Friday, April 19, 2013

Submarine Warfare Japanese Style

33 years ago back in 1980 when this author was a young teenage boy, I once asked a former US Submariner of World War II why did he choose the Submarine Force? US Navy Veteran Fred Moore replied, “Because you don't see too many one armed, one legged, or one eyed Submariners. Well for Captain Kuramoto of the fictional I-77 it was “Freedom” in 2009's Submarine War Film Manatsu no Orion or Last Mission Under the Orion.
Based on Tsukusa Ikegami's novel “Raigeki Shindo Juukyuu-ten-go,” Manatsu no Orion takes place in the final two weeks of War II August 1945, the young crew of the I-77 under Captain Kuramoto Takayuki (Tamaki Hiroshi of  Isoroku Yamamoto and The Amazing Deer Man) fight on. But where the film starts is in the present with the grand daughter of Captian Kuramoto who knows nothing about the war. Her grandfather died before she was born and only has few memories of her grandmother now conjured by a letter sent to her by an American.
Because of this, school teacher Kuramoto Izumi (Kitagawa Keiko) meets one of the last surviving crew members of the I-77 Suzuki Katsumi in an effort to understand how an American who is the grandson of the American Captain Mike Stewart came to possess a piece of sheet music with a personal note from Izumi's grandmother who also was a school teacher caring for orphans Arisawa Shiduko (also played by Kitagawa Keiko).
It was Suzuki who studied music who could read sheet music and once played a harmonica aboard the I-77 who could recall this tale of the last two weeks of the war. While this might sound like you've seen this before in Otoko Tachi no Yamato, Manatsu no Orion takes on a far different tone.
Enter the Charismatic Captain Kuramoto is tasked along with his friend, future brother in law, and captain of the I-81 Arisawa Yoshihiko (played by Dochin Yoshikuni) to stage a defensive picket line to both to attack allied shipping and protect Okinawa in a desperate attempt to save Japan. 
Captain Kuramoto is unlike any Submarine captain you've seen before nor is his crew. While the doomed war effort scenario is not new, this depiction of Japan's all but defeated Imperial Navy is. In this film you'll see little known tactics used by Japanese Sub Captains as well torpedo firing solutions reminiscent of The Hunt for Red October as well as harrowing scenes of doomed men that will recall memories of such submarine dramas as Grey Lady Down and Das Boot.
But what really carries the premise of this film is the meaning contained on the piece of sheet music 'Oh' Orion' to which Captain Kuramoto's love interest Arisawa Shiduko has given him to carry off to war as an “Omori” - a good luck charm.

As seen in a scene while surfaced, Captain Kuramoto is well familiar with the Midsummer's appearance of the constellation Orion in the Southern Oceans and considers it a good omen. Along with a personal message the music piece reads “So that my love may find his way home.” And home is something Captain Kuramoto has very much in mind. In some ways, you could say he is somewhat of a romantic.
But war is anything but romantic. Much like seen in Otoko Tachi no Yamato, the Crew of the I-77 represents what little was left to fight with at the final stage of the war. What's left of Japan's Naval Forces are largely comprised of mostly teenagers and only a small handful of veteran sailors over 30. 
With a compliment of fourteen remaining torpedoes, the I-77 is complimented with four Kaiten torpedo boats – Japan's underwater Kamikaze whose suicide mission is a one way ride commanded by a determined and somewhat indignant Toyama Hajime (played by Kikawada Masaya) to whom is in opposition to Captain Kuramoto's view that such suicide weapons are a waste of human life.
Notable characters include Ships Doctor Tsubota Makoto (played by Hiraoka Yuta), Ship's Engineer Kuwata Shinsaku (played by Yoshida Eisaku), young Suzuki (played by Taiga), Torpedo Officer Tamura Toshio (played by Masuoka Toru), Navigating Officer Nakatsu Hiroshi (played by Fukikoshi Mitsuru), and the Ships cook Akiyama Goro (played by Suzuki Taku). 
So getting back to the war.... The I-77 (who many of the crew is on their first and final mission)and her sister I-81 are pursued by the US Destroyer USS Percival commanded by Captain Mike Stewart (played by David Winning) who has one of the highest kill record in the fleet. He is a determined Captain out to carry out his mission to hunt and sink the remaining Japanese Submarine threat. 
Now what sets his character apart, is he seems to know something about Bushido. Now whether such a man could have existed as a destroyer captain or clearly the invention of the Japanese Writer Ikegami Tsukasa, it lends to the films pace. He knows his enemy and anticipates Kuramoto's moves in a battle of strategy and nerves in a cat and mouse game of death reminiscent of the WWII Classic The Enemy Below. 
Captain Stewart makes for a ruthless pursuer who knows his enemy will not surrender. But what US Navy Captain Stewart doesn't know is that unlike many of his vanquished foes resting at the bottom of the Pacific, Captain Kuramoto has no intention of dying. Rather, he has everything to live for and much like the I-77's vitamin dispensing Doctor Tsubota, he cares very much for the safety and well being of his crew for he under no illusion that the war is already lost. 
For Captian Kuramoto, he see's his teenage crew as men who will be needed for Japan's uncertain future. men on both sides who in another world would perhaps be friends if it had not been for war. 
While Captain Stewart initially comes off like some heartless prick, he is a man doing his job that is the grim business that is war. As the film goes deeper into Stewart's psyche, he reveals himself to be much greater a character than the film gives him credit for. We'll give you a little hint: Stick around for the credits for a revealing added footage.
In the end, it is his care for Arisawa's sheet music that reveals Captain Stewart's overall humanity. He seems to respect his foe and their duty to fight to the death. But unlike many of his contemporaries and his frustrated Kaiten pilots. Kuramoto is fighting not to die, but to live.
Comparisons to other Submarine war dramas are inevitable. Unlike the sense of claustrophobia of the U-96 crew of Das Boot, the Japanese crew of I-77 seem very acclimated to their boat without complaint or want. Imagine that! Working with a crew without any vocal complainers! Ok, so we have one grim engineer but none of the usual angst seen in other submarine movies. Manatsu no Orion may not have the intensity or excitement of Das Boot, but in fairness to this big screen quality Toho Studios TV Asashi Movie, it's overall story and production value is far better and far more believable than Hollywood's Big Budget Submarine stinker U-571. And unlike fantasy movies like Lorelei – Witch of the Pacific or the cartoon parody of Japanese Submarine crews in Steven Spielberg's 1941, Manatsu no Orion depicts the unwavering professionalism of the Japanese Navy under fire.
It is such professionalism we may add that dismisses the myth that Japanese Submariners were unsuccessful or incapable in their undersea war against the US Navy. It is a little known fact that the Imperial Japanese Navy's Submarine force actually sunk a significant number of US and Allied Ships during the War. Sadly, their record is both obscured by the disastrous record of Japan's combined surface fleet and lingering prejudice here in America which we find strange considering today's Japan's current Navy is the second largest in the world and our number one allies in the Pacific. 
While we can't give away the whole film or how Captain Stewart acquires the Sheet music, we can say we at American Mishima liked this film. It is a tribute to the sincere dedication and pure professionalism of Japan's Submarine Crews. While the film does not pull heavy on the heart strings like Otoko Tachi no Yamato, it does play on a very human element that one can not ignore. While predictable in places, we can say you will not be disappointed with it's story line, character development, use of model miniatures, detailed realistic CGI effects, and the use of an actual former US Navy Destroyers including one currently owned by Mexico. 
But most importantly, it's likeable characters aboard the I-81 and I-77 that find you rooting for their survival. You want to survive. But of course war is ugly business. In any war film, there is always tragedy. But what sets this film apart and narrowly joining the cut above the rest of great submarine films (or war films for that matter) is when they touch upon humanity and our favorite Japanese theme: The Fragility of Life. We at American Mishima will grant The Last Mission Under the Orion just praise. 

To find this film and other Japanese Films with English Subtitles,
Visit our man Eddie over at Japanese Samurai DVD

Monday, April 15, 2013

American Mishima looks at Hara-Kiri Death of a Samurai

So many Samurai films concentrates on the heroic battles of the Warring States Period or the tumultuous whirlwinds of the Bakumatsu Period. But with the exception of the Mifune Toshiro classic Miyamoto Musashi Samurai Trilogy, few noteworthy films have featured the lives of those disenfranchised Samurai stripped of their positions in the wake of those great battles at the dawn of the Edo Period. In a sense this remake of the 1962 Samurai Classic Hara-Kiri (also known as SEPPUKU) poses the question of how one maintains his honor when one has lost his position. Director Takashi Miike better known for cult films like Ichi the Killer and blood feasts of 13 Assassins vividly addresses this issue.
Enter our main protagonist Hanshiro Tsugumo played by Ebizo Ichikawa. He is a proud dignified Samurai who fought on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka. He like many Samurai of the late Warring States Period have found themselves destitute and without position due to the vengeful abolishment of his clan by the victorious Ieyasu Tokugawa. Hanshiro is the first of a generation of the new Edo Period of masterless Samurai plunged into dire poverty into the new peace. Humbled, yet not defeated, Hanshiro makes due scraping a living making kasa (parasols) while raising his daughter Miho played by Hikari Mitsushima and the orphaned son of his fellow Samurai friend Motome Chijiiwa played by the actor known as Eita best known for his work as Nogoro of Satsuma in the 47th NHK Taiga Drama Atsuhime. Hanshiro somewhat reminiscent of Seibei of 2003's Twilight Samurai is a likeable man who will do his best to raise his family his dignity.
But no sooner that our comfort zone is established by this premise, the dark tragic tale unfolds. Hara-Kiri is filmed in a manner that juxtaposes time frame from past to present so we did find this difficult to write about without giving away the entire film. In our synopsis one could say this film is one example when the best of intentions goes horribly wrong.
We agonized for weeks how we would write this because we absolutely loved these characters. Hanshiro the dignified Samurai turned impoverished ronin. His daughter Miho who grows up to become a beautiful woman who marries Motome and bears him a child. You want them to prevail. It kills you to watch such a beautiful family fall into such tragic circumstances. If you are looking for the typical Takashi Miike Slash & Gore film, this is not your film. Rather, we applaud Miike for stepping out of his box and trying to tackle a dark subject without the usual fare. Hara-Kiri takes us back and forth setting us to the beginning of the film the circumstances to Hanshiro appearing at the House of Ii to petition Lord Kageyu played by Koji Yakusho of Isoroku Yamamoto fame to commit Seppuku, ritual disembowelment.
What has driven this Samurai with so much love and devotion for his family to end his life is soon revealed. As Lord Kageyu reveals another Samurai recently came to the House of Ii with a similar request. It became clear that this poor young desperate Samurai deliberately tried to deceive the House of Ii and was nothing more than a “Suicide Bluff.” Now why someone would do such a thing is revealed by Lord Kageyu. These “Suicide Bluff's” all started in the wake of the last siege at Osaka Castle. As the Toyotomi's fell, so did many clans who fought against Ieyasu Tokugawa. Thus spawned a generation of ronin desperate to make a living.

One such ronin came to a great house and petitioned it's lord to die with the dignity of a Samurai who can no longer bear the shame of being unable to support himself and his family. His gesture was so sincere, it moved the lord to tears that the lord halted his suicide and offered him an official position. Inspired by this tale many suicide bluffs started appearing at the doors of many great houses. Such was the tale of this unfortunate Samurai who appeared months earlier at the House of Ii. Hara-Kiri takes us away from this dark scene to that poor ronin that was none other than his adopted son in law Motome!
So desperate his condition was with Miho gravely ill who has since made her baby ill and in dire need of medicine, the doctor will not come unless he is paid a lousey 3 ryo to save their lives. This forces Motome to make a desperate, impulsive act to save his family. His petition to end his life is convincing enough he is paid full honors at the House of Ii. But then it becomes clear to head swordsman and antagonist Yumanosuke Kawabe played by Kazuki Namioka of 13 Assassins and Tokyo Drift that Motome is pulling a scam. Upon inspection of Motomo's sword it is revealed his sword is not real but that of bamboo. Exposing this fraud before Lord Kageyu Kazuki insists that Motomoe carry out his insincere request to end his life. Motome pleads for his life for the sake of his dying wife and child but Kazuki will not let him off the hook. We cannot go into the gruesome details here without becoming emotional for his death is only the start of a compounded tragedy.

So here we return to Hanshiro poised to commit ritual seppuku in seiza before Lord Kageyu and one hundred of his men with swords drawn. Hanshiro reveals he has no intention of ending his life, rather to avenge those who allowed Motome to die and in particular that of Kazuki and his two cohorts.

In fairness, Kazuki is not so much the heartless villain but typical of loyal retainer exposing a fraud perpetrated upon the House of Ii. What makes him a villain is that he took satisfaction in Motome's undoing. Thus is it up to honor bound Hanshiro to right this wrong of compounded wrongs by exacting revenge that will lead all to tragedy.  
One must ask did such things really happen during the early 17th Century and if so how often? When you consider that in our own times of recession suicides of entire families take place for similar dire circumstances both here in America and Modern Day Japan, we are reminded of our humanity and the fragility of life. These are not the sole domain of a long gone Edo Culture but that of a universal human condition that exists with us today. While we had difficulty watching this tragic tale and even a harder time writing about it we at American Mishima applaud director Takashi Miike for illustrating this dark yet relevant to today's problems brought to life in this remake of a Samurai Tale.

To find Hara-Kiri and many other great Samurai Films with English Subtitles
Visit our man Eddie at

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Remembering the Fall of Edo Castle

One hundred forty five years ago saw the Surrender of Edo Castle and thus ending two hundred sixty six years of Tokugawa rule. The decision to surrender was made by Katsu Kaishu in an effort to avoid any pointless bloodshed. With Shogun Yohinobu's abdication and the threat of annihilation by the encroaching forces of the newly minted Imperial Army under Satsuma's Saigo Takamori, it was Kaishu who sought a meeting with Saigo Takamori to negotiate a peaceful settlement. It's often overlooked yet not entirely forgotten credit for both the bloodless surrender and the survival of the Tokugawa family is the role of Lady Tenshoin, the widow of the 13th Shogun Iesada. It is said that she contributed to the negotiations to appeal to Takamori's heart so that the Tokugawa's could survive. Her contribution was widely depicted in the 47th NHK Taiga Drama Atsuhime
Upon receipt of a written letter from Kaishu, Imperial Commander Saigo Takamori agreed to meet with Kaishu one day before the planned attack on Edo Castle. They met on March 14th 1868 and reached a peaceful settlement paving the way for Japan to enter the Meiji Era and the modern world. The Boshin War as it was known dragged on for another year by die hard loyalists who retreated to the north forming the short lived Republic of Ezo until their defeat at Hakodate in 1869, the year the Samurai World had come to an End. 
  So what of the players of this real life drama?

For Lady Tenshoin better known to modern audiences as Princess Atsu or Atsuhime, her life would continue nurturing the Tokugawa heir Iesato until her quiet death from Parkinson's disease at the relatively young age of 49 in 1883. Had she not played her part, Edo Castle would have been turned into a blood bath and a certain heir to the Tokugawa family who in another life would be today's Shogun would not be alive today teaching as a professor in present day Chicago. She is entombed next to Shogun Iesada. As much as she was at the time of her death, she had thousands line the streets for her funeral procession. After the airing of the 47th NHK Taiga drama, the cemetery housing her tomb was temporarily opened to the public for three days in a most unprecedented move by Japanese standards as grave viewings are not part of Japanese Culture as they are in the West. Over ten thousand people came to visit, many of them weeping.

Katsu Kaishu continued to live on and became part of the New Meiji Government continuing his work developing a modern Navy. His was a most fascinating life starting with his famous voyage to America in 1860 aboard the Kanrin Maru as it's captain, to the forming of the first Shogunate Naval Academies, to the mentor ship of legendary reformer and father of modern Japan Sakamoto Ryoma of Tosa. His role in Japan's entry into the modern world could not be any more understated nor should it be overlooked by any means. Before his death, he had been elevated to the Imperial Court as Hakushaku or Count. His memoirs are contained in the book Hikawa Seiwa. He died an Elder Statesman 1899 but not forgotten by history or in our hearts. On our own cruise of San Francisco Bay on the 150th Anniversary of the Kanrin Maru's voyage to San Francisco, we followed the actual footsteps of Katsu Kaishu and for a moment we were sure his spirit was there with us.

As for Imperial Commander Saigo Takamori of the Satsuma Domain, Irony was not without it's fate. The very man who played a principle role in that end would rise up eight years later and stage the Satsuma Rebellion which ended any notion that Samurai privilege could be restored in modern Japan. Saigo Takamori was killed in the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, a futile struggle that became the inspiration for the fictional Samurai tale from Hollywood 2003's The Last Samurai. In an unrelated Irony, the name The Last Samurai was given to the first film made in 1974 depicting the Satsuma Rebellion. Why Hollywood chose to recycle the title is beyond reason. A more recent depiction of Saigo's tragic Rebellion and bloody end can be seen depicted in the more recent film Hanjiro

It's estimated that during the two year war some six thousand men died fighting for Japan many of them enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine located in Chiyoda, Tokyo.  To find out more or to visit this privately funded Shinto Shrine please visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Monday, April 8, 2013

一日の画像 - Picture of the Day

The annual Hanamatsuri (Flower Festival) commemorates the birthday of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni some 2500 years ago. Seen here is Hanamatsuri altar at the Los Angeles Koyasan Buddhist Temple where sweet tea is offered.

Monday, April 1, 2013

American Mishima April 2013 Update

We would like to apologize to all our readers for the lack of posts during March. We have had issues with our internet connection as well as other personal hardships that we let get in the way of maintaining our American Mishima Blog. We will make it a point never to allow this to happen so long as we continue to write.

On another front, the March 2013 edition of the Cultural News of Little Tokyo had just been delivered throughout the Los Angeles area featuring our abridged review of the feature film Emperor which we reviewed in February. We are prominently featured on Page 2 and continue on to pages 5 & 7. We would most sincerely like to thank the publisher Mr. Shige Higashi for this most unique opportunity to write for his distinguished paper. It was truly an honor. Arigatou' Gozaimashite.

And now relating to the Samurai Yoroi of Uesugi Kenshin pictured here. In times of hardship and the unendurable, we are often reminded of such nobility of the Samurai Warlord Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo. During a boycott of Salt by other Daimyo against the Uesugi Clan's chief rival the Takeda, Kenshin ignored his generals to crush his rival and secretly sent salt to the Takeda because as he put it "Wars are to be fought with swords and spears not with rice and salt." To take advantage of his rival under such conditions would have been most dishonorable. Such food for thought!