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Friday, Dec. 23, 2005
This one's for the home crowd
Japanese nationalism is reviving and so is the Japanese war-movie genre, though it's more accurate to describe films like "Lorelei," "Bokoku no Aegis (Aegis)" and "Sengoku Jieitai (Samurai Commando)" as war fantasies that are closer in spirit to shoot-'em-up arcade games than revisionist histories.
Then there is "Otokotachi no Yamato (Yamato: The Last Battle)," director Junya Sato and uber-producer Haruki Kadokawa's film version of a real ship's last battle in the closing days of World War II. That ship, the Yamato, has become a symbol of Japanese national pride -- and folly. The biggest battleship in the Japanese navy, with a crew of 3,300, the Yamato was built to rule the Asian waves, but by the time of its completion in December 1941, air power had trumped conventional sea power. By the time the battle of Leyte Gulf was fought, in October 1944, the United States had far more of the former than Japan, and U.S. warplanes sent most of the Japanese navy to the bottom, while badly mauling the Yamato.
When the Yamato sailed from her home port of Kure on April 6, 1945, to bring supplies to Japanese forces fighting in the Battle of Okinawa, it had no air protection whatsoever. U.S. carrier-based planes attacked on April 7 in the East China Sea -- and the Yamato went down, guns blazing, taking nearly 3,000 lives went with her. It was a suicide mission from start to finish, and the officers and crew knew it.
The film's depiction of this tragedy is very much in a cultural tradition: Japanese have been celebrating glorious losers for centuries, from Yoshitsune and Saigo Takamori to the tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots who were the Yamato crew's spiritual brothers. It is also intended strictly for domestic consumption. The likelihood of foreign sales or festival screenings is next to zero.
Which is unfortunate, since the film offers a remarkably explicit, if highly colored, account of life and death aboard the Yamato, while validating attitudes that are not in the rightist script for noble warriors of Dai-Nippon. Yes, there are plenty of clenched jaws, burning looks and fervent speeches about "saving the motherland," but there are also plenty of voices raised in protest against the coming debacle -- and not all from the weak reeds either. Even the ship's captain, played by macho screen icon Tetsuya Watari, objects to sending his men to certain death, until he is overruled by his die-hard superiors
Also, stoic masks slip in unexpected ways. Just before the climatic battle, an officer gives his teenaged sailors a talk on "preparing to die." "Say goodbye to the folks back home," he says. "Shout out to them, cry your heart out to them." And that's what they do, hanging over the rails and sobbing uncontrollably. Not a scene you'd see in "Saving Private Ryan."
Finally, the battle itself has a brutal intensity reminiscent of the famed Omaha Beach sequence in "Ryan." For all the outbursts of manga-esque heroics, the main images are of ruthless, stroboscoped slaughter, with bodies ripped by bullets and blown to bits by explosions. Meanwhile, under relentless bombing by American planes, the Yamato itself is quickly reduced to a helpless, dying hulk. The jingos in the audience will feel more like squirming than cheering.
The film is framed with a present-day story that begins with Makiko Uchida (Kyoka Suzuki), the adopted daughter of a Yamato survivor, asking an old fisherman named Kamio (Tatsuya Nakadai) to take her to the place where the Yamato sank 60 years before. He is reluctant at first, but when he hears that her father was Petty Officer Uchida (Shidou Nakamura), who was his superior on the Yamato, he agrees -- and begins to remember.
The films segues into a brief history of the Pacific War (the Japanese, naturally, were forced into it by the Allied oil embargo), followed by the arrival, in spring of 1944, of fresh-faced recruits aboard the Yamato, docked at Kure Harbor. Among them are the gangly, good-natured Kamio (Kenichi Matsuyama), and the short, bumbling Nishi (Kenta Uchino). Among their superiors are the gruff, kindly Moriwaki (Takashi Sorimachi), who is in charge of the kitchen, and the rakish, fearless Uchida, who is in charge of an anti-aircraft battery.
The boys undergo harsh training -- and punishment. Nishi gets whacked for fumbling a shell, Kamio for taking the blame when a porthole is left open (he is not the guilty party, but steps forward so his entire squad won't be punished). Moriwaki and Uchida prove to be decent types, however, who win the affection and respect of their young charges.
They are first bloodied at Leyte, where they nearly dissolve into panic under the ferocious American assault. Uchida takes a bullet to his eye, but miraculously survives. The Yamato limps back to port, but the war situation worsens and, following the fall of Saipan in the spring of 1945, grows desperate. The Yamato's crew is given a last leave to visit friends and family and, then, on April 6, they embark on their fatal voyage to Okinawa.
Veteran Sato ("Tonko," "Ningen no Shomei"), delivers taut, high-impact action, while pumping up the theatrics to at times absurd extremes. Even the normally excellent Suzuki and Shinobu Terashima, playing Uchida's geisha lover, overdo the facial twitches, while Nakamura becomes positively piratical once he dons an eye patch as the half-blinded Uchida.
The young actors playing the recruits are, by contrast, refreshingly unaffected. Matsuyama is particularly good as the young Kamio, reacting naturally (that is, boyishly) to each challenge and crisis -- and reminding us why, despite all the flag waving, on screen and off, the Yamato's end was a human disaster.
Is "Yamato" an antiwar film in disguise? Not really. The Japanese mainstream has mixed emotions about the war and the film reflects that ambiguity. Rightists may play it at their meetings to pump up morale, but I'm sure they'd prefer an edited version.
An interview with "Yamato" producer Haruki Kadokawa will appear on the Sunday Timeout page, Dec. 25.