The fall of Saipan during WWII is viewed from Japanese and American perspectives in “Oba, the Last Samurai,” an engrossing portrait of Capt. Sakae Oba, whose loyalist band continued fighting for four months after hostilities officially ceased. Carefully balancing Oba’s guerrilla campaign with a U.S. officer’s mission to flush out him out, this handsomely mounted pic captures the mindset of Japanese soldiers and civilians coming to terms with an unthinkable defeat. Pic opened domestically Feb. 11 in a blaze of B.O. glory, has grossed a robust $10 million so far, and has been sold to several offshore territories.
Duplicating an approach not attempted on a big war movie since “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), “Oba” was shot by two self-contained units, a potentially risky method that pays off here; Hideyuki Hirayama’s Japanese-language material and co-helmer Cellin Gluck’s English-lingo scenes have distinct visual and tonal personalities that are harmoniously interwoven to accentuate the story’s cross-cultural themes.
Hirayama strikes first with a vivid recreation of slaughter prior to the U.S. declaration of victory on the island of Saipan on July 9, 1945. Ignoring the mass suicides of superior officers and the Emperor’s surrender broadcast a month later, Oba (Yutaka Takenouchi) and followers, including tattooed tough-nut Horiuchi (Toshiaka Karasawa), decide to hole up in Mt. Tapochau. Oba’s stand assumes Masada-like proportions when he’s joined by several hundred civilians who refuse to enter internment camps or follow suicide directives issued by the authorities.
Gluck’s footage centers on Capt. Herman Lewis (bilingual thesp Sean McGowan, solid), who once lived in Japan and is ordered by Col. Pollard (Daniel Baldwin) to swiftly resolve the Mt. Tapochau situation. Though Baldwin overplays the role of gung-ho commander who’d rather “blow ’em all to hell” than listen to Lewis explain the bushido code, the narrative settles into a much smoother groove when Pollard is replaced by Col. Weissinger (Treat Williams, excellent), a worldly type who gives Lewis free reign in what’s become a hearts-and-minds campaign with deadly risks attached.
Plenty of exciting ambush sequences show how Oba earned the nickname “the Fox,” but the main emphasis is on the emotional state of characters who remain mentally at war while their respective nations are officially at peace. Compellingly portrayed by Takenouchi, Oba’s internal conflict is tenderly examined through his relationships with fiery young nurse Aono (Mao Inoue) and kindly older woman Okuno (Tomoko Nakajima). Lewis’ interaction with Baba (Toshiya Sakai) and Motoki (Sadao Abe), internees who are willing to talk Oba down, potently evokes the massive cultural hurdles faced by the U.S. Army in what was its first significant encounter with Japanese civilians.
Widescreen HD lensing in Thailand (where pic was entirely shot) is aces, with Kozo Shibasaki’s predominantly broad canvases of people and nature lending a poetic counterbalance to co-d.p Gary Waller’s more intimately framed shots of U.S. personnel. The rest of the tech aspects are topnotch. Japanese title translates as “Miracle in the Pacific: The Man They Called the Fox.”