Kaiju Shakedown: Eternal Zero
At the end of 2013, Hayao Miyazaki’s purportedly final film, The Wind Rises, soared onto cinema screens, an elegiac, dreamy ode to creativity that was also a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who built the Zero, the fighter plane that was key to Japanese air power in World War II. At heart, the film tells a Faustian story (complete with Satan in the form of Caproni, the Italian aviation pioneer) about the devil’s bargain that artists and inventors make: they can create something new and beautiful, but how it’s ultimately used is out of their hands. A surgical innovation may relieve suffering, or be used for torture. An airplane can be a thing of beauty, or a weapon of destruction. And a movie may be a moving testament to human ability, or war propaganda.
Since Miyazaki had the nerve not to open his film with a series of title cards clearly and unambiguously spelling out his opinions on World War II, Japanese nationalism, war crimes, Pearl Harbor, comfort women, the rewriting of the Japanese constitution, the sanctity of American life, the sanctity of Korean life, the sanctity of Chinese life, and whether everyone who was alive in Japan between 1940 and 1945 deserves global condemnation, plenty of other people jumped up to state his opinions for him. Japanese right-wingers accused Miyazaki of being a “traitor” and “anti-Japanese,” while Koreans accused the movie of glorifying a war criminal and being “masturbatory.” Inkoo Kang, a critic for The Village Voice, decried the film as “repellent” and “disgraceful.” And don’t even get started on the doctors who objected to its glorification of smoking. Despite all this outrage, the movie took in about US$120 million at the Japanese box office, but it touched a nerve, especially given current fears that Japan is whitewashing its actions during World War II and adapting a more aggressive international stance.
Well, if people were outraged by a movie as ambivalent as The Wind Rises, then their heads are going to explode when they get a look at Eternal Zero. Already one of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time in Japan, it’s the rousing, action-packed tale of a reluctant kamikaze pilot. Directed by special-effects maestro Takashi Yamazaki (whose three Always movies meticulously re-created bygone Tokyo and celebrated the lives of average Japanese trying to pick up the pieces after the end of World War II), Eternal Zero begins in 2004 with Saeki (Haruma Miura of J-Pop group Brash Brats) learning that the man he thought was his grandfather is actually his grandmother’s second husband. His real grandfather is Kyuzo Miyabe, a kamikaze pilot who died in World War II. Saeki is a lazy loser who has failed his bar exam a bunch of times, and while he’s amiable enough, he’s got no direction and no drive. The best he can manage when his sister suggests they find out more about grandpa Miyabe is a half-hearted shrug, only getting fully on board with her plan when she offers to pay him.
Together they track down the men who flew with their grandfather and what they learn is ugly: he’s reviled as a coward and accused of being a traitor to Japan who only cared about saving his own hide. He refused to dogfight and he undermined the war effort, returning from missions with his Zero undamaged while his comrades went down in flames for the glory of the emperor. But there are two people who tell a different story. One, in what might be a nod to Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers series, is a yakuza boss who piloted a Zero under Miyabe. The other is one of Miyabe’s fellow pilots who is now dying of cancer. Their take on Miyabe is that he was the best pilot in the Navy, a man who hated the senseless war and avoided dogfights because they were a pointless sign of vanity (wasn’t it better to protect your aircraft from damage or to drop a bomb?). The mystery that drives the movie is why this man wound up going kamikaze.
The yakuza boss calls the kamikaze program “a strategy of insanity,” but it might be more accurately called a strategy of desperation. Kamikaze attacks only began in the final 10 months of the war, and they weren’t very effective. Only 18 percent of the 3,860 kamikaze pilots who died even hit their targets. While some history books depict the kamikaze pilots as heroic volunteers who went out shouting the praises of the emperor, more recent depictions call them “sheep to the slaughterhouse” and in Eternal Zero we’re told that many of them were young and inexperienced, coerced into “volunteering” by their commanders.
Miyabe’s repeatedly stated life philosophy in Eternal Zero is to “survive at all costs,” and this belief extends to his students whom he purposely fails so that they’re barred from kamikaze duty. He even sabotages their planes so they can’t fly. He refuses to throw his life away on an insane war strategy, and he does everything in his power to make sure that his students survive to the end of the war so that they can rebuild Japan, take care of their families, and have a future. But watching them fly away to die, one after the other, takes its toll and, finally, he has a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, his depressive drive to kill himself plays right into the Japanese war strategy, and he winds up taking on a kamikaze mission himself, hoping to protect a younger pilot and to extinguish his intolerable existence all in one swift dive. I’m not going to spoil the end of the movie, but Miyabe throws himself into his final suicide mission with gusto, and as the film ended at a recent festival screening, an American audience member, caught up in the excitement of the moment, leapt to his feet shouting “YEAH!”
Populist and problematic, Eternal Zero is an enormously effective movie, full of exciting aerial combat, engaging story twists, and compelling characterization, but it is a Japanese movie, made for a Japanese audience, and for an American, it’s almost shocking to see a film told from such a radically different point of view. World War II is so often considered a story of American exceptionalism that it’s disorienting not to see a single American in a story about it. There are a handful of tiny digital American sailors running around on the decks of ships at Pearl Harbor, and the occasional American fighter plane, but this movie is focused 100 percent on telling a Japanese story about the Japanese war effort and its effect on Japanese people. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is as exciting and bloodless as a video game, but a single bomb hits a Japanese aircraft carrier and suddenly it’s all Barber’s “Adagio,” and slow-motion “Why us?” shots of bleeding men and bodies on fire.
Predictably, those Westerners who are aware of the film are already complaining, but does every movie have to include every point of view? Some folks have complained that Eternal Zero makes combat look too exciting, but does every war movie have to be antiwar? Many of the most popular war movies deliver the horrors of war, but also take the time to show its attractions. Movies like Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker, and Saving Private Ryan deal in plenty of misery and death but they also give us war’s addictive thrills. Movies like Platoon that hammer one note—war is hell—become yesterday’s news in short order.
I would imagine that the Western garment-rending over Eternal Zero has more to do with the fact that “our” story has been taken from us, and we don’t even merit a walk-on part. “How dare you make a World War II movie in which Americans are faceless targets and not the main characters!” you can practically hear them huffing. Some Japanese directors, notably Miyazaki, have called Eternal Zero “a pack of lies,” but viewing it as a pro-kamikaze movie shows a willful desire not to see what’s actually on screen.
Miyazaki’s criticism is most surprising to me, because he and Yamazaki absolutely agree on one thing that’s central to each of their films. Both directors yearn for a time when their country overcame its differences, stood together, and actually accomplished great things. They bemoan the younger generation who they see as wasting their lives on trivialities, drifting through the world divided and directionless. That the great thing Japan came together to accomplish consisted of killing large numbers of non-Japanese people in a misguided attempt to expand its empire is a tragedy of the most ironic kind, but it’s not one that’s limited to Japan. I would think that Americans, who seem to feel divided and directionless too right now, and who seem to only come together on military-flavored issues like “Support our troops,” might find Eternal Zero strongly resonant, too. The idea of devoting your life to a cause bigger than yourself, of doing your duty no matter what the consequences, of actually accomplishing something meaningful, is appealing, and it’s a human drive that can be used to accomplish greatness or genocide. It’s one of those uneasy, contradictory realities at the core of who we all are that has paralyzed some generations, and inspired others. I can’t see how there’s anything wrong with exploring this troubling contradiction on film.
Eternal Zero has no U.S. distributor at the moment but gets its DVD release in Japan next week.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Transformers: Age of Extinction
… Then again, who cares about exploring the human condition when Transformers 12 is out? China joins America in the race to the bottom by making Transformers: Age of Extinction the top-grossing movie of all time in China.
… Meanwhile, in South Korea: is the box office half full or half empty? According to some headlines, the country is on track to import the lowest number of foreign films on record, bringing a mere 86 into the country in 2013 (33 of which were American) and only 18 so far in 2014.
Then again, other headlines say that South Korean films made up only 43% of the local box office so far in 2014, down from 2013 when they made up 56%. The sky is falling! Wait, it’s back up again!
… Whatever the case, South Korean movies are also doing very well (or maybe not so well?) in the romance department. Chinese actress Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) just announced her engagement to Korean director Kim Tae-yong, the man behind the schoolgirl ghost story Memento Mori (99) and generational comedy Family Ties (06). Kim met Tang on the set of his 2009 movie Late Autumn, divorced his wife in 2012, and says his romance with Tang began when he shot a commercial with her in 2013.
… Relations between front-of-camera talent and behind-the-camera talent aren’t so romantic in Hong Kong, however. Wushu champion and actor Dennis To, who played Ip Man in Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, recently balked at renewing his contract with his manager and martial arts master, Checkley Sin Kwok-lam, probably because To hasn’t starred in a film since 2011’s The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. Ultimately, he renewed, then complained when Sin rebuffed a buy-out offer from a Taiwanese investor. Pissed, Sin announced To was expelled as his disciple, but still bound to his five year contract, effectively on ice. To responded with a lawsuit asking for HK$2.16 million in damages because Sin’s company turned down jobs without his permission. A few days later, To made a humiliating public apology, announced he was dropping his suit, paid a seven-figure reparation to Sin, and begged for his forgiveness. The next day, Sin held a press conference and announced that all To ever had to do was ask to be let out of his contract. Without further ado, Sin canceled it right then and there, leaving some people suspicious that a behind-the-scenes deal had been worked out between both parties, and the “falling out” was staged to get around termination clauses in the contract. Expect the Taiwanese investor, or talent manager Paco Wong, to pick up To's contract when a respectable amount of time has passed.
TL, DR: a publicly traded company worked out a behind-the-scenes deal to cancel a talent contract, then avoided all the legal clauses in the contract regarding termination by staging a falling out between the boss and his employee, and an “apology” payment that dealt with any monies owed.
… Over in Japan, director Nobuhiko Obayashi, most famous for his cult mindblower House, is back with a new movie that’s winning rave reviews yet getting little to no overseas festival attention. Seven Weeks, about a family patriarch’s last days as his family gathers around his deathbed, sounds like a far cry from Obayashi’s more psychedelic movies until you read what people are saying about it. Don Brown, writing for The Asahi Shimbun, says: “Numerous domestic dramas are made in Japan every year with little ambition other than capturing the mundaneness of everyday life. But the jaded viewer will be shocked by Obayashi's sprawling family saga and its distinctive stylized approach that diverges into various thematic tangents. The dead appear alongside the living so matter-of-factly that the past and present become a blur.” You can read more here.
… The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to read this extensive history of Jademan, the popular Hong Kong comic book created by the stylishly mustached man of mystery Tony Wong. The Comics Journal has gone all-in on this one, and it’s full of glorious Eighties-era art, men posing with flashy sports-cars, and the Fathomless Sea Palm.
… Finally, as Japan’s cinematic portrayals of its wartime history heat up op-ed pages, the one question on everyone’s mind is: how will China’s dancing aunties respond? These middle-aged women who perform choreographed group dances in public drive folks crazy, but now they’ve added a musical fight with plastic guns against a World War II–era “Japanese devil” to their dances, which will probably calm everyone right down.