Kamikaze pilots have been the subject of lots of Japanese and American movies. Those who were expected to sacrifice their lives in a less spectacular way have had fewer scenes on the big screen. Being a “Human Bullet” seems like the worst possible fate.
Director Okamoto Kihachi was a 21-years-old cadet in the army when World War II ended and the effects of that war on Japanese consciousness formed the basis of his approach to film. He made “Japan’s Longest Day” for Toho studios in 1967 and that film is etched in my memory because it is superb.
But Kihatchi was not pleased with it. “Human Bullet” is the result of a remarkable personal quest to tell his own individual truth about the war. He found the funding himself and his whole family worked on it. It looks like and feels like a labour of love.
Terada Minoru plays the lead. These are the days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the first scene, we know that his fate is to blow an invader up and die in the process.
We follow him through what he believes will be the last day of his life. He falls in love with the utterly fabulous Otani Naoko, playing an orphan who has lost her whole family but is running a brothel. He helps her with her algebra.
There is so much depth and richness here. A man without arms runs a bookshop and gives our hero a Bible in Japanese. A child challenges him on the beach while he recites slogans about Japanese invincibility. A woman tries to kill herself, rather than facing the disgrace of the American occupation, which is anticipated throughout the film.
At nearly two hours long, “Human Bullet” overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes. But that’s easy for us to see from a modern perspective, which is post “MASH” and after realism came to war films. This movie was made in 1968, in the shadow of the anti-war student uprisings around the world and as a statement of the way in which war takes away humanity and joy in life.
It’s a real groundbreaker. The use of light is truly extraordinary. Rain colours the whole as an extra cast member. Sato Masaru’s music is reminiscent of that haunting quality of “The Third Man” and sticks in your brain.
The lack of food and the presence of death, with nakedness of those who remain alive, all form provocative strands through the narrative. It is truly haunting.
My companion nearly fell asleep at the end as the scenes outstayed their welcome. I faced no such challenge, but I did feel a stronger edit might have improved the whole. Of course, that’s easy to say with the hindsight that is perfect vision!
The British Film Institute’s (BFI)’s screening room NFT 2 was the venue and I was very comfortable. There was a tall guy who was a wiggler in front of me, but I found an angle that allowed me to see the whole screen, despite his inability to stay still. Why do some young men feel the need to play with their hair, all the time?
It’s part of the BFI’s Shinjuku Diaries Series, featuring films from the Arts Theatre Guild of Japan. The whole series shows unique and quirky movies and I wish I could move into the BFI for the duration.
“Human Bullet” will be shown again on Wednesday, August 18th at 17.50pm and I urge you to see it. It is a very different take on war film.
The English subtitles are annoying and dated, as well as often getting their own laughs. The full audience got some light relief from snickering at some of the schoolboy howlers here.
This film has great humour, pathos and drive. It is wonderful and unique.