Three Aviation Propaganda Films

Hayao Miyazaki, whose THE WIND RISES (2013) gathered various praises and criticisms over last few months, made a particularly harsh remark about the coming Zero fighter movie, EI-EN NO ZERO (2013) due open this winter. Based on the bestseller novel of the same title by Naoki Hyakuta, the story is about the brother and sister who investigate their grandfather’s past as a Zero fighter Kamikaze pilot. Miyazaki criticized it is “packed with inaccuracies” and “filled with the same old sentiment”. To me, this morbid obsession with this particular type of warplane, – Zero fighter -, by both of these men is more puzzling. I can see that its history and its technologies might interest some, but is it necessary to invite such a public debate – or an argument, rather – on this issue? I think it is more worthwhile to look at how people were drawn into this myth of Japanese aviation superiority, through propaganda films, for example.

These three wartime propaganda films show us how they tried to convince people that Japanese air fighter and bomber pilots were so cool. They praised the heroes, irrespective of well-known or unknown. These films reveal more about the ideal of military and its soldiers, which evaporated into the ‘myth’ in later years.
MOYURU OZORA (Flaming Sky, 燃ゆる大空, 1940)
Directed by Yutaka Abe
Starring Den Obinata
Special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya.
The film was produced during Second Sino-Japanese War, before the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1941. The film mainly concerns the training of newly-recruited pilots and their daily life, then their subsequent fighting experiences in China. Army supported the production, providing all the authentic airplanes, training and actual actions. They even provided the older biplanes disguised as Chinese fighter planes. Obinata plays the trainer-turned-combat-leader, who is passionate and cool at the same time. All his boys love him, of course. The film is not as intense, full of sugar-coated camaraderie, until young pilots are killed in action one by one. Last twenty minutes are fairly grim, as the message of self-sacrifice is heard loud and clear.
Setsuko Hara in KESSEN NO OZORA-E (1943)
KESSEN NO OZORA-E (To the Sky of Decisive Battle, 決戦の大空へ, 1943)
Directed by Kunio Watanabe
Starring Setsuko Hara, Minoru Takada
The film is noted for fairly detailed record of Yokaren, Navy Aviation Training School, in Tsuchiua, Ibaraki. Setsuko Hara plays a young hostess in “club house” for those trainees. It may sound tantalizing, but these trainees were only sixteen years old or so, and these “club house” were just ordinary houses of locals, pretending as these kids’ ‘home’ during their day-offs. The whole film follows these trainee’s barrack life, and, in parallel, Hara’s young brother’s growing pains. In the end, the trainees graduate from the School, marching off to their assignment, while Hara’s younger brother enrolls in the School. Navy introduced the ‘quickie’ training course for the School this year, to supply more combat pilots to deteriorating defensive lines in the Pacific Theatre. In 1944, many of the graduates from the School ‘volunteered’ for the Kamikaze units.
KATO HAYABUSA KOUGEKI-TAI (Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron, 加藤隼攻撃隊, 1944)
Directed by Kajiro Yamamoto
Starring Susumu Fujita
Special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya.
Tateo Kato (1903 – 1942) was a legendary commando leader and ace pilot during the early days of Pacific War. His unit made distinguished record in Battle of Malaya and Burma. The film follows the glory of these battles under his leadership, contrasting his devotion to the war effort and his charming personality. The film was produced during the last stage of the war, when the authorities were eager to hide their miserable realities from the public. Better days of victories are glorified through the life and death of this ‘cool’ ace pilot. The film did help to boost nation’s morales, becoming the biggest box office hit of the year. Tsuburaya’s special effects are superb. Probably the best of his efforts during war years, it is noted for its smooth transition between live action and effects/miniature shots, and complex techniques to achieve various perspectives in action sequences. Hayabusa is the name of newly designed fighter plane, for which Kato’s unit was noted.
Watching these films, some may find they are innocuous. Some (Japanese) may say, these are the evidence of our sincerity, solemnly recognizing self-sacrifice. You see, though they are not relevant any more, these films still illicit false pride among some immature audiences. You have to comb through the webs of history to see the ‘intent’ of the production. What they wanted was soldiers, young men carrying bombs, filled with ‘pride’. ‘Sacrifice’ was the price, and it was cheap. False pride have precipitated to be crystallized, albeit through very slow process, and one of these crystals is bizarre obsessions with war machines such as Zero fighters. Sickly sweet ecstasy of ‘self-sacrifice’ is still breathing under the deceptive layers of pacifism.

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Campaign (2007)

In THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN (1992), a con-man-turned-candidate-for-the-Congress (Eddie Murphy) runs the shameless election campaign on a low budget. He drives a car fitted with loudspeakers around the town, just to sell his ‘name’. “Jeff Johnson, the name you know”. He figures that most voters wouldn’t care and vote for him simply because the name sounds familiar (Jeff Johnson is the name of a dead Congressman). He cruises around the town in a van, advertising his name through the speakers in different accents to appeal to different ethnic groups. Well, THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN was a comedy. It was supposed to be funny. When I saw that scene back in 1992, I couldn’t laugh. Not because it was an awful, poorly-made movie (well, it is).
Because it is exactly the way the election is run in Japan.

I had never seen any campaign car running around the town yelling the name of the candidate in States. But in Japan, it is almost a seasonal event. Mayor election. Governor election. Diet members. These cars start running around the town at 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 or 8 in the evening. The professional female staff just keep yelling the candidate’s name once per three seconds. At the speed of 40 km/h, that’s one name dropping per 10 m, roughly. However, the name is just a name, and if you want to know what that name really stands for, you are stuck. Look for the candidate’s agenda, political standings, or views on a certain issue, then you will get some words like “reform”. And that’s just about it. What reform? Oh, you don’t ask those things.
You see how this mechanism works in Kazuhiro Soda’s CAMPAIGN (2007). It is the documentary about one man, Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a rookie candidate running for a seat in Diet. His battleground is Kawasaki city, the heart of Tokyo suburb and heavy industries, where all political parties and lobbyists slash each other’s throat to get the powerful mandate. Yamauchi had no prior experience in any form of politics, but applied for new recruits in Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the major and largest political party in Japan. Whatever the reason might have been, but LDP picked him as an official LDP candidate for the seat in Diet vacated by their former member. The film follows the steps of this naive candidate from the day one of the campaign.
It is apparent from the start that the campaign office is not his, but LDP’s. The veteran staffs and members tell him what to do, how to behave, where to go, and what to say. He carries a flag with his name on it, wears a sash with his name on it, and drives a car with his name on it. He always carries a microphone and a speaker, so that he could speak his name once in every three seconds. He has to attend kindergarden’s gym event in that outfit. He has to stand in front of local train stations and keep speaking his name to a pack of indifferent commuters. LDP is a strict hierarchal organization, and it nurtures the culture of supporters. His blood needs to be dyed with the color of that culture.
The film has no voice-over narration, no explanatory intertitles, and just keeps recording the events this young man encounters and people around him. Some people may find this approach somewhat boring. I did get tired of looking at repetitive, minimalistic series of events over and over. Souda, the director of the film, employs the approach “observational cinema” or cinema verite, in which the creator (camera) tries to maintain minimum presence in the state of affairs, keeping the “objectivity” as much as possible. It seems the technique miraculously succeeds in this film to large extent. Observed people do speak and act as if there were no camera in the scene.
Also, there is a flavor of voyeurism. Running for an election itself is a public affair, of course. We think people are well aware of the camera, so they would try to hide their private emotions under the friendly smiles and hand shakes. But every moment of it bears private feeling of every individual involved. Some are disguised, some are naked, and mostly embarrassing. The eyes, the postures, or the voices convey more signals than they think they are transmitting. Though these may be involuntary, still it feels like peeping into other people’s bathroom. Souda’s camera effectively captures these moments throughout the film.
This was the first feature length film directed by Souda. He subsequently directed four more films in the same style. I suspect, he carefully chooses his theme suitable to his directorial style. In this very first film, I think his approach works. It elicits the uneasiness, unsettling discomfort, as we cruise through the streets of this overcrowded city. The camera is anomaly, like a virus in the body, but not yet detected by self-defense mechanism. It may be somewhat arcane to foreign viewers, because many of Japanese sensitivity would be lost in other languages. With all this, I would recommend this to anyone who is skeptical about democracy as it is. It may not enlighten your view on Japanese politics, but it will make you re-think about your own nation’s political process. What kind of power structure exists in the process? Is PR campaign getting out of control? Why do they need so much money? Is someone like Yamauchi able to run a successful campaign with or without big party support? Is it a good thing?

It seems, Souda’s last film, CAMPAIGN II, the sequel to this film, must have been a challenge to his style. Many people in the film, I read, reacted to the presence of a camera, after watching this original CAMPAIGN. An observer disturbs the state being observed, you know, just like quantum physics. More interestingly, this film ignited a series of political campaign documentaries of the same vein, chasing the controversial candidates in the similar style (MUNEOISM (2012), RIKKOUHO (2013)). In fact, such films may disturb the current state of election process, which may destabilize the equilibrium of whole political process. It may be a good thing, if it encourages the debate on real issues other than yelling one’s name.

When this original CAMPAIGN was screened at the film festival in Germany, Yamauchi, now an elected Diet member, attended the festival in this campaign outfit, with his name sash, flags and all that. According to Yamauchi, Germans thought the film was a very funny comedy, and Yamauchi, a very natural comedian. Eddie Murphy’s THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN is a comedy, so why not this? What they didn’t know then was CAMPAIGN II will be more radical in wardrobe department. Yamauchi wears a fully-equipped radiation protective suits in the election campaign.

Reality is surreal.

Produced and Directed by Kazuhiro Souda
UPDATE: You can watch CAMPAIGN on amazon instant video.

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More photographs : Ozu, Eisenstein, and others

Yasujiro Ozu (1937)

All right, another sets of photographs. Actually I don’t know if these are rarely seen or not, but just I haven’t seen them before.

Top: Ozu contemplates in the set of WHAT DID THE LADY FORGET? (SHUKUJO WA NANI WO WASURETAKA, 淑女は何を忘れたか, 1937). The film opened in March 1937, while Ozu was drafted to the Army in September of the same year and sent to China for two years. (Feb. 1, 1937, Kinema Junpo)
This is a very rare ad of THERE WAS A FATHER (1942), which I found in the magazine SHIN-EIGA (Feb. 1942). Because of poor quality of paper and printing (wartime material shortage), the details of the photograph are smudged. It appears Ozu (second from right, with a hat) was lying on the ground, as the camera was positioned very low even in exterior shotting. The caption reads, “Ozu working on elaborate camera angles”.
Magazine ad for THERE WAS A FATHER (1942)
Back in 30’s and 40’s, on every January 1, the major film studios produced stage attractions for their clientele in A-class theaters in Tokyo and Osaka. Their stars appeared on stage in person, giving New Year greetings and playing in one-act plays. Here, Shochiku stars (Shuji Sano [second from right], and Mieko Takamine [far left]) are reading the script for the 1942 new year attraction under the direction of Yasujiro Ozu [far right]. The caption reads, “In rare occasion, Ozu will direct this year’s new year Shochiku attraction in Osaka.” I am really curious how Ozu directed a stage play.

Script reading session for Shochiku New Year’s Attraction (1942)

This photo is from 1930 February issue of Kinema Junpo. In September of the previous year, the group of filmmakers gathered at the château of La Sarraz, Switzerland. 

Sergei Eisenstein as Don Quixote
The meeting was called “Congress of Independent Filmmakers“. The attendees include:
Sergei Eisenstein
Gregori Alexandrov
Eduard Tisse
Walter Ruttman
Hans Richter
Béla Bálazas
Leon Moussinac
Ivor Montagu
Alberto Calvanti
Higo Hiroshi
They discussed about the future of “independent filmmaking”, and the heat of creative minds ignited the spontaneous production of a short film called THE STORMING OF LA SARRAZ. Supposedly, Eisenstein played Don Quixote in this film. Here, he is riding the projector instead of Rocinante. The film is believed to be lost. According to the record, it was never publicly shown anywhere in the world, except once in Tokyo in 1930.
Lee Hsiang Lan (李香蘭). She was the most popular Chinese actress and singer in Manchuria and Occupied China during late 30’s and 40’s. She appeared in more than 20 films until the end of the war, playing romantic leads against sweet-face Japanese actors. After the war, she was tried in Chinese war tribunal as a traitor (accomplice to Japanese propaganda). However, it turned out she was actually a Japanese, faking her nationality, though it was a persona created by Manchurian propaganda machine. Nearly everyone was fooled because of her perfect command of Chinese language. After the war, she appeared in many Japanese films, including Kurosawa’s SCANDAL (1950), as Yoshiko Yamaguchi.

Yoshiko Yamaguchi aka. Lee Hsiang Lan
The group of filmmakers assembled by Kinema Junpo to visit Manchuria. Hiroshi Shimizu (second from right), Tomu Uchida (third from right), Kenji Mizoguchi (third from left) and Hisatora Kumagai (fourth from left). October 1939.

The filmmakers visit Manchuria (1939)
Isuzu Yamada and Jouji Oka in action. The movie is TSUTA (JAPANESE IVY, 蔦, 1940, dir. Ryo Hagiwara). I am not quite sure if the film survives, as it is not listed in NFC’s archive. This kind of ‘back-lot’ open-sets provided efficient film production, since the sets would be refurbished for next film with minor renovation. All you need were a microphone, a couple of reflectors and a camera. Oh, actors and a good script, too.

On the set of TSUTA (1940)

And they sure look happy, don’t they?

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