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Friday, Sept. 15, 2006

Suicide bombers; Japanese heroes


Everyone knows the word kamikaze -- the Western term for the pilots who flew bomb-loaded planes into American ships in the desperate closing days of World War II. In Japan, however, they were called the more respectful-sounding tokkotai (literally, "special-attack force") -- and they were not the only ones to go on suicide missions.

Deguchi no Nai Umi Rating: (3 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Ebizo Ichikawa (left) and Juri Ueno in "Deguchi no Nai Umi" (c) 2006 "DEGUCHI NO NAI UMI" FILM PARTNERS

Director: Kiyoshi Sasabe
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 16, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Based on a novel by Hideo Yokoyama, with a script by Yoji Yamada and Motofumi Tomikawa, Kiyoshi Sasabe's "Deguchi no Nai Umi (Sea Without Exit)" depicts the pilots of kaiten -- one-man submarines known by their enemies as "human torpedoes." Like the better-known tokkotai pilots, many of them were young, college-educated idealists who, in the normal course of events, would have gone on to lead normal lives, not to shout rightist slogans from the tops of sound trucks.

That said, they were willing to die for their country (and by association, emperor), and, as the film makes clear in one of its more memorable scenes, they were volunteers who knew what they were getting into. They may not have been born-and-bred warriors, but to many Japanese they are part of the great national tradition of heroes, from Minamoto no Yoshitsune to Saigo Takamori, who sacrificed all for hopeless causes, with an admirable purity of intent and deed. To these Japanese, as well as the surviving pilots themselves, Westerners who liken them to today's terrorists are not just historically wrong but disrespectful to the memory of the honorable (or sainted) fallen.

This makes a realistic portrayal of the kaiten pilots on film commercially difficult, if not impossible. Sasabe, a thoroughly mainstream director whose hits includes the 2004 courtroom drama "Hanochi," doesn't crudely affix halos, but he does give his four pilots unearthly glows, as though they exist in another, exalted realm beyond ordinary sinning humanity.

Does this mean "Deguchi" is some sort of rightist apology? A cinematic raising of the nisshoki? Yes and no -- just as the answer is "yes and no" for nearly all the local films I have seen about the tokkotai, as well as others in uniform who willingly made the supreme sacrifice in the Pacific War, including Seijiro Kouyama's "Gekko no Natsu" in 1993 (a tokkotai pilot plays Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" for school children before flying off to his death), Yoko Narahashi's "Winds of God" in 1995 (a time-traveling comedian from the present day ends up volunteering for a tokkotai mission) and last year's "Otokotachi no Yamato" (sailors aboard the famed battleship Yamato knowing it is about to meet its doom). The dominant note is tragic (which is not the dominant note of, say, "Independence Day"), while the intent is to memorialize -- or glorify -- the fallen. In other words, film as park statuary.

"Deguchi" begins in 1945, with four kaiten pilots aboard the full-size submarine that will launch their tiny crafts to eternity. Among them is the intelligent, reflective Namiki (Ebizo Ichikawa), a star pitcher for his high-school and college baseball teams, the hot-tempered Kita (Yusuke Iseya), a college classmate of Namiki's who was once a long-distance runner aiming for the Olympics. The other two, the affable, earthy Sakuma (Shuji Kashiwabara) and the eager, naive Okita (Mitsunori Isaki), are along for the ride for the sake of the narrative.

All four, however, are waiting for the attack that will mean their deaths -- and are kept apart from the other men, who still have a chance, however slim, of returning home alive. One of them is Ito (Shun Shioya), who will assist the kaiten pilots with their launch and, as a yakyu shonen ("baseball-mad kid"), has a special respect for Namiki that borders on teary-eyed hero worship.

Namiki, however, has mixed feelings about the whole project. He will carry out his mission but knows exactly what he is giving up -- and can't help resenting it. Kita, who sees no future for himself in any case, interprets Namiki's all-too human response to the fate awaiting them as a weakness, while Namiki, who has his own masculine pride, bristles at Kita's contempt.

It's not hard to guess, though, that these two will reconcile before the final act, just as it is not hard to guess that Namiki will have one last, agonizing reunion with his intellectual father (Tomokazu Miura), still-gorgeous mother (Yuko Kotegawa), cute little sister (Anna Odaka) and pure-hearted girlfriend (Juri Ueno). These and other genre tropes are all but written in stone.

The film departs from the genre norm, however, in ways that are closer to the true feelings of many at the time than the usual nationalist line, then and now. Instead of seeing his son off with a stoic grimace, Namiki's father can barely hide his anger at the waste of a life. And instead of embarking on their missions with a scream of banzai, Namiki and his mates exert every ounce of will to stifle their fear, and when those missions are aborted they emerge from their steel coffins on the verge of hysteria -- or beyond it.

Kabuki star Ebizo Ichikawa is nearly a decade older than the college-age Namiki -- and looks it, but his performance is an interesting blend of the sensitive, smart and tough: His Namiki is a poetic soul, whose glare on the mound is as fierce as his fastball. Also, by comparison with the high-voltage acting around him, Ichikawa is a model of restraint, though he is almost always the most focused presence in the room, a skill he doubtless picked up in the kabuki cradle.

Will "Deguchi" please those who are calling for a revival of Japanese national pride? Maybe, but if it were a Hollywood project, the producer would probably call for a rewrite to iron out its annoying nuances and distracting truth-telling. Or maybe he wouldn't -- if his name is Clint Eastwood.



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