Assault on the Pacific: Kamikaze a.k.a. For Those We Love, 2007.
Directed by Taku Shinjo.
Starring Keiko Kishi, Satoshi Tokushige, Yosuke Kubozuka and Michitaka Tsutsui.
A World War II epic about a squadron of Japanese Kamikaze pilots and their journey through training and first missions toward the terrifying destiny of their battle with the US Navy over the Pacific Ocean.
In films, the kamikaze have generally been shown as menacing, faceless danger, first appearing as an ominous dot on the horizon and then as a source of death and destruction. Assault on the Pacific: Kamikaze takes a different route, focusing instead on the young men in those planes. Touching on their personalities, fears, desires and relationships. The men, most of them barely out of their teens, are not rabid zealots or men devoid of emotion. Many of the young pilots have flashes of doubt, one flight leader even going to his Colonel to raise his concerns that his pilots have nowhere near the skill to hit a battleship and their lives are being thrown away needlessly. He is censured by his commander, are all who try to question the validity of the kamikaze missions, even though many show flickers of doubt.
This attitude, the suppression of reason and emotion in the face of duty and “glory” that many characters show is sown at the start of the film, when we are shown the upper echelons committing to the plan after the head of the air force states that defeat is inevitable but talks about ‘The Spirit of the Nation’ and Japan’s identity through defeat and emerging on the other side. These generals espouse the Japanese military code of death before defeat or capture. With this attitude historically woven into their offices and ranks, the top brass seemingly only think in grand, nationalistic terms, not without an awareness of the loss of good young men, but more with an obstinate doctrine that it must be so, for Japan to state its intent and retain its honour.
Assault on the Pacific mostly takes place in a small town where the suicide squads, as they call themselves, are stationed. Young girls from the local school are drafted in to care for the men in their last few days of life. In the town, a lady affectionately known as ‘Auntie’ to the young men, runs a restaurant where the men come to relax and eat. For Auntie, this ushers in a time of continual tragedy and loss, as the young men she remembers as cadets who trained nearby come back one after another to tell her that they will soon be dead. The one young man who she sees the most is Kanayama, who had trained there as a cadet and whom Auntie had taken under her wing as if her own son. As the film goes on, and each character becomes more known and liked, a palpable sense of tragedy builds. Casual, everyday actions are tinged with a dark finality. When Auntie’s eldest daughter – Reiko, is lent a book by Kanayama, she tells him that she’ll return it in a few days. A silence follows as they both realise the importance of the statement and he tells her that she can keep it. Auntie constantly struggles with the dichotomy between her own, paternalistic feelings for the men (and Kanayama in particular) and trying to be an impartial comfort to them.
The continuous strain of seeing these happy, healthy young men before her and having prior knowledge of their deaths is an odd, emotionally strange situation for a person to be in and Auntie seems more drawn and weighed down as the film progresses. The film doesn’t attempt to provide any clear-cut resolution to these feelings, as it would be impossible to crystallise one over-arching, all important message to be gleamed from what happened at this time, in this place. It instead shows a more realistic portrayal of war, from multiple viewpoints. The decisions and motivations of the men at the top of the ladder will and will not be in line with those of the men giving up their own lives. The young men, between themselves, display wildly differing attitudes to their mission. Some are volunteers, others are not. Kanayama, the night before his flight, breaks down to Auntie and her daughters. He comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t know who or what he is dying for, just that he knows he will. There is a crushing inevitability in his words, the ultimate realisation that even his life is not his own.
The film again injects more ambiguity about half way through, when a pilot who has been noted to have doubts about giving up his life is beaten and berated and sent out again the very next day. After taking off, the pilot pulls his plane upwards so it will stall and allows it to crash to the earth in a ball of flames. Other pilots and mechanics rush to the scene whilst his commanding officer watches on, aware that the man has taken his own life on his own terms. The film again throwing open the concept of ‘honour’ to interpretation.
After this, an officer talks with another pilot and the justifications for their mission. Told that he and others are going to bomb a relatively unimportant target, the pilot asks why their lives would be given up for such an innocuous reason. The officer tells him that it is because if they bomb things like the jetty they have been ordered to, the Americans will believe that there are thousands of kamikaze, ready to attack anywhere, at any moment. The pilot grasps that all that is important is their death: that a show of fanatical (manufactured or not) intent would make the invasion of Japan itself a terrifying prospect. The officer states that ‘There is right way and a wrong way to lose a war.’ and that the kamikaze will help Japan strive for a better peace settlement. This, obviously, was not the case. The film time and again highlights the disconnect between this knowledge of the officers and upper command and the respective information available to those actually dying.
When time comes for the young pilots to actually go and undertake their mission, their fate is mostly to end up blown out of the sky or exploding into the sea. The battle scenes are well handled, with no sense of misplaced victory or defeat in the men’s actions – just the sense of futility at their deaths. When one pilot does hit a ship, the repercussions are shown, with American crewmen trying to help their wounded, who are just young men themselves.
Ultimately, Assault on the Pacific aims to present a character study rather than anything over-the-top or distastefully action-laden. It shows the kamikaze pilots as young men at the heart of a conflict that their country was losing. They are not shown as bloodthirsty or hateful, just as normal men. The film does an exemplary job of avoiding portraying its characters as the familiar war film tropes and generates a genuine sadness for the fate of characters you come to know well. There are some moments that tip over into melodrama but these can be forgiven as the film, overall, is an effective parable about the real people behind actions that can sometimes seem incomprehensible.
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