1945. As a kamikaze in the Japanese military, a young nameless soldier is assigned to man an oil-drum strapped to torpedo, adrift in the ocean with no hope of return. While he waits for a potential target, he reminisces on his harsh training, on the generosity and humanity of the people he’s met, and on his first and only love. Inspired by his own military experiences, Okamoto portrays the stupidity of war and the sentiments of youth through a mix of melancholy and absurdist humor. This conflicted vision of national duty and sacrifice was one of the first productions of the now legendary Art Theatre Guild, Japan’s most significant producer highly influential, low-budget, independent cinema.
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The Human Bullet is arguably Kihachi Okamoto’s most directly political film (certainly amongst the films canvassed in this imaginary Eclipse set). The film examines the desperation of the Japanese war effort in its final days following the atomic bombs being dropped, a time when supplies became ever scarcer and the need for victory was undermined by the desperation to survive. The film’s main character, an unnamed “human bullet” tasked to sacrifice himself in the name of the Empire, is assigned to float on the ocean in an oil drum attached to a torpedo, waiting to sacrifice himself in the unlikely event he runs across an Allied ship. Left to reflect on his young, short life, the film flashbacks to his harsh military experience, to the kindness and generosity of a bookseller and his wife, to people’s fear and confusion following Japan’s defeats, and to an all too brief encounter with first love. Overall, it is a far more tragic and harshly political picture than Okamoto’s other ’60s satires, yet it still contains much of his wit and inventiveness, particularly in his editing style and in his use of extradiegetic and contrapuntal sound. Combining art house pretense and commentary with his trademark irony and frenzied energy, The Human Bullet is the perfect concluding statement for an Eclipse set on Kihachi Okamoto’s talent as an artist.
Okamoto’s merger of comedy with sociopolitical criticism, particularly with regard to Japan’s experience during WWII, was often poorly received by critics. To the extent that those views changed, it was The Human Bullet that inspired those shifts. Okamoto had made the docudrama Japan’s Longest Day (1967) at the behest of Toho and its 35th anniversary, but was never satisfied with the result. The film represented the official history of capitulation but not Okamoto’s experience with the war. He wrote a script based on his impressions, but could not entice Toho to produce it. With a modest budget, the director was able to make his film through the recently formed Art Theatre Guild, a major force in independent Japanese cinema that acted as benefactor to many prominent filmmakers of art house cinema, including Shuji Terayama, Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Koji Wakamatsu. The Human Bullet allowed Okamoto to find fulfillment with Japan’s Longest Day, identifying the two films as “a complete picture” of the wartime experience. Some may criticize The Human Bullet as being too explicit in its message, of sermonizing too frequently, but it was through Okamoto’s more trenchantly political railing that critics finally got his satirically expressed message and embraced his infusion of black humour into sensitive historical subject matter.
Credits: The back cover summary is adapted from the Berlinale and MoMA websites’ synopses for The Human Bullet.