involve a number of players on both sides of the fence. Likewise, the framing creates clear distinctions between characters and numerous moments of tension as their ideologies come into contact. This is most clear when Kaji faces off against the military police officers.  The presence of the Japanese Imperial flag in the background in scenes where the characters actions may be immoral mark the film as a bold work. It is unsurprising that it had its critics on release due to an apparent anti-Japanese bias (in fact the film is staunchly anti-war, but this distinction may have gone unnoticed at the time). The production value is clearly high and the sets and number of extras create a sense of realism that helps the film achieve a greater impact. The brutality is largely only alluded to until the final third of the film. This creates a sense of tension and foreboding that something terrible will happen. Chuji Kinoshita provides a suitably epic score and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is exceptional.

The film is a startling criticism of Japanese militarism and a rebuke to nationalist sympathies. It shows the Japanese occupation of Manchuria as cruel and the inhumane treatment of their prisoners who were put to work in the mines. Racism is rife, with the Japanese looking down on the Chinese locals. The inclusion of “comfort women” and enforced prostitution in the film also exposes a part of history that many would rather keep hidden. The women are given a strong voice through the character of an unwilling prostitute used by the Japanese forces and their captives. She states explicitly that they are as much prisoners as the men who are kept behind the barbed wire fences. They have no freedom to choose. The film shows the most despicable side of human nature, one that is cruel and discriminatory. However, it balances this by including the love story between her and one of the prisoners. There is a frail sense of hope that love can blossom even in adversity. In the end, Kaji feels that he has failed. Not because he participated in the violence, but because he allowed it to happen. Kaji’s pacifism and humanism are a constant cause of scorn for his fellow men, who believe this to be a sign of weakness. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has chosen by far the more difficult path, to espouse peace and care for his fellow men when all around him are violent.

The Eternal Zero (2013)

After attending their grandmother’s funeral, two young adults discover that she was remarried following the death of her first husband, the biological father of their mother. The two set out, with the blessing of their step-grandfather, to find out the truth about their grandfather Miyabe (Junichi Okada). He had been a pilot in the war, flying one of the famed Zero fighter planes. Many of his contemporaries from that time describe him as a coward who was quick to run from battle. However, his grandson Kentaro (Haruma Miura) perseveres with the investigation that soon reveals a very different story. Far from being weak, Miyabe was one of the top pilots, but his belief in the sanctity of life and determination to save others put him at odds with his fellow pilots.

“The Eternal Zero” is based on the book by Naoki Hyakuta and directed by Takashi Yamazaki from a screenplay by Yamazaki and Tamio Hayashi. The story flits back and forth between the ‘present’ of 2004 and the war years. It is a structure that allows for much needed breaks in the narrative of Miyabe’s wartime experiences as well as giving the filmmakers a way of showing the impact of his actions two generations later. The wartimes segments are enlivened by some great aerial sequences, with Zeros and American fighters being recreated through CGI, that capture the ferocity and deadliness of the fighting. We see some of the most pivotal battles of the war, Midway and Guadal Canal, recreated, though the characters are fictional. There are only a couple of brief glimpses of bloody or violent scenes, but it is enough for the audience to understand the seriousness of what is at stake. Junichi Okada plays Miyabe with a calm air that shifts alarmingly in a later scene when he comes to understand the true horror of war. There are some great supporting performances from Mao Inoue as his young wife, Hirofumi Arai as his fellow pilot Kageura, an aggressive, gung-ho counterpoint to Miyabe, and Min Tanaka who plays his sombre older self. Shota Sometani also stars as a likeable young recruit who is helped by Miyabe. The film is rather longer than it needs to be at over two hours, and the acting at times overly dramatic. It suffers most when it attempts to steer the audience to a conclusion rather than allowing the story to stand for itself, though for the most part it is an engaging and emotional tale.

“The Eternal Zero” looks back at the war from the Japanese perspective with a mature eye, acknowledging the rampant nationalism and idolatry that led many to their deaths, and admitting that mistakes were made. A number of the characters comment on the fact that their way of thinking has changed with the passage of time. Some may dismiss this as a sly attempt to avoid taking responsibility for some of the atrocities committed during wartime, a way of distancing those who were there from these very different times and circumstances. However, the men who fought were young at the time, and fed imperial propaganda that indoctrinated a sense of superiority, and a do or die mentality into its military. The film’s central message is one of the value of life, not to throw it away needlessly, but to preserve it as our greatest asset. In contrast to his fellow pilots, Miyabe believes each life he can save, including his own, will be more valuable than those lost in pursuit of victory. It is a belief that is vindicated by many in later life who praise him for his stance, one that was difficult at the time. This is a powerful and important message to try to do the right thing even when those around you are pressuring you to conform to their own ideals.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.

13 Assassins (2010)

Takashi Miike’s remake of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film brings a modern action movie feel to the historical epic. The story itself is partly based on real people and events. As brief expository text explains at the beginning of the film, it has been an era of relative peace for Japan, with the various warring factions under the control of the Shogun. That hard-won peace is threatened with the elevation of Lord Nagatsugi (Goro Inagaki), a sadistic noble, to a position of authority in the Shogunate. One of the Shogun’s top advisors, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), realises the danger of such a man in a position of authority and goes to a samurai friend, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), for help. Together they enlist a group of samurai, including Shinzaemon’s pupil Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), and Doi’s own men and set out on a mission to kill Nagatsugi, thus freeing the country from the terrible injustices he is visiting upon it.

The film opens with a brutal depiction of a man committing hara-kiri, this ritual disembowelment being a protest at the appointment of Nagatsugi. The scene is not particularly gory, but in its slow, careful build-up it creates a tension that is impossible to turn away from. Nagatsugi is introduced through a number of scenes that are equally stomach churning and set-up the perfect villain. He is a man completely lacking in morality, raping and killing at will, and torturing his victims; and any sense of right or wrong he has seems to revolve entirely around his own desires. Inagaki’s performance as the unpalatable Lord Naratsugi is truly chilling and keeps you watching in hopes that he gets his just deserts. He is helped by his advisor Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who is a man whose sense of service overrides any ideals of compassion for others, as he watches his master slaughter innocents on a whim. The thirteen assassins of the title are led by Shinzaemon, and Koji Yakusho turns in a great performance as the former samurai who is brought back into a world of conflict for the most important mission of his life. The film does a decent job with such a large cast, creating character moments that define them, although some more fully than others. Some of the standouts are Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shinrokuro, who is shown as a gambler and joins up out of a sense of honour; and Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), who is found by the group later in the film and is given a romantic backstory. The others are variously grouped together, or given short scenes of explanation, for the most part keeping them distinct and interesting in their own rights.

Takashi Miike is perhaps best known for his more outrageous films (Gozu, Happiness of the Katakuris, Dead or Alive”), so it is always interesting to see him taking on something more traditional in style. While the film captures the period perfectly, Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan can’t help but slip in a few moments of black humour, such as when a recently decapitated head is kicked along the ground. In its violence the film also shocks, but in a way that fits the tone. Nagatsugi’s actions early in the film are almost unbelievably violent, but this is required in order to understand why his assassination, that goes against the wishes of the Shogun, is deemed necessary. In addition to this, by showing these horrors early in the film, there is a sense of dread throughout that anything is possible and the worst could quite easily happen.

“13 Assassins” is beautifully shot and care has clearly been taken in recreating the period, with stunning sets, often on a large scale, and costume and other details. There are also moments where the fight choreography and swordsmanship is given time to shine in the tradition of the best samurai films. The large cast of extras for armies and attendants goes a long way towards creating a sense of realism in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is exceptional and has a strong sense of rhythm to it, contrasting the quieter moments, such as the ritual disembowelment that opens the film, with the kinetic action of the final battle.

It is in this grand finale that the film truly excels, with a gloriously excessive battle sequence taking up almost a third of the entire runtime. Each of the characters is given a moment to shine, and nothing is safe as the huge set is almost entirely torn down by explosions, buildings collapsing, and hordes of extras racing around the streets in chaotic scenes of carnage. There is creativity in abundance, with every manner of weapon being used, tactics varying as the protagonists rush from skirmish to skirmish, either in man-to-man swordfights or facing off against larger groups. Miike oftentimes favours aesthetics and cinematic triumphs and tragedies over realism, putting this squarely in the action movie genre. Examples of this are katana being used to deflect flying arrows, the large gate contraptions that are set up to trap people into certain parts of the village, and the CG animals that are set alight to run tearing down the street. The camera work too is frantic, darting from one place to another, though never confusingly so as we always keep track of our heroes throughout the struggle. There are moments of real intelligence in the filming of the fight, as when it slips into hand-held footage, getting up close and personal with the actors, creating a sense of danger and drawing you into the heart of the fight.

As with many samurai films, the themes that come through strongest are those of honour and duty. With the assassins on the side of a moral right against their opponents who are the figures of authority and loyal to the leader. The character of Kiga is interesting in that he offers a glimmer of the contemporary critique of absolute rule and class-based society, berating the samurai for looking down on him and other people of lower classes. These ideas are never fully expressed (the film is having too much fun as a samurai action romp) but it is a fun addition to the story, offering a further denouncement of the notion that those in power deserve to be there purely by birth right, inheritance and that their actions are justified by their position. “13 Assassins” is a thrilling samurai action film, with excellent performances and memorable fight sequences.