Shintaro Ishihara has a lot in common with Michael Moore: Both were long outriders in their particular political cultures, both have been called, more or less rightly, self-promoting blowhards — and both have an outsize talent for show business that has enabled them to imprint their personalities and ideas on the national (and in Moore’s case, world) consciousness.

One difference is that Ishihara, as three-term Tokyo governor, wields serious political power; while Moore is and will probably always be a gadfly.

However, both have also made controversial new movies that plug directly into the national zeitgeist, if in radically different ways. Moore’s documentary “Sicko” dissects America’s grotesquely unfair and inefficient health-care system, while Ishihara’s “Ore wa Kimi no Tame ni Koso Shini ni Iku (For Those We Love)” proposes a remedy for what he sees as a sickness of the Japanese soul: a renewed appreciation for the sacrifices of the war generation and a truer understanding of their values.

Ore wa Kimi no Tame ni Koso Shini ni Iku
Director Taku Shinjo
Run Time 135 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (May 25, 2007)

As the film’s scriptwriter and executive producer, Ishihara has made his main target not the dwindling number of Japanese who remember the war (Ishihara himself was a teenager when it ended), but young people who have known nothing but peace.

His subjects are the tokkotai, or kamikaze squads, who tried to fly their planes into U.S. Navy ships in the last days of the war. This is hardly a new theme. As director and Ishihara critic Kazuyuki Izutsu noted last week in The Japan Times, tokkotai films nearly always find an audience here, jingoistic or no.

“Ore” shows why: The film, now showing, is a certified hit — distributor Toei predicts a box office north of 2 billion yen — despite being more on the somber than the sensational side.

Directed by Taku Shinjo, an assistant director for Shohei Imamura, and photographed by Shoji Ueda, who worked with Akira Kurosawa, “Ore” borrows its aesthetic from both masters — most scenes are shot in one cut, with an austere beauty of composition and strong, clear emotional notes. The amped-up melodramatics and visuals of so many TV-trained film directors are conspicuous by their absence.

Ishihara centers his story on Tome Torihama, the real-life “mother of the tokkotai,” who fed many pilots at her eatery near a tokkotai base in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture, and who honored their memory for decades afterward. The ageless Keiko Kishi, a leading actress for five decades, humanizes this character, showing her feisty as well as her nurturing side. “Ore” also highlights less the exemplars among the pilots than the “failures” — those scorned for turning back even though their reasons, usually bad weather or mechanical problems, were legitimate.

In interviews, Ishihara has claimed that, far from being a nationalistic call to arms, “Ore” is an antiwar film. Well, yes, if by “antiwar” you mean showing young men knowingly going to their deaths in a losing cause, leaving behind anguished family members, comrades and friends, including Torihama.

But the film also presents what might be called the Yasukuni Shrine version of the tokkotai story, in which the war was not an imperialistic adventure but an idealistic crusade to free Asia from Western domination. The pilots died not pointlessly but to protect their loved ones. They are not the local equivalent of suicide bombers but pure-spirited heroes who embody the Japanese tradition of self-sacrifice for the common good. And now they are gathered at Yasukuni Shrine, gods for all eternity, to be worshipped — and emulated. This is not a story that is going to play in, say, South Korea, where some of the tokkotai were recruited and where many people have different ideas about Japan’s “crusade.”

We first see Torihama in the spring of 1945; the U.S. is already in Okinawa and Japan is trying to fend off invasion, with the tokkotai as prime weapon. One pilot namedBando (Yosuke Kubozuka), a hot-headed but good-hearted youth, asks Torihama to write to his parents — he can’t bring himself to tell them he has joined the tokkotai. Another is a Korean pilot, Kaneyama (Yasuyuki Maekawa), who thanks Torihama for her lack of prejudice — then sings in Korean to her and her daughters and has a last, wrenching meeting with his fiancee (Naho Toda). Still another, Tabata (Tsutsui Michitaka), returns from a flight with engine trouble — and tells Torihama that Japan will lose the war. Another pilot, Nakanishi (Satoshi Tokushige), beats him after overhearing this remark — but later shares the humiliation of unwanted survival.

The rest of the story is similarly anecdotal — including Torihama’s arrest by the Kempeitai (military police) for mailing pilots’ letters without permission, and the violent attempt by Bando to save her — leading to a final, spectacular flight by Nakanishi’s squad. It also relates Torihama’s long struggle to rehabilitate the memory of the pilots — reviled postwar as fanatics but finally honored in a museum in Chiran.

Despite its problematic ideology and rambling story structure, “Ore” offers informed insight into the pilots’ lives, including their fears and regrets, that makes them less like park statuary, more fallible flesh-and-blood. But it’s also a rally-round-the-Hinomaru film that will warm the hearts of the boys on the sound trucks who long to relaunch that old Asian crusade. With any luck, Gov. Ishihara — and the rest of us — won’t live to see it.

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