It’s Jason Julier’s 60th Eastern Premise! Join him as he takes a look at 2005’s Otoko-tachi no Yamato.
War films for many generations whilst growing up have provided strong imagery, memories and offered an insight into historic events. My own recollections are Sunday’s spent with Sink the Bismarck, Escape to Victory, Dam Busters and other iconic imagery to going right back to the Scottish rebellions and Roman invasions. These events undeniably develop on a life of their own onscreen, whether factually correct or not, they are often mistaken for being accurate.
With much media focus of late on the Titanic anniversary, I felt it an ideal moment to reflect on a ship from Japan’s own maritime history; the Yamato. Unlike the infamous liner, this was a battleship or to put it into context, the battleship that on paper will never be surpassed, even in the modern age as such vessels are no longer viable. The largest, heaviest and most powerful battleship built, its name alone provokes a response alongside other weapons of destruction as the Spitfire or its seafaring equivalent, the Bismarck.
Released in 2005, as part of a series of events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Otoko-tachi no Yamato (The Men’s Yamato), the film is an interesting depiction of events that gives us some insight into the crew and the hopelessness of their situation. Based on a novel by Jun Henmi and directed by journeyman Junya Sato, it’s much more interesting than I had originally anticipated by focusing on a segment of the crew, their backgrounds and families. Initial expectations of a nationalist or weepy approach to events are washed away with a mixture of period drama and modern day Japan.
Like Titanic, we join Katsumi Kamio, a modern day survivor of the Yamato and Makkio Uchida, a relative of a former crewmate on an emotional and poignant journey. Their motivations for journeying to the site of the wreck may seem polar opposites but there is a connection and common theme that unites both. Kamio has never really moved on from the horrific events of Yamato’s final hours, but as a fisherman is able to take Uchida 200 miles offshore to the exact site of the wreckage. It is during this arduous trek to the location, we are granted a series of flashbacks to 1944 when Kamio and other teenagers join the navy and the Yamato as cadets, right up until their final moments together.
The gung-ho infectious nature of wanting to protect your country and sign up for service was imbedded in a generation, regardless of which side you were on. In 1944 the tide was turning against Japan and the Allies were making inroads towards the homeland. Yamato was the flagship of the Imperial navy and was adorned by a kikusui crest to symbolise her importance. She was kept in reserve to protect Japan; partially because of her size meant her oil consumption was phenomenal.
For the cadets the opportunity to serve on this ship was an honour but we’re not spared the harsh realities of their situation. These kids, and that’s what they were, are just out of school and full of enthusiasm. Their superiors on board are more experienced and versed in the harsh realities of life on board and a large proportion of the film is spent replicating the series of drills, training and punishments dished out. The small core of recruits and their officers that we follow, man the anti-aircraft nests on one side of the Yamato. This is a clever production and financial choice as despite the occasional use of CGI, we’re only ever granted insight into this one side of the vessel above deck. For the creators of the film this approach meant they could focus on a specific aspect and the models and recreations are of a very high standard. CGI also resolved the issue of not having access to any stock footage of the Yamato, as the Japanese systematically destroyed any documents, photographs or footage of their flagship which was built in total secrecy.
Otoko-tachi no Yamato is a big budget Japanese film with little expense spared yet at times turns a blind eye to the actual events that led up to the final voyage. The crew are portrayed as heroes when they sail off to the Yamato for what they know is a suicide mission; sacrificed by their superiors its alleged, to please the Emperor. It is a hopeless mission and a symbolic act with no prospect of success. Sending what’s left of the Japanese fleet into the storm of the Allies invasion force with no air support, whilst 400 American planes target the main threat; the Yamato, it is clear the crew know that they will be picked out by the enemy.
The closing battle sequence is a slaughter and we’re not spared any pain or suffering which is refreshing in a Japanese war film and naval film generally. The enemy is faceless throughout the film, we’re not allowed to personalise this impending threat; the focus is on the crew and their relatives. When our modern day travellers reach the site, their emotions are strong and the symbolic gesture is a little clichéd but fits in well within the context of the film. There is hope for a new generation without conflict and the suffering of war, but we must never forget the sacrifices some have made and there is a hint of anti-militarism. The film even touches upon Hiroshima briefly, yet Shoehi Imamura’s Black Rain remains the definitive voice for this tragic event.
Yamato is bookended by footage of an expedition to survey the wreck in 1999. The decaying structure and its scattered remnants have been brought to life by the film and this approach provides a nice symmetry and ultimately closure. Also shown is the museum where many of the props and models from the film are now displayed and the memorial to all crew. With no DVD release outside of Asia, Otoko-tachi no Yamato can only be imported today and does offer the option of English subtitles including the special features.