In Japan, war-themed films began appearing as early as 1938. One of the first such films was Tomotaka Tasaka’s Gonin no Sekkohei (Five Scouts, 1938), which, despite its support of the Japanese war effort, seemed devoid of the blatant propaganda found in both Nazi and American war films of the period. Indeed, wartime propaganda “documentaries,” such as Five Scouts, emphasized the importance of duty, honor, and country for Japanese soldiers, rather than glorifying war or inciting racial animosity. Kozaburo Yoshi-mura’s Nishizumi senshacho-den (The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi, 1940) is a much more straightforward battle film, while Kenji Mizoguchi created what is probably the best-known Japanese war film, the two-part Genroku chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin, 1941), a sweeping historical epic set in eighteenth-century Japan centering on a bank of Samurai warriors who remained steadfast in their devotion to their master even after his death.
Akira Kurosawa, who would become one of Japan’s most important postwar directors, made his cinematic debut with Sugata Sanshiro (Judo Saga, 1943), another historical drama, which focused on a nineteenth-century judo champion as an example of personal selflessness and sacrifice. Kurosawa’s first film was remarkably assured stylistically, evincing an almost Hollywood-like embrace of fluid camerawork, particularly in its abundance of deftly designed tracking shots.
Yasujiro Ozu, notably, managed to avoid being a significant part of the Japanese wartime motion picture industry, with the prewar Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (What Did the Lady Forget?) in 1937, and subsequently Todake no kyodai (The Toda Brothers and Sisters, 1941), a film of everyday life, and Chichi ariki (There Was a Father, 1942), which was also a typically intimate film about daily domestic life. After this, Ozu did not return to the director’s chair until 1947, with Nagaya shinshiroku (The Record of a Tenement Gentleman). In all these films, he seemed more interested in the interior lives of his characters than in any external form that might affect their lives.
He refined his use of off-screen space (significant action that occurs outside the frame, and is thus unseen by the audience) while further developing his predilection for what has been termed “pillow shots”—shots of the landscapes, billowing curtains, details of a building, or close-up street life, which have nothing to do with the film’s narrative but which create a sense of atmosphere that punctuates and underscores the film’s emotional center. As the war ended, Ozu’s highly personal style became more and more sophisticated in its intricacy and structure. His pillow shots became his signature, along with his insistence on static setups, precise framing, and an avoidance of moving camera shots.
In the Soviet Union during the war, Sergei Eisenstein remained the only filmmaker of major cultural significance, while Boris Shumyatskiy, Stalin’s cinematic watchdog, supervised the production of numerous mediocre propaganda films wholly lacking in visual or thematic originality. When Germany invaded in June 1941, Soviet filmmakers began producing a significant number of newsreel compilation films in support of the war effort. The most famous is probably Ilya Kopalin and Leonid Varlamov’s Razgrom nemetskikh voysk pod Moskvoy (Defeat of the German Armies Near Moscow, 1942), which was screened in the West under the more commercial title Moscow Strikes Back. The film actually won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1942 (along with two American war films, John Ford’s The Battle of Midway and Frank Capra’s Prelude to War).
In 1938, Boris Shumyatskiy was ousted as head of the Soviet film industry and shortly thereafter executed in one of Stalin’s many purges, but the stamp of his regime remained in the generally pedestrian films that continued to be produced. Stalin’s own favorite film of the era was Grigori Aleksandrov’s slapstick comedy musical Volga-Volga (1938), which recounts the adventures of a group of clownish misfits as they chase after each other during a song-writing competition. Stalin so liked the film that he insisted that it be run over and over in his private projection room, much to the dismay of those who were required to attend his nightly film screenings.
As the war drew to a close, such films as Sergei Yutkevich’s Novye pokhozhdeniya Shveyka (The New Adventures of Schweik, 1943) and Zdravstvuy, Moskva! (Hello Moscow!, 1945) projected a national image of solidarity in the face of the enemy onslaught, as did Aleksandr Stolper’s Dni i nochi (Days and Nights, 1945) and Mark Donskoy’s Raduga (The Rainbow, 1944). After the end of the war, the Soviet cinema would enter a period of even steeper decline, both in terms of quality and quantity, until matters slowly began to improve with Stalin’s death in 1953. The big postwar breakthrough came only in 1957, with the release of Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957), a rather sentimental war story set during the World War II era that nevertheless became a marked international success, winning the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.