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    A Truer Emperor

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Recently, the new theatrical release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk occasioned consideration of the Twilight Time titles The Bridge at Remagen and Eye of the Needle as comparable, real-events-inspired World War II stories of survival and individual courage among civilians and military forces in mortal peril from enemy onrushes. On August 15, the 72nd anniversary of the climactic events depicted, TT presents on hi-def Blu-ray the North American home video premiere of a probative and revelatory look at the trauma of war experienced in the highest corridors of power: writer-director Masato Harada’s quietly powerful The Emperor in August (2015, aka Nihon no ichiban hi ketteiban). The film’s homeland title, translated as Japan’s Longest Day, dramatizes the intense debate for a nation’s survival among members of the Emperor’s imperial cabinet and the heads of Japan’s military about whether to accept the terms of surrender proposed by the Potsdam Declaration of the Allied powers, unfolding against a backdrop of resistance military factions determined to repel any invasion of Japanese territories and, more tragically, the March 9 firebombing of Tokyo and the subsequent detonations of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. First dramatized 50 years ago in an epic-sized, epic-cast, epic-length movie by director Kihachi Okamato and featuring many of Japan’s most legendary actors (including Toshiro Mifune, Chishû Ryû and Sô Yamamura), the story of the internal upheavals that finally ended in Japan’s capitulation hit raw nerves then and, in a contemporary Nippon marked by both progressive and nationalist movements, those divisive feelings endure. In his 2015 film, Harada (director of the acclaimed Chronicles of My Mother (2011) and an actor known for his role in 2003’s The Last Samurai) differed from the 1967 film in two major areas, outlined in a 2015 interview with Mark Schilling of The Japan Times: “‘(Okamoto’s film) was not faithful to the book,’ he says in fluent English, honed during his six years as an aspiring filmmaker in Los Angeles. ‘He could not show the Emperor face on, only in long shots or from behind. So he could not show serious discussions in the Imperial Council about important issues that involved both Emperor Hirohito and the ‘Big Six,’’ Harada says, referring to Japan’s six supreme civilian and military leaders in 1945, including Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and War Minister Korechika Anami. ‘I wanted to go more deeply into the characters this time, staying faithful to the book’ [by historian Kazutoshi Hando]. Another reason for a remake, Harada adds, was that new research had been published since the ’67 film, including a book by Hando titled Seidan: Tenno to Suzuki Kantaro (Imperial Decision: The Emperor and Kantaro Suzuki) that focuses on Emperor Showa’s decision to accept the surrender conditions laid down by the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945.” 

    Schilling also notes: “What finally motivated Harada to remake Japan’s Longest Day, however, was The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2006 drama about Emperor Hirohito in the concluding days of the war. Harada saw the film at a theater in Ginza, a venue chosen ‘because the distributor was afraid of right-wing attacks,’ he says. ‘It was the first time for Japanese to see the Emperor as a leading character,’ he adds. Harada wanted to film an Emperor who was truer to life.” For his performance as the youthful, contemplative and compassionate Emperor Showa in The Emperor in August, Masahiro Motoki, known to international audiences for his empathetic cellist who finds renewed purpose in funerary rituals in the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award® winner Departures (2008), won the Japanese Film Academy’s Best Supporting Actor award. Other major players include Kôji Yakusho (1996’s romantic Shall We Dance?) as War Minister Anami, Tsutomo Yamazaki (veteran of Departures, 1985’s Tampopo and Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 Kagemusha) as the Prime Minister, and Tôri Matsuzaka as the reactionary firebrand and coup leader, army Major Kenji Hatanaka. Another intriguing conversation between filmmaker Harada (whose latest historical war movie Sekigahara, adapting a novel based on a crucial 16th-century battle in Japanese history) and Gavin Blair of The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan can be sourced here: For a fascinating insiders view of a war-torn nation on the razor’s edge, explore The Emperor in August in shimmering 1080p high-definition. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday August 2.