It's a black-and-white Japanese absurdist anti-war satire. Sounds good? I thought so too.
Its writer/director is Kihachi Okamoto, who got drafted into World War Two in 1943, acquired some strong opinions and eventually became a film director (1958-2001). He worked in lots of different genres, but a third of his output was about war and he was fond of black comedy and satire.
In the year before The Human Bullet, for instance, he'd made two films. One was Epoch of Murder Madness, which was so dark and absurd that Toho at first refused to release it. However he'd also done the epic Japan's Longest Day (157 minutes) about how Japan's military near-dictatorship reacted to the Emperor's surrender on 15 August 1945. That was a heavyweight, important film. This isn't, instead being eccentric and piss-taking. Stanley Kubrick or even Spike Milligan would recognise its spirit. He also made it not for Toho (his main employer) but for a much smaller studio called Art Theatre Guild.
I liked it a lot, by the way. I've always liked this kind of absurdist look at war, which to me tends to feel more honest and personal than the usual portentous seriousness.
Our hero is Minori Terada, playing a nameless character called "Him". (Naoko Otani meanwhile plays "The Girl".) Terada is a good Japanese soldier who has no problem with the fact that he's been drafted into a kamikaze suicide squad, but is nonetheless a bad fit for the military mindset. "Why is he naked?" you'll ask. The answer is to be found in the conversation where he explains to a superior that everyone in his platoon has turned into a cow. Ten minutes later, we see the Japanese Army explaining that its soldiers' pay and rations are ample and that their malnutrition and starvation is because they're not chewing their food enough.
After being a cow, he becomes a pig and then a god. "Kamikaze" means the wind ("kaze") of God ("kami"), so kamikaze soldiers get called gods.
Summarising the plot would do this film a disservice, because this kind of film isn't about plot. It's about the nonsensical nature of war and the way in which the people caught up in it are at the whim of fate. Okamoto gives us a man with no arms, explains that being alive is important because the dead can't enjoy the pleasure of urination. (This is more profound than it sounds, especially in a culture where women might try to commit suicide because they've been told that American soldiers will crush Japanese men's testicles and take Japanese women as mistresses.)
One thing the film doesn't do is to attack Japan's war record overseas. It's not addressing war crimes. The whole thing's set in Japan itself, in the dying days of the war when everyone with a brain knows that Japan's doomed and yet they won't complain about being sent on suicide missions. Thus the prostitute scenes have nothing to do with kidnapped foreign sex slaves (i.e. "comfort women") and instead are quirky, personal and funny. I liked them a lot, especially Naoko Otani. Terada is endearingly romantic about what he wants from his first sexual experience, even though it's going to be for money. However that said, we also see dozens of soldiers jump on three nurses at night and tear off their clothes for what was presumably going to be a gang rape, so let's not pretend that this film is getting starry-eyed about the recreational activities of the Japanese army.
There's plenty of nudity, but it's not exploitative at all, even though we're only two years away from the pink tidal wave of the 1970s. It's almost entirely male, from Terada. Wow, he's thin. You'll have no problem believing that this man is suffering from starvation.
The film's fun. It's savage in its opinion of Japanese propaganda and the war effort in general, as is shown by its point-by-point analysis of the propaganda that's being taught in schools. Terada meets a small boy who's proudly reciting all those slogans about Japan. He's a good boy, but he's also talking a lot of bollocks and Terada ends up going through it in detail. Some of this might seem a bit odd from a Western perspective, but this film wasn't made for us. The important thing is that Okamoto has a sense of humour about the lunacy and he's basically freewheeling through stuff he thinks is amusing, rather than getting all serious and indignant about it. Even if sympathetic characters end up dead for no reason, that's the (bleak) joke.
One of the more puzzling, yet profound, bits is Terada's obsession with algebra. He was helping Otani do some mathematics, you see. Towards the end, when that little boy is understandably crying out for vengeance, Terada just retreats into his world of x-squared. Vengeance means more fighting. Terada isn't interested.
Nothing to do with The Human Bullet from The Tick.
I'd definitely recommend this. It's a paradoxically reassuring film, showing you that there will always be ironic self-awareness and black humour even in a world that's gone mad. It has sly touches like the officer whose repetitive bollocks is spliced into footage of a stuck record. It's witty and even light, while at the same time being fully aware of the horrors. It apparently drifts away from reality when we have a man surviving without food or water for ten days and still being clean-shaven, but my theory is that this indicates an additional level of black irony. Our hero probably went off on his bomb-laden suicide mission after the surrender had been announced, not before. Oddly charming, in large part because of Terada.
"Cried and squeezed a pimple at the same time."