Kamei Fumio's Fighting Soldiers is a defining work in the history of Japanese documentary, possibly one of the first works of non-fiction to possess a very distinctive authorial touch, to an extent that it is often called the "first Japanese documentary".
In 1939 commissioned by Toho (PCL changed its name in Toho just 3 years before), Kamei with cameraman Miki Shigeru went to China to shoot a propaganda documentary, or more correctly a war record film, about the Japanese imperial troops deployed in the ongoing invasion of Manchuria. Kamei however made something very different from what the government and the army was expecting, thus the movie was instantly banned from release. What was especially criticized was the portrait of soldiers, but also the depiction of Chinese victims, as the the chief of the Japanese Metropolitan Police Board famously stated during an advance screening "These aren't fighting soldiers, they're tired soldiers!" .
I'll focus my attention here on the first 5 minutes of the movie, one of my favorite openings in Japanese cinema and a powerful example of Kamei's use of montage, a "method of philosophical expression" that the Japanese director so beautifully explained in his book Takakau eiga:
I think documentary film must be like haiku. If the viewer observes something with shot A, then shot B must produce the space for the viewers to freely develop their own creative possibilities. Shot B, therefore, demands a new observation by the viewer. Shot B is what i call the MA of documentary film.
(quote from "The Flash of Capital" Eric Cazdyn, pag. 64)
Kamei was obviously and directly influenced by Soviet cinema and Soviet montage theory in particular, a technique he was able to master when he was studying film in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the early 1930s.
You can watch the opening here:
All the following stills are taken from the first 5 minutes of Fighting Soldiers and are here displayed in chronological order:
After the opening credits the movie starts with an old man praying before a shrine, images of destroyed houses, shots of children staring towards the camera (1) and an impressive close-up of the same old man (2).
In the next scene, a group of people carrying all their belongins, walk away from the destroyed town (3) through a barren land (4), soon after, the movie cuts to a close-up of a small statue hands on its face, almost frozen in a scream of despair (5). Next we see the same statue from a different perspective with the expanse of dry land on its background (6).
In the following shot we see the departure (or arrival) of Japanese tanks (7) from the land they conquered and destroyed, these war vehicles are seen from a medium distance. Next, in what is one of the most stunning shot and cut in the history of documentary, the point of view shifts, and we are now on a tank moving among the ruins of the bombarded town. It's a brief tracking shot and it's also an amazing close-up of a Japanese flag attached on the tank and flapping, but what we see on the background of the flag is the village reduced to rubble(8).
Kamei as a filmmaker had the philosophical necessity, paradoxically even if he was making what is still considered a propaganda documentary, to bring in the foreground what is usually pushed in the background, the suffering, the grief, the destruction and the loss that every military conflict brings about. For this inner conflict/dichotomy Fighting Soldiers remains even today hated and loved by many viewers and critics, and the movie is considered by many critics and scholars at the same time a cinematic wonder and a riddle. To complicate the situation, in the following years Kamei himself frequently repeated and wrote that it was not an anti-war movie.
Problematic movies more than perfect ones foster us to reflect and to engage with their themes, not offering easy and ready-made point of views or solutions, they continuosly resonate with us, view after view, challenging our vision. Fighting Soldiers is one of these movies, and one of the best to emerge from the world of non-fiction cinema.
It is a real pity that the film is not so well known in the West and, besides a cheap Japanese DVD, we don't have a proper DVD or BD release.
Japanese Documentary Film – The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, Abe Mark Nornes, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
The Flash of Capital, Eric Cazdyn, Duke University Press, 2002.
A Talk by Kamei Fumio
The typical genius of Kamei Fumio