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May 12, 2008

JDrama Review – Tokyo Daikushu (2008)

by Master Pillow

War is hell. Many have probably heard this short truism numerous times before in their life but whether or not they truly understand it is another matter yet one hopes that everyone in the world never has to experience the horrors first hand. As cinema has progressed through the years so has the war film genre and while once it might have made for great propaganda to show a clear delineation between good and evil and to ramp up patriotic furor watching stilted war flicks the norm nowadays is to take a much more evenhanded perspective.

Frankly speaking the prevailing winds and politically correct attitudes of the modern world have hopefully made mankind a bit more open minded. Nations go to war over many reasons but it doesn’t change the fact that those who suffer the most are almost always going to be common civilians who are just going about their daily business hoping to survive and mete out a meager subsistence. Of course, wars bring out the absolute worst in humanity yet in one of those great ironies it showcases some amazing instances of sheer heartfelt compassion and mercy as well.

I understand that everything is relative and that emotions run deep thus an American survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is likely going to feel anger at his attackers but on the flipside I’m sure the same effect goes for a Japanese citizen who woke up one day in Hiroshima to see the city turned to rumble. Still, a good war movie is one in which the emotions are universal and everything else pertaining to politics is shunted aside. After all, at heart aren’t we all the same?

Tokyo Daikushu, a made for TV movie split into two parts, tells the tale of one of the key events near the end of the Second War World which has pretty much been ignored in Western cinema. For the uninitiated as the war truly turned sour for the Japanese and the Americans pushed closer to the Japanese mainland the country came within easily accessible range of Allied air strikes. In an effort to end the war the Americans began punishing air strikes on Japan to force its surrender culminating in what was called Operation Meetinghouse, aka the firebombing of Tokyo which resulted in upwards of 100,000 casualties, surprisingly more than the initial atomic bomb drops that happened soon after in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The reason for the high fatalities was actually surprisingly simple – the Americans used incendiary bombs which basically amounted to raining fire from the skies. Typical Japanese houses and structures were wholly made up of highly flammable wood. Put two and two together and it’s now easy to see why this sort of an attack caused massive damage and basically razed whole blocks to the ground.

Technically, Tokyo Daikushu is structured very much like your typical Hollywood disaster movie in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure or the Towering Inferno except instead of a sinking ship or skyscraper the vehicle of destruction is the entire city of Tokyo. Like other disaster flicks we’re slowly introduced to a large swath of characters most of which are patients in a local hospital there for various ailments. Thus we have the humane good doctor, his many nurses, a pregnant woman, the police chief, a nearly blind man and of course our leads, Sakuragi Haruko (Horikita Maki) the neophyte nurse and Oba Hiroto (Fujiwara Tatsuya) the young man she will inevitably fall in love with who so happens to have a serious heart condition. Obviously, the potential for melodrama is high even without taking into consideration the coming firestorm of Tokyo burning.

With an almost four hour running time there’s a much bigger emphasis on building up these characters and much to the series’ credit we’re given more than enough information to empathize with most. The issue here though is that many of them seem ripped from standard generic descriptions that rarely excite. Watching yet another humane doctor in Ishikawa Shigeru (Kishitani Goro) save both friend and foe (an American prisoner) while spouting that he’s there to save the injured no matter their race might win him some audience brownie points as well as being nominated for a politically correct award but we’ve seen this archetype a thousand times before. It also doesn’t help that some characters telegraph their fates early as it is actually surprisingly easy to figure out who is going to die or survive.

Thankfully, rote character setups aside, nearly all of the actors and actresses here are in top form providing earnest and fully heartfelt performances that adds humanity to everyone involved. Topping the list is easily Horikita Maki who anchors the movie providing some serious acting chops in her role as the compassionate nurse who somehow manages to emotionally touch people around her. On face value this is yet another in a long line of stereotypical characters yet her performance is so effectively genuine that it more than makes up for the generic setup. Whenever she is not on screen the audience will feel notably anxious wanting to get back to her storyline. In fact she’s so dominant here that poor Fujiwara Tatsuya as her love interest is just plainly non-interesting reduced to seemingly vacant blank stares and coming off as unnaturally subdued. Of course, it’s not as if we expect his character to break out into unfettered histrionics but considering the enormity of what is occurring around him you’d surely expect a bit more of an emotional response.

As expected, once the bombing begins the movie devotes around one hour of its running time to scenes of pure chaos as fire rains down from the heavens. These scenes are obviously harrowing but it does get extremely repetitious as one by one the various characters are sent to the afterlife in a myriad of different ways – being set on fire, drowning in a pool that is overflowing with people, suffocating in a trapped basement, falling off a roof and the obviously expected seppuku of an official. Each of these segments is given sufficient screen time that ramps up the agony of this disaster but there’s really too much of it here with copious repetition to boot. Obviously fire is going to be the major cause of death but seeing an hour of various bodies flailing away as they are burnt to a crisp shows no restraint and it becomes more mind numbingly bland than emotionally effective.

Happily Tokyo Daikushu is a more of less politically moderate series that actually makes some salient observations about the Japanese involvement in the war that doesn’t really paint a glowing picture of their government. Now, it’s not as if it comes out and blatantly makes accusations but at least there are characters and moments included that attempt a more even handed commentary of the events. Therefore, it’s refreshing to see incidents and hardships that the local Korean population endured after the raid whereby they were hunted down and persecuted unfairly. Also highlighted is the fact that some Japanese officials clearly foresaw the potential for such a calamity yet their cries for assistance and preparedness fall on deaf ears with officials who boast citing pure ego that it could never happen. There’s also a resounding lack of racist hatred towards Americans as well as they are treated merely as their enemy but not as soulless bastards. Then again, there isn’t a very deep look at all at how Japan got into this situation in the first place but that’s clearly not the intent of the filmmakers who only want to show the horrors of war without the burden of political commentary.

In this case they succeed albeit with many warts. Easily the show’s major stumbling block is that it relies on an awful decision to showcase many characters dying in the first half only to suddenly pop up in the second as having miraculously survived with minor scars then they inevitably die anyways in another attack. You can only use so much cinematic trickery or lack of logic to explain away someone’s death and apparent rebirth but it’s incessantly aggravating when the film clearly shows someone caught in a no win situation and then magically saves that person without giving explanation how it came about. Having someone trapped underneath rubble as a flaming building falls upon them but then showing said person later on being alive with only a broken hand is not at all convincing. I suppose some might chalk that up as one of those miracle moments that so often occur even in reality but when moments like this happen to many characters it feels cheap and unbelievable.

There are also odd stylistic choices such as having two distinct theme songs one featuring traditional Japanese male vocals but the other is a poignant melody sung in English that blares out usually during scenes of much death and destruction that made me think of James Cameron’s Titanic. For a production about Japanese civilians dying in World War 2 this inclusion of such a Celine Dion inspired song in English is simply off-putting. Actually, the Titanic comparison is not so far off the mark as the series employs relatively the same structure by beginning with a prologue in the present before flashing back to events and then finally ending up back in modern times. The series even ends almost exactly like Titanic’s last few shots. To say more would ruin the narrative yet the comparisons are eerily close. I dare anyone to watch Horikita Maki and Fujiwara Tatsuya prepare to jump off a flaming bridge into a river filled with floating debris and corpses and not flashback to Jack and Rose on the Titanic’s stern as she goes down into the watery depths of the Atlantic ocean. Then again if you are going to be inspired by a movie you might as well go with the biggest movie (unadjusted gross anyways) of all time.

Tokyo Daikushu succeeds in showcasing that humans can go through such enormous misery and hardship yet still retain their inherent compassion and mercy. Time and time again people are beaten down and events occur that would mentally cripple lesser men but the show does well in showing that the human spirit can never be broken – this is not a show about the strong Japanese spirit but the human spirit in general and viewers would be wise in not reading it incorrectly. What happens here can happen to anyone at anytime in history yet life goes on. At almost four hours in length the show surprisingly never drags except for lingering a bit too long on the actual firebombing horrors. Horikita Maki is at the top of her game here and proves once again why she’s considered one of Japan’s best young actresses. Without her the series would have felt distinctly cold yet even though it’s manufactured to illicit strong emotions she gives the show the warmth it so desperately requires.

*** out of ****

2008, Japan, 240 Minutes, NTV
Director: Kamikawa Nobuhiro
Screenwriters: Terada Toshio, Watanabe Yusuke
Producers: Sato Atsushi, Koyama Tadashi
Music: Mizoguchi Hajime

Sakuragi Haruko: Horikita Maki
Oba Hiroto: Fujiwara Tatsuya
Oba Hiroto: Otaki Hideji
Boku Hitoshi: Eita
Yamada Kazue: Shibamoto Yuki
Ishikawa Shigeru: Kishitani Goro
Tanimura Sato: Maya Miki
Tomita Ayako: Kuninaka Ryoko
Yabushita Masaru: Tamura Hiroshi
Aida Tokusaburo: Ukaji Takashi
Aida Toshiko: Kyono Kotomi
Mizuhashi Etsuko: Kishi Keiko
Sakuragi Kikuo: Nakamura Baijaku

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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