World War II – which ended with Imperial Japan’s surrender 75 years ago today – can, broadly speaking, be sliced into two.
The Allies’ 1939-1945 war against the Nazis covered a vast map: From the Western Atlantic to the Barents Sea; from the deserts of North Africa to the Volga steppes; from the sunny heavens of southern England to the night skies over Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.
But compared to the Pacific theater, that was a modest battlescape.
The Allies’ 1937-1945 struggle against Imperial Japan stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean; from the shores of Northern Australia to the gates of the Raj; from the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea to the cloud-covered mountains of Burma; and from the wastelands of the Mongolia-Manchurian border, to the burning clouds over Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Before the Rising Sun set, battles would see Japanese troops storm Southeast Asian cities, US Marines hit Pacific beaches, British special forces land deep behind enemy lines and Soviet armored columns thunder over baking Manchurian wildernesses. It would also see the advent of air-sea battle, as the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship.
And it was black-marked by horrors that ranged from the Rape of Nanjing and the biological experiments of Unit 731 to the fire- and atomic-bombings of Japan’s cities.
This vast and terrible human drama has hurled up a corpus of films from multiple nations. Below, Asia Times offers a selection of 10 multinational films covering the Pacific War. In the number 2 and 3 spots are what are globally recognized as two of the greatest films ever; the number one position is occupied by what is arguably the finest war film of all time.
Note: The below contains plot spoilers.
10: The Wind Rises (Japan, 2013): A (typically) gorgeous anime from Studio Ghibli, The Wind Rises tells the tale of real-life aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoshi wants to build beautiful aircraft, but is working in the shadows of militarism and war. Despite her fatal tuberculosis, he marries the beautiful and Naoko Satomi. The lyrical headlines of the soundtrack music – “A Dream of Flight;” “The Wind;” “A Paper Airplane” – offer some idea of the fragile beauty of this semi-fantastical film. But political winds are gathering, and among our hero’s designs are the Mitsubishi A5M fighter, and its successor the Mitsubishi A6M – the iconic Japanese warplane of World War II, better known as the Zero. At the end of the film, Horikoshi questions himself and his work – but is urged by the spirit of Naoko to not to give up, and to lead a full life.
9: Sands of Iwo Jima (USA, 1949): For a hard-nosed, combat account of the war fought by the crack US Marines Corps – whose island-by-island battle hell march across the Pacific was one of the greatest Allied campaigns of World War II – this is it. Iconic tough-guy John Wayne ditches his horse and Stetson to hit the beaches of the Corps’ most iconic objectives. First it’s “Bloody Tarawa,” where Wayne’s Sergeant Strker proves brutal toward both the enemy and those of his squad who slack off and leave their comrades in the lurch. Then, after a break in Honololu, the landing craft head for the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. Strker dies in battle – and only then do his men find a letter to the son they did not know he had. The film includes actual battle footage – and three of the actual Marines who raised the US flag on Iwo’s Mount Surabachi, and were captured in one of the world’s most iconic photos, also appear.
8: Tora, Tora, Tora (1970, USA/Japan): Authenticity? Check. Post-war cooperation? Ensemble, bi-national cast? Check? CG? Hell, no! The history-shaking shock attack upon Pearl Harbor is captured in a work that thrust the computer-graphic generated war films of today into a shade of soft-edged, video-gamed unreality. Instead, replica aircraft, real warships and reconstructed, real-size parts of warships were utilized. The film was shot with two separate locations and crews – Japanese and American; legendary director Akira Kurosowa (!) was replaced at the Japanese end after just two weeks. (The maestro, apparently, did not synch with Hollywood production style.) The film was dive bombed by critics, but has won a widespread following in the years since for its overall historical accuracy and its authentic/semi-authentic rendition of land-sea combat.
7: The Thin Red Line (1998, USA): It’s hell in paradise as the US Army lands on Guadalcanal – where the Japanese await them. An all-star cast deployed for ace director Terrence Malick’s return to film-making after a 20-year layoff. The plot (is there one?) gets lost, but with Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and many another fine thesps popping up to chew the scenery for a cameo before disappearing again, who cares? While only a handful of the characters survive their own incompetence and the malice or stupidity of their officers (not to mention the enemy) there are gorgeous shots a-plenty and a superb set-piece – an assault on a Japanese-held hill. In terms of direction, this is the closest Pacific War equivalent to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War classic, Apocalypse Now.
6: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, USA/Japan): Yes, it’s Iwo Jima again. Yes its another Japan-US co-production. And yes, it’s another tough-guy cinematic cowboy – Clint Eastwood, albeit as director, not lead character – battling in the volcanic ash. But this is a very different work, for Eastwood tells his story from the Japanese side. The movie was made back-to-back with the mediocre Flags of Our Fathers – the American side of the story – but actually outperformed the US film, both in monetary and critical terms. Highly realistic, the unpleasant conditions the tunneled-in Japanese are subject to, followed by their dismay at the hopelessness of the combat, are vividly portrayed. So too is the hysterical murderousness of the Japanese leadership towards their own side – leaving the Emperor’s men minimal hopes of surviving.
5: Red Sorghum (1988, China): War, for most of history, has been a force that descends like a natural disaster upon unexpecting peasants with sudden, brute force. So it is in wunderkind director Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum. Blending rural folk story with historical disaster, it tells of a gorgeous village maiden (Gong Li, in her first role) who is married off to a diseased old man. She survives her husband and continues to run his distillery – which produces a concoction of red sorghum and a very unique ingredient. Meanwhile, plots roil the village. Above this rural drama, a national threat of far greater peril looms: Japanese invasion. The final scene is tragic, but overall, the film is a masterpiece of visual lyricism.
4: City of Life and Death (China, 2009): A modern and realistic retelling of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, it includes real life personages, such as the German Nazi John Rabe, who defied his creed to shelter Chinese civilians from rampaging Japanese. The camera of director Lu Chuan – himself a veteran of the – follows captured Chinese troops and Nanjing civilians and includes a sympathetic Japanese officer (for which Lu received significant criticism in China). Filmed in black and white, many of this film’s frames could be screen-captured and taken for news photographs of the time – particularly given Lu’s effective habit of contrasting widescreen images of massacre and destruction with facial close ups of the cast members witnessing the atrocities.
3: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (France, 1959): Not a war film per se, but as arguably the most famous film to address the world-changing, August 6, 1945 event, Hiroshima, Mon Amour deserves a place on this list. A French woman and her Japanese lover in the post-war city, ending their affair, contrast erotic desires with past sufferings. The combination of voice-over explanation and visual extrapolation of the brutalities visited upon persons and things in the doomed city is effective and disturbing. Yet it was the stylishly brilliant black and white cinematography that made this moody film hugely influential as an icon of French New Wave cinema – and a star out of debut director Alain Resnais.
2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, UK): Another film that is now seen as a classic, but for a different reason: Director David Lean’s “Best Picture” Oscar winner represents straight up, superb storytelling. There are few fine British films about the Pacific theater, but Bridge on the River Kwai makes up for lack of quantity with quality, as quiet British grit is pitted against Japanese brutality on the Burma-Siam “Death Railway.” To this tense framework is nailed an ethical conundrum: The British prisoners of war start to take pride in their work and decide to show their captors, who despise them, their quality via their work. As the film marches toward its climax, a moral wrench is hurled into the plot’s accelerating engine as the tortured British colonel – one of cinema’s greatest-ever performances by Alec Guinness – is forced to choose between pride and duty. Not only did this film become iconic, so, too did its score – the whistled “Colonel Bogey.”
1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Japan): If the aim of art is to trigger emotion, this heartbreaking tale of collateral damage – writ large – is the greatest war film, ever. Like Elem Klimov’s 1985 Russian Front masterpiece Come and See, Grave of the Fireflies uses the eyes of children – a teenage boy Seito and his tiny sister Setsuko – as its camera lenses. After their father disappears in the Navy and their mother dies a hideous death in the firebombing of Kobe, the children are plunged into a maelstrom of catastrophe and decontrol. Amid devastation, they find their only living relative callous, and retreat to a rural bomb shelter filled with fireflies. At first they enjoy their new freedoms, but then food begins to run out… This film was the first-ever production from cinematic magic box Studio Ghibli and its superbly rendered dreamscapes and sympathetic characters presage all the collective’s future fantasies. If every trainee bomber pilot were required to watch this, aerial bombardment would be a thing of the past.