The summer of 1945. As a "human bullet" of the Kamikaze Unit, 21-year-old "he" is inside a drum with a torpedo. While he waits, he looks back on a short adolescence, reminiscing on the harsh training, a friendly bookstore, and a girl he loved. A complement to The Emperor and a General, and based on personal experience, Okamoto comically portrays the stupidity of war as well as the sentiments of youth. Though filmed on a low budget as an independent production, the tone of the 16mm image, the dry and humorous monologues and the surreal beach scene etc. create a unique effect.
A clever injunction against war, this film by director Kihachi Okamoto centers on the character of a dedicated, old-fashioned soldier (Minoru Terada) versus the changes going on around him at the end of World War II. Slow on the uptake and innocent, the soldier still manages to handle the deprivations he and others face due to of Japan's prolonged war effort. Now he has been assigned the task of being a "human bullet." He is supposed to guide a torpedo all the way to an enemy ship when the bay around Tokyo is invaded. His assignment, though, is soon forgotten, and there he is, floating out in the water off Tokyo, unaware that the war has ended.
In August 1945, at the age of 21 years and 6 months, Okamoto Kihachi was assigned to a Japanese Army cadet training school. The war became the central theme of his cinematic work. His breakthrough as a director came in 1959 with Dokuritsu gurentai (Desperado Outpost), a satire about the Japanese army. He remained faithful to satire in his later films about the war, and his greatest success was with the war epic Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (Japan’s Longest Day), a dramatic depiction of the final days of the war. It was shot in 1967 for the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Tôhô production company. It was a prestige project, so Okamoto had a relatively large budget and a stable of stars at his disposal that practically guaranteed success. The film was the year’s second-biggest box office success and Okamoto’s biggest ever. Because Okamoto did not see his own war experiences reflected in Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, he wrote the script for NIKUDAN, but Tôhô rejected it. To realize this project, so dear to his heart, Okamoto asked for leave from Tôhô and made the film with ATG. He founded the Nikudan Production Committee, which was also the name of a bank account into which friends and supporters paid money to guarantee a loan to finance the film. The account was administered by his wife Mineko, who later produced several of his films and who, when NIKUDAN was being shot, worked as driver, cook, extra, consultant, and Girl Friday. The film was practically a family business. Okamoto’s second daughter, who was still in day care at the time, drew the title script. The staff were mostly colleagues from Okamoto’s “family” at Tôhô, and most relinquished their pay and took vacation as well. Okamoto persuaded Nakadai Tatsuya to be the narrator; he had already narrated in Nihon no ichiban nagai hi. NIKUDAN had its world premiere in October 1968, when the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were at their zenith. NIKUDAN came to the cinemas after Loin du Vietnam and the Czech Holocaust drama Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) and before Godard’s Le petit soldat shows not only that in 1968 war was a central theme for ATG, but also how close ATG was to the pulse of the times, including with NIKUDAN; since World War II had not been worked through in Japan, it was in no way part of the past. Like the skeleton in the barrel at the end of the film, it still haunted people’s minds.
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