It centers around three generations of the Takagi family, who are shopkeepers. It starts out in 1866, during the Boshin War, a civil war between the shogunate and the forces of the emperor. A little lecture about the importance of military duty and the evil intentions of Great Britain and the United States sets the theme, before the film skips to 1895 and the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan wins, as usual, but the Takagi family and everyone else are outraged when Russia, Great Britain, and the United States forces Japan to cede the Liaodong Peninsula. Meanwhile, Tomohiko Takagi, the second generation Takagi, is embarrassed when poor health keeps him out of the war.
Poor health keeps Tomohiko out of the Russo-Japanese War as well, and as it turns out, he never does get to fight, although he becomes just as ultra-patriotic as every other good Japanese. His military ambitions eventually settle on his son Shintaro, a gentle, meek child whom his parents write off as a "coward". But Shintaro eventually surprises his parents, joins the army, graduates from training and becomes a fine young soldier ready to go off to war—something his mother Waka has decidedly mixed feelings about.
Army is one of the most subversive films of all time. Kinoshita, an anti-war liberal, was assigned by the Imperial Japanese Army to make a movie glorifying the army and rousing the people of Japan to support the war. Instead, Kinoshita managed to smuggle a subtle but powerful anti-war message right under the noses of military censors. After the war, Kinoshita would make more overtly anti-war films like Morning for the Osone Family and Twenty-Four Eyes.
- Alone in a Crowd: Dramatically so, when a weeping, desperate Maka is trying to find her son as he marches away—while everyone else in the crowd is waving flags, giddy with patriotic enthusiasm.
- An Aesop: The good people of Japan should support the Emperor and the war and not spend their energy on petty squabbles, and they should raise their sons to be soldiers. Although, as noted elsewhere on this page, there's a suble anti-war Aesop buried in the movie.
- Armchair Military: Tomohiko and all his other civilian buddies, barking about how Japan has to avenge itself, how Shintaro needs to become a soldier, etc. In one particularly absurd scene Tomohiko and his friend get into a heated argument about whether or not Japan really needed the "divine wind"—aka "kamikaze"—to escape being conquered by the Mongol Empire.
- As You Know: Tomohiko's neighbor the doctor, who sometimes comes over to play Go. "I'm an herbal doctor and not that busy, but I can't play 'go' in the daytime."
- Call-Forward: "One day we must strike a blow to Russia", uttered in 1895, ten years before Japan struck that blow.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film pays lip service to the idea of the patriotic duty of Japanese citizens, and the duty of Japanese parents to give their sons to the Emperor, but the ending sends a very different message. Maka's anxiety about her son going off to war has already been established by a shot of her silently weeping as Shintaro gives her a massage. In the last scene she is sweeping up the house as the sounds of the soldiers marching to the train station can be heard. Suddenly she crumples to the floor. Maka dully recites the five principles of the soldier. Then she snaps out of her fugue and goes on a desperate dash through the neighborhood to the parade route. A sobbing, grief-striken Maka manages to see her son one last time before he marches away. The film ends with her praying. It seems safe to presume this was not what the Japanese government had in mind when it commissioned this film.
- It Will Never Catch On: Tomohiko's friend is skeptical, in 1905, of this business of training soldiers to fly. "But even if they can fly, they can't use airplanes in war, can they?"
- Japanese Politeness: A badly wounded soldier staggers into the Takagi pawnshop in 1866. As he's getting bandaged up he says "Sorry to bother you, but can I have some tea?"
- Patriotic Fervor: It's all over Japan, but the film takes a subtly dim view of it.
- Silence Is Golden: The entire last sequence, a good five minutes at least in which Maka desperately races to see her son before he leaves, plays with no dialogue at all, other than her shouting "Shintaro!" when she finally spots him in the parade. Supposedly the shooting script said only “The mother sees the son off at the station.” This allowed Kinoshita to get his anti-war message in without alerting the censors reading the screenplay.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: The rousing patriotic song that plays over the ending makes a marked contrast with Maka's weeping, grief-stricken face.
- Stock Footage: A little stock footage of combat from the war with China is sprinkled in towards the end.
- Time Skip: 1866, 1895, 1905, "ten years later", "ten years later", another decade or so until the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War...
- Vicariously Ambitious: It eventually becomes clear that Tomohiko is pressuring Shintaro to achieve the military glory that he never did.