KAMIKAZE

Neither heroes nor villains

by Kaori Shoji

The director and producer of a new film on Japan’s WWII suicide pilots tell The Japan Times that the doomed warriors of myth were actually teenagers made to die for a lie.

The big question in the feature-length documentary “Tokko” is: Who exactly were the fabled tokkotai?

For 60 years, Western media has portrayed Japan’s kamikaze pilots as fierce zealots steeled by the Bushido spirit of the samurai and eager to vaporize themselves and others for the glory of the Emperor. Closer to home and more recently, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s film “Ore wa Kimi no Tame ni Koso Shini ni Iku (For Those We Love)” this year recalled them as pure-spirited heroes on an idealistic crusade to free Asia from Western domination.

“Tokko” director Risa Morimoto found a different reality.

Her late uncle had been one of the pilots who trained for the tokkotai (special attack force), which was formed in late 1944 as Japan began running out of ammunition and planes. But before he could fly his mission, the war was over. He returned to his hometown and, like most everyone else, struggled to carve out an existence for himself and his family in postwar Japan. He almost never talked about being a kamikaze, and he carried details of that time to his grave. Fascinated by this near-secret chunk of family history, Morimoto, a New York-based Japanese-American filmmaker, was inspired to travel to Japan and delve into her uncle’s past. In the process, she interviewed four other kamikaze survivors, now in their 80s, and unearthed from the National Archives of Japan never-before publicly screened film of the pilots before takeoff.

“I always had this curiosity about war,” says Morimoto. “I think this is true of Japanese-Americans more than the Japanese living at home, because being in another country forces us to confront our past and our roots. At home, my parents never really talked about the war, but you discover things as you grow up. And then two years ago, I heard this conversation about my uncle who had trained as a pilot for the tokkotai. I hadn’t known this information, and then I realized that all this time, I had only a very sketchy idea of what the tokkotai was like, mainly painted by the propaganda images I was so used to seeing in the U.S. media — you know, the evil, Japanese devil images. I was disappointed with myself because I had never questioned those images and here was my uncle — a kindly, gracious man — being one of them. I wanted to know more — about him, and about the pilots.” Over the summer of 2005, Morimoto contacted Bill Gordon, who runs the largest English-language Web site on kamikaze pilots ( wgordon.web. wesleyan.edu ), and she was subsequently invited to attend a tokkotai ireisai (rites for consoling the dead) in Nagasaki, Kyushu Prefecture. She then traveled to 18 Japanese cities over the course of seven weeks and conducted her interviews, some of which led to startling quotes and revelations. “When I think of what wound up on the editing-room floor, what we had to leave out of the film . . .” sighs Morimoto. For her, the project was more than a professional undertaking, it was also a personal journey into the past — her own, her relatives’, her parents’.

Linda Hoaglund, a Japanese cinema expert and translator who cowrote and produced “Tokko” with Morimoto, recalls when the pair first met at the Tokyo Film-Ex film festival two years ago. “There was a complete and clean synergy going there between us,” she says. “We met, we talked, and everything fell into place very quickly.”

The two women’s backgrounds are a curious juxtaposition — with Morimoto a second-generation Japanese born in the Unites States and Hoaglund an American born in Kyoto.

“My parents were liberal missionaries who wanted to keep their kids at home and send them to local schools,” explains Hoaglund. “And believe me, it was a tough decision to make. Back then, being an American in a classroom full of Japanese kids meant a whole different experience.”

After mastering Japanese language and customs, Hoaglund went to college in the U.S., while Morimoto came to Japan for a year to study in Kyoto. “So there’s a sort of synchronicity to our backgrounds,” says Morimoto. “Though her Japanese is probably a lot better than mine!”

Indeed, Hoaglund is a famed subtitler of Japanese films into English, having worked on 150 films including Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and the less-appreciated but renowned documentary on Japanese WWII soldiers “Japanese Devils.” Hoaglund says this was the film that broke the ice on documentaries depicting Japan and Japanese soldiers. “I hear of so many projects being launched. It’s 60-plus years and two generations since the end of the war — people feel they can afford to talk. Also, I think there’s a realization on both sides (the filmmakers’ and the interviewees’) that this is a last chance to document these stories, and after that no one will be around to recount them.”

Morimoto adds: “On the other hand, this is a film that couldn’t have been made 10 years ago. It’s a really interesting time in Japan right now.”

Prior to making the film, the last time Morimoto had visited Japan was 11 years earlier, and back then anything resembling documentaries on Japanese war atrocities had a tough time getting distributors, much less finding a theater. “But now I come here, and I’m astonished at how things have opened up. I certainly couldn’t predict the Korean boom, and the enormous popularity of Korean actors. One of my Japanese girlfriends married a Korean, which is something that would have been difficult to do only a short while ago.”

But Morimoto and Hoaglund weren’t interested in making a straightforward historical documentary. Nor did they want to open old wounds or make accusations. “We were determined not to make a film that was provocative,” stresses Morimoto. “It’s really a movie about four men and their emotional journeys for these past six decades,” agrees Hoaglund. “I’ve seen a lot of movies about kamikaze pilots but none like this one — in a way, it’s very personal and human. Which is exactly how we wanted it. We never claimed to be historians of the tokkotai.”

“Tokko” explores the true character of the kamikaze through interviews with navigator pilot Takehiko Ena, who crashed near a remote island; pilot Shigeyoshi Hamazono, who turned back after a dogfight with U.S. Corsair fighters; his gunner, Kazuo Nakajima; and pilot Takeo Ueshima, who was awaiting orders to fly when Japan surrendered.

“At the time they were teenage boys, taught to believe in a cause deemed worthy. Now they are men who have seen the end of the world and been close to death, and they’re willing to share with us what that was like,” says Morimoto. “They thought they were fighting to end all wars, and they were lied to — as we are being lied to now in Iraq.”

Morimoto’s point is a valid one. When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred in the U.S., the terrorists were often compared to kamikaze pilots. Change the word “bombers” to “pilots” and it seems like the equation is complete.

But Morimoto and Hoaglund were in agreement that the whole comparison thing is a “media gimmick.” They said that looking at the kamikaze pilots now does provide a window into history — and you can see that it’s happening all over again, the “same game plan, in Iraq.” They added that, just like Japan in 1945, the Americans can’t get out because they are afraid of the consequences of admitting defeat.

The big difference, of course, is that in the U.S. Iraq is not an elephant in the room but a heated topic of debate and controversy. In Japan, things may have changed — but perhaps still not changed quite enough for everyone to talk openly about that elephant in the room. Both Morimoto and Hoaglund hope that “Tokko” — released elsewhere in the world as “Wings of Defeat” — will trigger conversations and discussions, and stimulate curiosities.

“Healing can happen, but only if we admit to stuff,” says Morimoto. “My mother and my aunts were always defensive of Asian cultures, but they were far more reluctant to talk about the war. I think that sums up the general attitude of the older generation of Japanese toward what happened in WWII. Hopefully, there will be a lot more diverse views on it.”

Hoaglund says: “We showed the film to survivors of the USS Drexler, which had been one of the targets of the tokkotai. Many of the men were crying throughout the film — for the first time they realized they were just high-school boys back then, shooting at other high-school boys. It took 60-plus years for them to realize that. For us, it was an intense and historical moment. We felt that for the first time. both sides were getting some measure of closure.”

“Tokko” opens July 21 at Cine la Sept in Shibuya, Tokyo, and in Osaka, Nagoya and Hokkaido in August.