DVD Review Of Japan’s War In Colour

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/22/07


  Recently, the PBS network ran Ken Burns’ 15 hour magnum opus, The War, about America’s involvement in World War Two, and while it was a passable effort, detailing the war from our point of view, both militarily and on the home front, there was a great deal of room for improvement, stylistically, and in the effective use of music on the soundtrack. That said, a few days back, my wife and I were in a Best Buy, looking for cell phone plans, when I passed by a DVD rack, looked down, and glanced a DVD called Japan’s War In Colour- an hour and a half long documentary produced by Channel 4 in the U.K., and narrated by the great character actor Brian Cox. Given its very affordable price, I decided to go with my gut and let fortuity rule.

  In short, I was correct- for Japan’s War In Colour is an outstanding documentary, everything The War, in all its well-intentioned bloat, is not. It culls color film from Japan, taken as early as 1937- a time that nation was believed by the West not to have developed the process, as American legendry claimed the Japanese did not have color film stock until the Occupation. This film, however, debunks that myth, and uses it- color film from Japanese military, American military, and Japanese civilian and government sources, to step by step take the viewer through the eight years of Japan’s Holy War against China, and then later America and Great Britain. Whereas The War relied on Burns’ all too familiar talking heads approach to thread its narrative, Japan’s War In Colour actually takes artistic risks. While Cox threads together some loose ends, the film is propelled by the amazing images of daily Japanese life contrasted against read excerpts from the diaries and letters of Japanese civilians, soldiers, and leaders, as well as translations from speeches given by General Tojo, Emperor Hirohito, and others in power. These selections are far more moving, artistic yet real, and well wrought, than anything the comparatively contrived The War offered to its viewers.

  The pacing of the film clips is superbly relentless, as the crescendos toward war and doom come and go. This is ably aided by the superb soundtrack concocted by Chris Elliott, whose music perfectly coheres with the images. At times of great crisis, such as scenes of kamikaze attacks or the Marianas Turkey Shoot, the music is as enthralling as any Arnold Schwarzenegger film. But, when the film clips show a wedding, or you hear a soldier reading a letter to a relative, the music works in undertones to subliminally heighten the scene. From the invasion of Manchuria, to private scenes of Japanese officials meeting with Hitler and Mussolini, to the scenes of mass death in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and even to scenes of Hirohito on a General MacArthur ordered propaganda tour after the war, the film reveals a side of a people unknown to those whose ideas on Japan are derived solely from Godzilla or samurai films.

  Another thing that raises this film above The War is its ability to contrast images with spoken word. The War often used voiceovers to describe the manifest things that the scene it spoke over captured, therefore rendering the voiceover redundant, and the image weakened. Japan’s War In Colour, by contrast, marries the two by having the two forces work at angles, tangentially, to each other. As example, after several scenes showing the island by island American push toward Japan slowly sinking into the consciousness of the Japanese public, we hear Cox talk about food rationing, and the zookeepers of the Tokyo Zoo being ordered to poison all their animals, because the government could no longer afford to feed them. Then, in an utterly brilliant stroke, we go straight into a small girl’s voiceover speaking of how horrible the war is, knowing that the animals she loves have to die for her country. In its own right, the contrast is great enough, but couple that with earlier filmed scenes and voiceovers of Japanese children being indoctrinated into groupthink, and rejoicing in the ‘Victory’ at Pearl Harbor, over the Americans, and the little girl’s shattered illusions about life, brought to her by the death of innocent animals, is all the more poignant. Producer and director David Batty and film editor Stephen Moore show that they are major forces in the world and art of documentary filmmaking, for they have shown that even the oldest genres and formats can be made new.

  Another bonus, especially for war buffs, is the fact that many of the actual reels of footage are not technically ‘new,’ although many are claimed never to have been shown for decades. In fact, may of the scenes are well known, save they were only shown in black and white, and many assumed that this was what they were shot in. In fact, some of the most classic war footage, especially that taken by the Americans, was actually color footage, but the stock had so washed out and degraded that only black and white versions were ever exhibited. The film then ends with footage of Japan after the ‘surrender,’ although the Japanese refused to use that word. This is another instance where the film goes beyond the expected, that most docs would do, and significantly so, since the last twenty or so minutes are from after the droppings of the atomic bombs.

  The DVD is a Rhino release, and shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It’s a single disk, and comes with about an hour’s worth of extras, although no commentary is included. There is also an excellent 35 minute long vintage U.S. War Department propaganda film called The Last Bomb, detailing life in a bomber squadron, and how the bombing of Japan, both conventional and atomic, won the war. There is excess color footage of Iwo Jima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and post-War Japan. An excellent segment showing the difference between the original color stock, and the digitally restored film is included, as well as a piece on the film’s scorer, Chris Elliot, called The Power Of Sound, on the difference his great soundtrack makes vs. the unscored film. There are also maps, the diary of a Japanese soldier, and a stills gallery. The only negative is the exotic fonts that the DVD menu uses. It is often hard to read the text, especially in the diary feature. But, that is a minor- very minor.

  Overall, Japan’s War In Colour is a rarity- and a must see for historians of war and war buffs alike. The scenes of color footage, especially that from American airplanes, is devastating- far better than not only contemporary war films, but anything Hollywood has put out since, and if one recalls the video game-like atmosphere surrounding the First Gulf War, it will surprise one to see how eerily similar scenes from half a century were, as we hear tailgunners lock in and obliterate their targets with great precision; sometimes even shooting fleeing Japanese civilians in fields or on beaches. But it is more than a mere filmic experience. It captures a human quality too often missing in war films, be they fictive or documentary. There is an ambience to this film which, because it is in color, heightens the sense of reality and immediacy of the ghostly images before you. Almost all of these people are likely long dead, yet, there they are, not in grainy black and white, but, as the old tv slogan went, in ‘living color.’ Their living, then hollowed, expressions core into a viewer like only the naked image can.

  Finally, this film also sets the record straight about the neglected ‘Pacific War’- that it was even bloodier than the ‘European War,’ accounting for close to 50 million of the 80 million people killed. Such truths are often not touched in documentaries where political sensitivities are heightened, and for that reason I doubt this DVD will be a big seller in Japan. Yet, for these and many other unenumerated reasons, I cannot recommend Japan’s War In Colour highly enough. And, as a cherry (blossom?) on top, it once again proved my gut has never has never let me down. Nor will it let yours down. It is simply a masterful film, in both conception and presentation. Take that, Mr. Burns!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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