The strange title comes from Shimizu, a gentle barber about to be executed, who decides that in his next reincarnation he wants to be a shellfish because he could live on the bottom of the sea where there is no human cruelty. The cruelty he has seen before his death is part of a complex examination of the “war crimes” trials held in Japan after the war.
When we meet Shimizu, it is in the winter of 1944-45 and he is in his thirties, finally established after years of struggle in his own small town barbershop with loving wife and son and presumably too old to be conscripted (though how he escaped in previous younger years is never mentioned). Unexpectedly, he receives a draft notice and is still in training when the massive bombing raids of 1945 begin. His unit is sent to capture some American airmen whose plane was shot down, but when found they are dead or dying. The unit’s captain decides to use them as targets for bayonet practice and Shimizu, as the “weakest” of the unit, is picked to prove his “bravery” in a bayonet charge against the bodies tied to a stake. Nothing more is heard about this event until, after he has returned to his shop, he is suddenly arrested, charged with a war crime, and sentenced to hang. In fairly straightforward manner, we follow him through the trial and his time in prison, where a long pause in the executions encourage the men to think there will be a general amnesty after the final peace treaty is signed, but for him it is not to be, and he is hanged.
The movie tries to be a serious examination of the concept of war crimes and in particular of how far the defense of “following orders” can be justified. To a certain degree, it is intended to be an exoneration of many of the men charged with war crimes, with the sympathy deck stacked by the casting of all-round nice guy Frankie Sakai as Shimizu and the crime with which he is charged stemming from a situation in which he genuinely had no choice.
Unfortunately for him, the captain who gave the direct order committed suicide at the end of the war and can not testify, but the officers higher up the chain are all sentenced to various terms, including General Yono who is also sentenced to hang, even though his original order was that the airmen be found and returned. Certainly, within the situation described in the movie, Shimizu really had no option. He even tries not to obey, stopping short on his first charge, but the officer beats him before ordering a second charge in which, Shimuzu claims, he only stabbed an arm of a man who was already dead (the camera cuts away before the bayonet enters the body, so we don’t know if that part is true).
Unlike in The Thick-Walled Room, an earlier movie dealing with men charged with war crimes, the men at the top do not escape. General Yono is not only executed but also formally tries to take full responsibility in order to get the lower ranks released, as will Go Kato’s character in The Scent of Incense a few years later.
The Americans are depicted surprisingly even-handedly. There are no cruel prison guards, no viciousness shown to any of the prisoners. The trial is not a kangaroo court but rather a complete inability to understand each other’s language and culture. Working through an interpreter, neither the Americans nor Shimizu ever fully understand each other’s questions or responses. When Shimizu says he could not disobey an order because an officer’s order was also the Emperor’s order, the Americans absurdly ask if he had ever met the Emperor. At one point, Shimizu even asks, “What country do you think this is?” In their cells later, the prisoners discuss another soldier sentenced for forcing POWs to eat a food that the Japanese considered a rare delicacy. Neither is Shimizu himself a complete innocent for he quite eagerly leads the parade for another man in the village who is drafted a few weeks before himself and after the war uses the barber shop as a clearing house for the various local black market dealers.
The movie does remind us of a point which we as Americans were rarely told: the overwhelming majority of the Japanese soldiery was composed of draftees, men dragged unwillingly out of their lives to serve the military rather than men who eagerly surged out to conquer the world. Once in uniform, they were kept in line by constant re-iteration of Duty to the Emperor, which had been drilled into them from school-age onward, and by brute force from officers and NCOs who punished the slightest hesitation not with extra KP duty but with slaps, punches, and life-threatening orders. Shimizu is once sent on a pack-drill run in the middle of a bombing raid for simply being the last one into the bomb shelter.
The movie was based on a novel by Tetsutaro Kato, himself a convicted war criminal released in 1958. This gives the prison scenes a sense of verisimilitude, particularly the rumors of a general amnesty and of the more absurd idea that the “executed” men were really all released under new identities. However, it is not a fictionalization of Kato’s own story, for he was an officer who executed a POW for an attempted escape, which suggests that the novel was his attempt to clear his own name by making readers think it was an autobiographical story. Adapted by Shinobu Hashimoto, the script was presumably intended for Kurosawa, for whom he had written Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and many others. If so, however, Kurosawa dropped out of the project and Hashimoto himself ended up in the director’s chair for the first time, supported by some of Toho’s most experienced and talented staff. It also appears to be comedian Frankie Sakai’s first “serious” role, in which he acquits himself with restraint and sincerity, as he would in later such roles in a long career.
The movie was remade in 2008 in a version which, based on the trailer included on the disc of this version, was much more sentimental and emotionally extroverted.