Debate still rages over Abe-endorsed WWII drama

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Takashi Yamazaki’s World War II drama “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero),” whose pilot hero joins the tokkōtai (kamikaze) suicide squadron in the closing days of the war, has soared to the box office heights since its Dec. 21 release. After ranking No. 1 in the charts for eight weeks in a row, the film now looks likely to finish its run with more than ¥8 billion, making it one of the 10 top-grossing Japanese films of all time.

Thousands of fans have been giving the film thumbs-up reviews in tweets and on Internet message boards, with one advising viewers to “take more than one handkerchief” to the theater. Even Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, weighed in after seeing the film with her husband and mother-in-law on Dec. 31: “I couldn’t stop crying,” Akie wrote on Facebook. “(The film) made me really think how we should never wage war again, and we should never, ever waste the precious lives that were lost for the sake of their country.”

“The Eternal Zero,” however, has also inspired controversy. After Shinzo Abe described himself as “deeply moved” by the film, posters on Chinese microblogging and news websites blasted both him and the film (though it has yet to be released in China), with one commenter reportedly describing it as “propaganda for terrorism.”

Back in Japan, “Pacchigi!” director Kazuyuki Izutsu told a radio audience on Jan. 16 that “I want to turn my memory of seeing (the film) into a zero.” He went on to criticize “The Eternal Zero” for “glorifying the tokkōtai” and for a story and characters that “have no basis in fact.”

Animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki, whose WWII-themed feature “Kaze Tachinu (The Winds Rises)” took as its hero Zero fighter-plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, also had harsh words to say about the film in an interview: “They’re trying to make a Zero fighter story based on a fictional war account that is a pack of lies,” he said. “They’re just continuing a phony myth, saying, ‘Take pride in the Zero fighter.’ I’ve hated that sort of thing ever since I was a kid.”

Based on Naoki Hyakuta’s 2006 best-selling novel of the same name, the movie does not, like the usual tokkōtai films, focus on inexperienced youths ready, if not always willing, to die for Emperor and country. Instead, the hero, Kyuzo Miyabe (Junichi Okada of the boy band V6), is a veteran Zero pilot determined to survive to the end of the war.

While bombing their targets and downing American planes, Zero pilots were supposed to scorn death much as their samurai forebears had. Well before the start of tokkōtai attacks in October 1944, the Japanese military indoctrinated recruits to welcome a hero’s end — and feel shame at returning home alive.

Miyabe’s opposition to this attitude — he believes that living survivors will be of more benefit to a postwar Japan than dead heroes — makes him not just an exception, but in the eyes of certain colleagues and superiors, a coward.

Like many recent Japanese films that look back to a war now nearly seven decades in the past, “The Eternal Zero” is framed in the present. Two of the pilot’s now-adult grandchildren — a freelance writer (Kazue Fukiishi) and a struggling law student (Haruma Miura) — begin investigating his past. What, they wonder, led him to die as a tokkōtai pilot?

They interview elderly former comrades who still seethe at the mention of his name. Then they find one, the seriously ill Isaki (Isao Hashizume), who remembers him fondly as a mentor and inspiration. His story is the window into their grandfather’s past that they have been searching for.

That story is told with CGI bombing runs and dogfights. Given that only a tiny number of Zero planes survive today in flyable condition, such a digital air war may have been inevitable, but the CGI wizardry of Yamazaki and his staff make it far closer to the real thing than would have been possible when he directed “Always,” an ensemble drama set in a digitally re-created 1950s Tokyo that was a hit in 2006.

Also, the film’s portrayal of its pilots, as both young and old men, is more shades-of-gray than goldenly glowing. Trained in the harsh school of the wartime military and tested in life-or-death air battles, they are a varied lot, but the shining, idealistic youths of wartime propaganda they are not. Even Miyabe, for all his nice-guy qualities, is a thorough professional at his deadly work.

So why does he volunteer for a suicide mission? The film reveals the answer to that mystery, as well as much else, but it also refrains from over-explaining, leaving the interpretation of Miyabe’s final flight up to the audience.

And interpret this, and much else about the film, they have, from all sides of the political spectrum. Hyakuta, an outspoken nationalist, has added fuel to the debate with recent statements labeling the Nanking Massacre a fiction and the postwar Tokyo Trials of accused Japanese war criminals a ruse to cover up America’s wartime atrocities, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Not surprisingly, Yamazaki, who considers himself an entertainer, not an ideologue, has a different take on the war. After speaking with surviving tokkōtai pilots in preparing for the film, he told a reporter for MSN Sankei News that he felt that “the war is not a legend or a folk tale — it’s an event that has a real impact on the present. We are living in a continuation of the world the people of that time made. … All of us, me included, have to think about what that means.”

“Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero)” is now showing.