Homegrown War Film to Take on 'Jurassic World,' 'Rogue Nation' in Japan

Koji Yakusho as General Anami in 'The Emperor in August'

Its director wants 'The Emperor in August' to make young Japanese aware of wartime events and the emperor's role in the surrender.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific part of World War II approaches, Japan will see the debut of a film about the 24 hours before Japan's surrender.

Against the background of the Shinzo Abe government challenging the pacifist constitution drafted in the aftermath of the war comes The Emperor in August. Directed by Masato Harada (Chronicles of My Mother), the film tackles the controversial issue of the part Emperor Hirohito played in the war that was waged in his name.   

WWII films have been enjoying something of a renaissance in Japan, with Eternal Zero bringing in $84.5 million last year to make it the second-biggest grosser of 2014, behind Frozen. While The Emperor in August contains little of the overt sentimentalism found in the sympathetic portrayal of a kamikaze pilot in Eternal Zero, Harada hopes it will help make young Japanese more aware of the war and its ramifications.

"Today's Japanese youngsters don't care about history, they don't think about it," Harada told The Hollywood Reporter. "When I was in high school, the teachers just skipped over contemporary history, the war and its aftermath. … With the Abe administration lowering the age of voting [from 21 to 18], it’s time for young Japanese to start thinking about how this country was made.”  

The star-studded cast assembled by Harada, including Koji Yakusho (Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha) as General Anami, Tsutomu Yamazaki (Departures) as Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and Masahiro Motoki (Departures) as the young emperor, should also help attract audiences.  

The film, with the Japanese title Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi (Japan’s Longest Day), is set for release on Saturday, a week before the end of the war in the Pacific will be commemorated for the 70th time. At the box office, the movie will be up against Jurassic World and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which will both hit theaters the day before.

In addition to the recent security bills passed in the Japanese parliament that allow for a more active role for its military, this month saw the release of a remastered version of the emperor's radio address to a shocked nation announcing the acceptance of the Allies' surrender demands — a key element of the film.

The famous broadcast, the first time most Japanese had heard the voice of a man many believed was descended from gods, was the trigger for an attempted coup by young military hardliners who believed in fighting to the bitter end.

"This movie is a good history lesson, and whether you are pro or against the emperor is another issue. But you can see the inside perspective of the Emperor Hirohito," said Harada, who is probably best known outside Japan as the actor portraying the villainous Omura in The Last Samurai.

The ambivalence of the main protagonists in the film is deliberately emphasized by Harada, something he believes missing from much of Japanese cinema, including a previous version of Japan's Longest Day directed by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967. Despite being a fan of the director, Harada found Okamoto's film overly sentimental with "over-the-top characters throughout."

The director's own ambivalent feelings about the events of the war were partly shaped by growing up watching Hollywood movies in which his own countrymen were the villains.

"When I saw Sands of Iwo Jima and John Wayne’s character Sgt. Stryker was shot, I screamed. I hated the Japanese soldiers. That’s how I grew up," recalled Harada, whose earliest cinematic experiences were at one of the theaters co-opted by GHQ, the postwar occupying American administration.

Harada is worried that the subtle portrayals in the film — there are no caricatured heroes or villains — may be open to misinterpretation. "I wonder how [Prime Minister] Abe and those close to him will receive this film and whether they will distort it to their own liking," said Harada. 

If The Emperor in August is a success in Japan and abroad, Harada plans to make it the first of a trilogy of 1945 films. The sequels would tackle the Potsdam Conference/Declaration, where the Allies met and demanded unconditional surrender, and the story of the postwar Japanese Constitution that the current government is trying to change. 

Twitter: @GavinJBlair