Summer is the time of year when the Japanese remember the dead, most notably during the Bon festival, and the end of World War II, though the collective memory of the latter fades with each passing year. The Japanese are probably better at forgetting than other people in the world (indeed, the culture insists on it, sometimes, holding that a clean slate is the most ideal state of being), but there are some who want to look back, ponder, and keep the flame burning.
When Risa Morimoto learned that her late uncle had been a kamikaze pilot, she had one of two choices: behave like other members of her family and gently avoid discussing the issue, or try to find out about her uncle and others like him. Her filmmaker instincts told her to go for the latter and she decided to come to Japan for the first time in 11 years.
“Tokko (Wings of Defeat)” is an intriguing and revelatory work about tokkotai survivors (that there were several hundred kamikaze pilots who trained for their missions but never flew, due to aborted missions and ultimately the Japanese surrender, is little known outside of Japan) and the way they had dealt with their lives and past since 1945.
Morimoto, though fired by a sincere need to know, is never intrusive as she gently prods her subjects (beginning with her Japanese relatives) to voice their opinions and share reminiscences. They include her uncle’s wife and her cousins, all of whom are gracious but reluctant to talk, until they open up enough to say the things we rarely get to hear in Japan.
Morimoto also interviews four other tokkotai survivors who talk about their backgrounds, their pilot training, what they thought about their missions and the subsequent Japanese defeat. “We didn’t want to die. We wanted to live, but back then we weren’t allowed to say such things” is a recurring and memorable line. One of the promises made by the Japanese Imperial Naval Force to their kamikaze pilots was that they would be commemorated as first-degree war heroes, and their surviving families would be treated accordingly. Before their missions, they were allotted special rations of sweets and rice, which the majority of the Japanese hadn’t seen or tasted in years. Many of them were mere 16-year-olds; others had been pulled out of universities to serve the cause. None were more than 22 years old.
“Tokkotai” were created toward the end of the war (late 1944) when the military was hysterically enforcing slogans like “Ichioku Sogyokusai (100 million Japanese should die for the Emperor)” rather than admit defeat. Such tactics speak of the utter corruption and cowardice of the system; that there were so many boys willing to enlist (4,000 pilots gave their lives to the mission, sinking at least 34 U.S. ships) speaks of the naivete, ignorance and fear among the Japanese.
“Why couldn’t the Emperor just call it quits and surrender much sooner? There wouldn’t have been so many lives wasted” is one statement by a surviving relative, voiced with such frank, simple clarity that you can’t help the feeling of rage that wells up inside at the utter stupidity of the machinery of war. And then there’s this: “There were many Japanese who felt that the war was a lost cause, that we were all facing destruction. But to say such things out loud would have meant being arrested by the military police. Either way, we were doomed.”
What ultimates emerges from Morimoto’s documentary, however, is an ambiguity among the war survivors, whether they’re kamikaze pilots or their relations; perhaps it’s that times and values have so rapidly and drastically changed that the whole war experience seems strangely filtered, as if it all happened in another existence, and to talk about it now is like trying to recall the details of a nightmare.
The four former pilots are exuberant, even humorous, as if having once brushed against death they now find life a little too ridiculous to take seriously. Mostly, the war is talked about with a vague embarrassment, which is probably the closest approximation to the collective Japanese perception about the events between 1939 and ’45. The war brought hunger, misery and shame. It made fools of the Japanese who thought they were victims, only to be told that they were evil perpetrators. The Japanese reaction is not one of anger but an embarrassment too confusing to articulate properly. To Morimoto’s great credit, she doesn’t avoid this or attempt to gloss over it; this may be a documentary about war, but it never does anything so banal as to give fuel to fire where there are no flames.
“Tokko” has an American presentation, but it’s that rare war documentary that transcends nationalism and politics. Unobtrusively, it places the kamikaze pilots in a global context, showing that they were not the fanatical demons popularly depicted in the U.S. media, but teenage boys who thought they were making a difference — not so much for their country as for their families. That so many of them died without ever having the chance to explain their actions, or to spend their youth in a Japan without war, is perhaps the biggest reason why survivors refrain from talking, too. In the prewar Japanese mind-set, the phrase ikihaji wo sarasu (the shame of surviving when so many others have died) was a strong motive for keeping silent. Times have changed, but remnants of that shame still cast a shadow; some memories are just too painful to articulate.