Halfway through the 15-year war in China, the Japanese War Ministry enlisted Toho Studios' Culture Film section to produce a movie documenting the Japanese military operation in Wuhan. Toho chose Fumio Kamei, fresh fro...展开m his work as editor on Toho's 1938 propaganda film Shanghai, to direct the new work. Kamei was shipped off to the front with a small crew including cameraman Shigeru Miki (known for his work on Mizoguchi's 1933 White Threads of the Waterfall / Taki No Shiraito), and the resulting footage was used to great effect, but to the dismay of the producers the completed film featured limp and listless soldiers on a desolated landscape where it should have been boosting morale and exalting the Japanese war effort.
In one oft-quoted episode, during an advance screening of Fighting Soldiers the chief of the Japanese Metropolitan Police Board's Thought Police stood up in his seat and protested, "These aren't fighting soldiers, they're tired soldiers!" The film thus failed to impress the government and was banned from release, its provocative images of the front never reaching the public. This certainly didn't score any patriotism points for the peace-wishing 30-year old, who after completing the legendary Kobayashi Issa in 1941 was arrested and detained for a year on the grounds of violating the so-called Peace Preservation Law. As such Kamei was the only Japanese film director to be jailed during the war, and Fighting Soldiers became a 'phantom' casualty of film history until an edited print was discovered on a sound stage in 1975. Today Kamei's film is widely recognized as a defining work of Japanese documentary cinema.
Where Frank Capra's Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy films conspired to use the enemy's own images against him, Kamei ironically took a similar approach to pictures of the front. The film was recorded with synchronized sound (Shanghai was the first Japanese documentary to do this) but no narration, and Kamei skillfully placed text intertitles throughout the film to create a dissonance between the rhetoric of wartime ideals and the reality of devastation that faced all life in China. Fighting Soldiers shows us one miserable example after another of the war's "successes". The film opens with a title explaining that the soldiers at the front showed a great deal of support for the film, but throughout the campaign, and especially when the troops eventually reach the crumbling streets of Hankou, they appear disinterested and totally fatigued.
When the titles tell us that "The continent is experiencing severe labor pains in giving birth to a new order," we see destruction - a burning village, refugees and homeless children, the face of an old man lost in shock and confusion. In one particularly jarring scene we read that the troops sometimes have to leave sick horses behind in order to pursue the enemy. "At times like this the soldiers are crying in their hearts but... it can't be helped." We then see a black horse standing alone on the side of a road, slowly wavering, stumbling and finally collapsing pathetically onto the ground to die. In the "battle" scenes, the soldiers are mere specks against a gray landscape while cannons and machine guns echo counter-rhythmically in the background. Kamei's vision of war is nearly numbing.