Saturday, October 01, 2011

NYFF ’11: Mud and Soldiers (Nikkatsu Centennial)

It is sort of like being immersed in the flipside of Saving Private Ryan. You might feel like invading Manchuria after watching Tomotaka Tasaka’s 1939 Mud and Soldiers, because that is exactly what it was designed to do. Though the Nikkatsu studio is best known for its classic yakuza films, it clearly took a sojourn through militarism in the 1930’s. In celebration of Nikkatsu’s centennial, the 49th New York Film Festival has programmed a wildly diverse 37 film retrospective, including Tasaka’s wartime propaganda picture.

If nothing else, Mud constitutes truth in titling. It is not called “Romance and Comic Relief” for a very good reason. Rather, the film documents a successful incursion into China, made possible by the selfless dedication of the Imperial Army’s rank-and-file. By design, there is virtually no character development, because Mud explicitly extols the virtue of soldiers submerging their individuality into the collective core. Granted, all military forces depend on their soldiers acting as a cohesive unit, but Mud’s esprit de corps is almost Borg like in its relentlessness. Even the practice of censoring their letters home is presented as an act of team-building.

Throughout Mud, there is a surfeit of marching and warfighting in the muck. It is so realistic, it even features a fair amount of the hurry-up-and-waiting that every veteran remembers with frustration. In fact, Mud was such an accurate depiction of the combat experience, the U.S. military reportedly re-cut a confiscated print to use as a training film, in effect censoring a film glorifying censorship. As befits the Imperial Army, none of the cast stands out, but to a man, they all blend into frontline milieu.

To give due credit, Mud is well made, blowing up stuff nicely and portraying a private’s perspective on warfare with scrupulous honesty, including the frequent boredom. However, the agenda behind it is transparently obvious. Naturally, there is absolutely no hint of the Japanese atrocities committed in China, which makes programming Mud without a counterbalancing selection a bit of a tricky proposition. Still, at least in America, the Imperial Army’s conduct in places like Nanjing is a settled question.

Though one can take issue with Mud on a host of aesthetic and ideological grounds, it is unlikely New Yorkers will have an opportunity to see it on the big screen anytime soon beyond the Nikkatsu sidebar. A historically important but highly problematic film, Mud screens Tuesday and Wednesday (10/4 & 10/5) at the Howard Gillman Theater as part of the Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses Masterworks retrospective celebrating Japan’s oldest movie studio at the 2011 New York Film Festival.