Saturday, March 14, 2015

American Mishima Looks at The Eternal Zero

In an era where many new big budget war films have been produced in Japan, none other has hit home so personally than Japan's latest entry えいえん の ゼロ - THE ETERNAL ZERO. Over the last ten years we have seen and reviewed such notable films as Otoko Tachi no Yamato, Ore Kimi, Oba - The Last Samurai, and the Isoroku Yamamoto movie The Admiral. Critics have long claimed these films are revisionist and lack responsibility for Japan's wartime atrocities. I could not disagree more. Japan's war while marred with notable war crimes such as the Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March and so forth often overshadows the stories of bravery and unheard stories of survival against the overwhelming might of the United States. As often said, there are heroes and villains found on every side in every war. Japan's fighting men of that era were no exception and we will make no apologies for people we can not speak for. Thus we leave this to director Takashi Yamazaki to offer us a glimpse into the life Japan's Naval aviators in his new big budget film THE ETERNAL ZERO.
As many of our readers may or may not know, this author's father had passed away from the effects of Agent Orange he was exposed to during his tour in Vietnam. Paralleling our own personal experience of seeking out the truth as to what happened during the war, we find our young protagonist Kentaro Saeki (played by Haruma  Miura) embarking on a journey for the truth. This all comes about after the funeral of his grandmother Matsuno (played by Mao Inoue - from Oba-The Last Samurai) when it is revealed that his grieving grandfather Kenichiro (played by Isao Natsuyagi) was not his real grandfather this whole time. To Kentaro's shock, he and his sister Keiko Saeki (played by Kazue Fukishi) discover their Oba-chan Matsuno was married before to another man named Kyuzo Miyabe (played by Junichi Okada) who volunteered to join the Kamikaze. Knowing nothing of their real grandfather, the two Saeki siblings seek out across the countryside to interview former Zero pilots to learn what kind of man their grandfather Miyabe was and why he joined the Kamikaze.
To Kentaro's shock, he is either turned away or met with utter contempt for Miyabe who was accused of being a coward who would fly away from every battle. This was not what Kentaro expected to hear and it troubles him even more to understand that if Miyabe was such a coward, how could he have volunteered for a suicide mission? The answers would come when he meets former Zero Pilot Isaki who speaks from his hospital bed as he battles terminal cancer. Isaki (played by Isao Hashizume) dismisses the notion of cowardice and reveals Miyabe's true character noting an incident at Rabaul that earned Isaki's respect.
Well after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the disaster at Midway, Miyabe was assigned to be the flight leader at Rabaul. When tasked to go on a revenge mission over Guadalcanal,Miyabe concludes that the distance is too far and would leave them only less than ten minutes flying time over the target. For this reason, Miyabe objects to the mission and is punched out by his superior officer in front of all the men. Having no choice, Miyabe leads his squadron on the futile mission. 
Upon the return from Guadalcanal, one of Miyabe's pilots is critically wounded and low on fuel. With Rabaul within sight, the wounded pilot's engine sputters out forcing him to ditch in the sea. Miyabe could do nothing but circle around before he too was out of fuel and forced to land. The Air Sea Rescue planes could not find the downed pilot. They report to Miyabe a scene of sharks circling a pool of blood in the pilots last known position. To the squadron's shock, the downed pilot was declared a disgrace and a coward by the commanding officer. Miyabe verbally defends his pilot's courage and reputation leading to Miyabe being beaten to a pulp in front of his own squadron by his commander for defending his pilot's legacy. For Isaki, Miyabe was no coward. He had learned of Miyabe's wife and newborn child that was his inspiration to live. This of course countermanded the mindset of the Japanese Military of the time where their mandate was to die for the Emperor with no hope of ever returning home. As anyone today knows, this is no way to fight a war but this is what Miyabe was faced with. Isaki decides from that moment that he would do everything in his power to protect Miyabe. Weeks later, he would get his chance. 
In an air battle over the Solomon Islands, Miyabe's squadron is jumped by American fighter planes. Miyabe finds himself in trouble with a deadly P-51 Mustang on his tail firing 50 caliber rounds at him. Miyabe's piloting skills keeps him in the air but as the P-51 lines up for the kill, young Isaki dived in a rams the American plane sparing Miyabe's life. This act of insanity nearly kills Isaki. But it also demonstrates an act of loyalty not lost on Miyabe. As Isaki is sent home to recover from his injuries, Miyabe never forgets his sacrifice.
As the war becomes more desperate for Japan, the Kamikaze are formed. Miyabe is sent home to train the next batch of pilots. Unbeknownst to most of them, they will be ordered to go on suicide missions. This news sends Miyabe in complete anguish over his young pilots who in his best efforts tries to protect by issuing failing grades to his best students who are eager to join the fight to save Japan from defeat. Many of his students do not understand what Miyabe's intentions are and accuse him of cowardice. 
Isaki who is then reunited with his former squadron leader finds Miyabe a broken man who mourns for his young pilots. It is here that Miyabe meets another young pilot to whom he will entrust his will to live on for Japan's future. As more of Miyabe's pilots are sent to their deaths on Kamikaze missions, Miyabe himself is ordered to lead the protective fighters who are assigned to provide fighter cover so the Kamikaze can reach the American Carriers. At the last minute, Miyabe asks to trade planes with a young Kamikaze pilot named Kenichiro. Shortly after the planes take off, Kenichiro's plane develops engine trouble with oil spattering the canopy thus preventing the young pilot from carrying out his mission. He quickly realizes that Miyabe had done this on purpose to spare his young students life. 
In the climax of the film, Miyabe does the unthinkable and flies through a hail of lead to attack an American Aircraft Carrier. Out of his many planes, Miyabe is the only plane that day who will tragically get through. Meanwhile back at base, Kenichiro discovers a note left behind along with a photo of his wife and child reading "That if you survive the war please take care of my wife and child." It is through this process that Kentaro discovers the truth. The man who was told was his grandfather was the same Kenichiro whom Miyabe sacrificed his life to protect so he could fulfill a promise to his wife Matsuno to return to her in any form even if he is reincarnated to care for her and their child. I could tell you more but the film just gets emotionally heavier. 
Having learned the truth from their adoptive grandfather, Kentaro returns to interview the Zero pilots to discover their true feelings about Miyabe they unwilling to earlier reveal with many of them acknowledging that they owe their lives to Miyabe. What he learns will change his perception of the war and that of his family. By films end, Kentaro is transformed when he comes face to face with his real grandfather as he makes one final flyby in his A6M Zero on his way to his final mission. All we can say is that we were emotionally blown away by this scene. 
As we stated in the beginning of this review. we draw personal parallels to Kentaro's story as we have sought to understand our own family story that took place in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is through the recollections of those veterans who survived these wars that the human element so often removed from history books is found. This film contains many spectacular flying sequences and CGI effects so well done, you almost would think such scenes were done with real carriers and warplanes. Much like The Admiral, we are shown the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway from a different perspective. The two films compliment each other as they both tell the stories of Imperial Japan's Naval Aviators. Where we go from here is to the stories of the Kamikaze. Where Ore Kimi captured the mental anguish of the veteran pilots assigned to such suicide missions, The ETERNAL ZERO takes this one step further and confronts the horribly incorrect modern day notion that Kamikaze and modern day suicide bombers are the same. They are not. If you read Dan King's book The Last Zero Fighter, you will discover such comparisons by both Americans and today's Japanese youth are complete ばか (bullshit)! They were Japan's best and brightest tasked to do a horrible thing that many knew could stop Japan's defeat. It's an impossible thing to imagine, but the men of that generation endured it. A trip to the Chiran Kamikaze Museum will make you about it.
We at American Mishima hope that you see this film and walk away with the understand of what Japanese pilots faced and what hardship bestowed upon them in the days and months following Japan's catastrophic defeat in their ill fated war against America in the Pacific. We don't see this as "Revisionist" nor do we see this as a film absent of Japan's fault for starting the war. Miyabe openly considers Pearl Harbor a failure for Japan that will guarantee their defeat. Perhaps, there were men like Miyabe who thought on modern terms that were unpopular and seen as criminally defeatist at the time. It is entirely possible. While panned back in Japan as a "Pack of Lies," this fictional work depicts the war as a tragedy. It does not by any means glorify war. Of course, there will be those who don't get it and some who do most notably current Japan PM Shinzo Abe and Yoko Ono who both expressed how they were emotionally moved. We say to you, see it for yourself and be at peace.

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