“Japan, summer 1939. Pressure is building for Japan to sign a pact with Germany and Italy, but admiral Yamamoto is reluctant to go to war with the US, whom he considers too powerful.” (2012 Montreal World Film Festival schedule book)WARNING: May contains trace of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot's elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.
The full Japanese title of the movie is 聯合艦隊司令長官 山本五十六 (Rengô kantai shirei chôkan: Yamamoto Isoroku / Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet).
Yamamoto Isoroku (山本 五十六) was a great thinker and strategist (he's often depicted in the movie playing shogi, a chess-like military strategy game). He told his superiors (and I am paraphrasing here) “Don't make a tripartite alliance with Germany and Italy. If you do, the Americans will cut us from the essential supplies we need.” But eventually, they did make an alliance with Hitler. He also told them “Don't attack the U.S., because they're stronger than us. If we do, we'll lose and Japan will be utterly destroyed.” But eventually, they did attack the Americans and, having no choice, Yamamoto planned the attack himself. However, he warned his superiors to “make sure to declare war before attacking the Americans, because if not it will certainly make things worse.” Of course, the Japanese embassy screwed up and the declaration of war was given one hour after the attack, angering the Americans. There is no mention in the movie of his famous quote: “we have awaken a sleeping giant,” probably because it is now considered apocryphal. Finally, he insisted that, if they had to go to war with the Americans, it would be better to hit them hard and fast in the hope to crush their morale and be able to quickly sue for peace, because he considered that if Japan had to engage in a long war of attrition with them they would definitely lose since the Americans were far superior in force and resources.
Unfortunately, his superiors took no heed of his warnings and the Pacific war quickly became a messy affair as the Japanese kept making wrong decisions after another, leading toward an ugly end. The culprit was an enormous national pride that made people believe they could win despite the odds. Even if Pearl Harbor was a strategic failure (they gambled they could destroy the American Pacific Fleet, but its most important elements, the carriers, were nowhere to be seen), it was portrayed at home as a great victory. The “success” of Midway was a failure as well (Yamamoto's subordinates did not follow his instruction to “load half the airplanes with torpedoes in order to strike and sink the carriers that our attack will definitely draw”), but the huge lost sustained by the Navy ultimately sealed the fate of Japan. In Guadalcanal, a retreat became a “transfer of troops” in the national newspapers! Fortunately, Yamamoto died in an enemy attack in the Solomon Islands (he wanted to inspect the troops and boost their morale by his presence, but someone had stupidly broadcast his traveling plans), and therefore never witnessed the miserable end of the war.
Yamamoto Isoroku is a “biographical” drama that focuses solely on Yamamoto's role in the Pacific War and his conviction that war against the Americans was a mistake and that, if it was indeed inevitable, the best chances of success for Japan was to aim at a quick peace after hitting them hard and fast. Not much is said on his personal life: once in a while we glimpse of his family just to remind the viewers that he is human and has a wife and children. The movie is essentially an history lesson but, thanks to an excellent storytelling, it never feels like a lecture. The director achieves this by introducing the viewers to two groups of people -- a couple of newspaper reporters and the customers of a small izakaya bar -- which he cleverly use to communicate to the viewers the essential historical and chronological information about the progress of the war, its historical context, what's the public opinion at the time and who thinks what about the current strategy or geo-political situation.
Strangely, it doesn't feel at all like an anti-war movie and is not even apologetic of Japan's role in the war. It simply tells the viewers that, if Yamamoto's vision would have prevailed, the Pacific War might have been avoided or at least delayed and, in case of war, an early peace would have been pursued, avoiding all the horrors that ultimately deprived Japan of its honor. It tells us (and I totally agree with that assessment) that the war was essentially caused by the stupidity of the “hawks,” the warmonger amongst the media and the political bureaucracy. Unfortunately, in order to pass his message, the director is raising Yamamoto to a status of demi-god and the movie is endlessly chanting is coolness and greatness to the point of being annoying.
I am not sure exactly what this movie is telling us about the ideology of today's Japan. We've certainly seen an increase in war movies being produced lately and it seems to coincide with an hardening of the right wing parties seeking more aggressive politics. Many want to re-arm Japan or defend more aggressively Japanese territory against the claim of other countries in order to secure future resources. However, I don't think that this movie is part of this trend. In contrary, it seems to warn us against repeating the pitfall of history (but this time the sleeping giant would probably be China).
All in all, despite its ideological aspects, it is quite an interesting movie that offers a beautiful photography where, surprisingly, the special effects are minimally obtrusive (I cannot say they are barely noticeable, but at least they are negligibly obvious). A movie well worth watching.
Yamamoto Isoroku (Admiral Yamamoto): Japan, 2011, 140 min.; Dir.: Izuru Narushima; Scr.: Yasuo Hasegawa, Kenzaburo Iida; Phot.: Takahide Shibanushi, Hiroshi Futsuta; Ed.: Hirohide Abe; Mus.: Tarô Iwashiro; Prod.: Shohei Kotaki; Cast: Koji Yakusho, Hiroshi Tamaki, Akira Emoto, Toshiro Yanagiba, Hiroshi Abe, Eisaku Yoshida, Kippei Shiina, Takeo Nakahara, Ikuji Nakamura, Mitsugoro Bando, Mieko Harada, Asaka Seto, Rena Tanaka, Toru Masuoka, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Shunji Igarashi, Asaka Seto, Rena Tanaka, Toru Masuoka, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Shunji Igarashi. Screened, in presence of one of the producers, as part of the “World Great” segment (Out of competition) at the Montreal World Film Festival 2012, on August 26th, 18:40 in Cinéma Quartier Latin 9 (a theatre with a 350-seat capacity which was a little less than 3/4 full).
One last point, not related to the movie itself: The primary duty of a film festival and of a movie theatre is to preserve the integrity of the artistic works it is presenting. I didn't appreciate at all that the sound was cut off for almost the entire end credits of the movie. A soundtrack is an integral part of a movie. It's bad enough that the movie started late (because of the Q&A of the previous movie, I think) but it is not the first year that I witness unforgivable technical screw ups at the festival and particularly at the Quartier Latin. Of course, the people of the festival say it's the mistake of the projectionist who cannot see or ear what's happening inside the theatre, and the acting theatre manager I spoke to said all complaints should be directed to the festival staff since they are the one in charge during the festival (even of the projectionist). This lack of respect for the movie industry craftsmen who created this film and for the viewers is quite annoying. It is a small detail, I admit, but it should never happen. The frustration I feel when this happens distract me from the enjoyment of the movie.
Update: Here's a video of the very quick presentation made by one of the producers before the screening of "Yamamoto Isoroku" at the 2012 Montreal World Film Festival.
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