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How Japanese Movies Deal, and Don’t, With the Legacy of Kamikaze Pilots

How Japanese Movies Deal, and Don't, With the Legacy of Kamikaze Pilots

This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

Less than two months ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “reinterpreted” Japan’s pacifist defense policy, Article 9, to allow for military attacks to settle international disputes for the first time since World War II. Although Abe’s actions make issues of Japan’s international policy an immediate concern, it was certainly not the first time Japan has turned its face from the atrocities it committed as a perpetrator of warfare less than a century ago: Just last year, the mayor of Osaka suggested “comfort women” forced into brothels during WWII served a necessary function. An ongoing controversy has seen Japan accused by the Chinese and international media for brushing over war crimes in their textbooks for secondary education. Even 70 years later, it seems Japan still struggles to come to terms with its role in the Pacific War.

So how does Japanese cinema deal with it now? Mostly, it doesn’t. And when it does, there seems to be very little critique leveled on its historical past. Drawing on their symbolic image as a victim of circumstance, Japanese scriptwriters and directors have often used to kamikaze pilots as protagonists for their stories. Although the trope has been common since American occupation was lifted in the early 1950s (“Godzilla”-director Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Operation Kamikaze” comes to mind), the kamikaze narrative has experienced a resurgence in popular culture in recent years. Following the success of the big-budget kamikaze drama “For Those We Love” (2007), Japanese audiences recently made “Eternal Zero” (2013) one of the top ten biggest hits ever at their local box office. Adapting a best-selling novel, director Takashi Yamazaki dressed up his fictional story with impressive special effects, but in glorifying rather than critiquing its characters’ suicidal devotion to their country, the film has raised some controversy. Aside from the blockbuster explosions of the big-budget war dramas, however, a streak of documentaries has also emerged in recent years that take on a quieter, more considered approach to depicting the kamikaze.

Premiered at the 67th Locarno Film Festival, the French-produced “I, Kamikaze” is a pared-down record of a conversation with 90-year old veteran Fujio Hayashi, who volunteered to serve the Japanese Imperial Army for the country’s first kamikaze missions. Appointed to select the soldiers to be sent on the missions, Hayashi’s testimony provides unique insight into a bygone practice. Recalling the works of Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and Wang Bing (“Fengming, a Chinese Memoir”), “I, Kamimaze” is entirely composed of Hayashi’s responses to a handful of questions that ask him to reflect on his personal experiences, avoiding the use of archival footage or explanatory titles. The quieter approach compared to its war epic counterparts is made explicit when director Masa Sawada hands over toy models of the wartime aircrafts and the only action set in motion lies in the memories of our subject.

Hayashi, who describes seeing the kamikaze aircraft for the first time as being like taking a look at his own coffin, remembers thinking of the plane as a gift from the emperor, whom he considered “absolute.” The ensuing conversation slowly reveals that, far from facing remorse, Hayashi’s feelings on his involvement have not altered with time, an attitude punctuated by his confessions of regret for never having the opportunity to participate in the missions himself. Despite being in the presence of a man with such complex insights on offer, Sawada fails to get much substance out of their discussion. Like the unnaturally immaculate house in which the Hayashi appears, the exchange also feels pre-designed, based on conversations that have already taken place. In long and considered pauses, Hayashi seem to perform a reflective moment rather than a sincere contemplation. Frustratingly, presumed responses are embedded in Sawada’s questions and only encourage guided responses. When the subject shares his recurring dream of being on a kamikaze aircraft bathing in the light of glory, one gets the feeling that Hayashi’s unfinished written text, provisionally titled “Volunteer for Suicide,” probably won’t be questioning his own role. What’s worrying, moreover, is the lack of interest on director Sawada’s behalf in puncturing the pilot’s shroud of nostalgia.

“Double Projection,” a recent installation by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi at Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, held on 8 March – 12 April 2014 offered an approach to the subject matter that posed a more considered critique through its presentation. The two video works in the installation involved interviews with a “failed” kamikaze pilot and a woman who lost her boyfriend in a “failed” mission. After some exchange with his subjects, Koizumi asks them to dress up, as his former self and her boyfriend respectively, to perform a sort of séance in which the ghost from the past, as interpreted by the subjects, offers them solace. As forecast by the installation’s title, Koizumi’s subject and the subject-in-performative-guise face one another in superimposition, in the case of “Double Projection #1 (Where the Silence Fails),” and between two screens in “Double Projection #2 (When Her Prayer was Heard).”

Although their personal stories are tragic, the dual roles the subjects are asked to perform forbid them from immersing too deeply into sorrow, and us from feeling too sympathetic. As such, a critical distance is encouraged, which is further emphasized when the off-screen director continues to interrupt his subjects during their renditions. Although Koizumi’s interventions seem cruel at first, each one asks for us to consider the role the kamikaze plays in situating Japan’s historical past in art and film today. If the kamikaze will continue to dominate cinematic reflection of World War II in Japan, one hopes filmmakers retain a similarly critical distance from their subject and remain wary that the symbol of Japan as victims of war can only fly so far.

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