Two Evocations of the Japanese Flag

by Jason Suzuki

Probably the most common, and some could argue easiest, tool of the political film is to evoke the targeted country's flag. In the United States we have examples like Brian De Palma's stars and stripes finale in Blow Out, but in Japan they have the hinomaru, a red circle on a white background evoking the sun. While not the official flag of Japan until the late 90s, it had already been established as the symbol for Japan as early as the Meiji period onwards with some accounts stating before. Linked with Japanese creation mythology and therefore linked with the divine reign of the emperor the flag holds these sort of negative connotations in relation to emperor rule. And while some filmmaker have returned to the image time and time again (see: Nagisa Oshima) below are two examples where the flag is truly evoked rather than just presented; and the use of this hinomaru imagery is done in interesting ways.

Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

When Kon Ichikawa stepped in to direct a film documenting the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo after Kurosawa was denied on account of requesting too much control, he did not let the fact that he was a replacement stop him from his own authorial touches in the most meaningful, yet sparse, ways. The film opens on a direct allusion to the flag: a rising sun. But after a collection of purposeful, holding seconds he does a match cut to a wrecking ball. It's a match cut that deserves to become just as iconic as the millions of years leap from bone to space ship done in 2001. We as an audience, a knowingly international one given the subject matter of the games, is now confronted with the destruction resulting from the war and the beginnings of Japan's effort to rebuild. What is captured on film is the makings of Japan's economic rise and following "Lost Decade." The film begins very specific but eventually expands its scope and ends on what is one of the most powerful calls for peace.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Shunya Ito, 19712)

Probably the most vivid and memorable moment in the first of the three Scorpion films Shunya Ito did with Meiko Kaji, which is also his directorial debut after assistant directing most notably under Seijun Suzuki, is the extended flashback sequence in which Nami Matsushima aka Scorpion recounts how she wound up a prisoner/the embodiment of the rage of revenge. Her police detective boyfriend Sugimi deflowers her in the most theatrical and surreal of ways. By pulling on a sheet he unravels her across the floor of an all blue room. When he descends upon her Ito cuts to the white sheet slowly soaking up a dot of blood in the center thus evoking the flag. Throughout the film allusions to nationalism can be seen: the opening in which the police are basically congratulating themselves, the above mentioned deflowerment, and a recurring banner hanging on the side of a building proclaiming "The beautiful heart and soul of Japan." We come full circle when in a final bit of frustration Sugimi throws the knife Scorpion used to kill him into the air. It flies to the level of a nearby flag before hitting the ground. He soon follows. It's as if he has just now realized the lie of such a beautiful heart and soul, one that he is fully a part of, being as corrupt as he is.