Japanese director Hideyuki Hirayama offers audiences Battle of the Pacific (2011) – a flawed, but at times moving, account of a group of Japanese soldiers in Saipan at the end of WWII who continue to fight on even after their emperor has surrendered. Hiayama’s film is better known amongst Asian audiences as Oba: The Last Samurai, a title that more accurately summarises the plot.
Hirayama has chosen to show both the American and Japanese perspectives of the conflict in Saipan and also decided to have two separate direction units to focus on each standpoint. This decision by Hirayama allows for contrast between the radically different cultures and to a certain extent provides a balanced account of events. However, it becomes rapidly obvious that the decision to capture the American story was not plot driven but a commercial choice to make the film more attractive to Western audiences.
This would be understandable (films have to make money) if Battle of the Pacific wasn’t strewn with terrible performances and a weak script in the American aspects of the film. The worst offenders are Daniel Baldwin who offers a clichéd 1950s gum-chewing colonel with an irritatingly hammy accent and Sean McGowan, the lead American actor, who gives a wet portrayal of a captain who lived in Japan before the war and is there to provide a cultural bridge between the two forces and stories.
Much more compelling is the story of the Japanese fighters who are hiding in the jungle. Yutaka Takenouchi, who plays Oba, the captain of the Japanese soldiers, gives an incredibly powerful and emotive performance. He is emaciated and drawn yet still burns with a single-minded zeal to win the battle, despite the futility of the situation. Oba and his comrades’ devastation at the idea of surrender is effective enough to inspire pity, and is a reminder of the nature of samurai philosophy which argues that death is preferable to surrender. As an examination of Japanese military mentality it demonstrates the extreme cultural change that Japan faced after their defeat following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The warrior code of the samurai was now redundant.
Hirayama fails to realise the power of the material he is provided with, and has given in to commercial pressures. The result is a messy feature that shoehorns the secondary US perspective in a clumsy manner that distracts audiences from the captivating and well-performed story of Oba and his men.
If – and only if – you can strip away Battle of the Pacific’s B-grade American actors’ cheesy performances and clumsy narrative devices, focusing instead on the Japanese plot, you might just find a film worth watching.