One-way trip to glory revisited

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Kamikaze pilots were fanatics who queued up to give their lives for the glory of the emperor, right? Not so, claims Wings of Defeat, a documentary by Japanese-American director Risa Morimoto and Japan-born scriptwriter Linda Hoaglund. The film, which premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival last month, describes the misgivings of kamikaze pilots, and says many were shamed by their officers into becoming suicide bombers.

The filmmakers also spoke to four pilots who survived. One was shot down on the way to his target by a US Air Force plane, and survived after crashing into a forest. He wasn't sent on another mission before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings ended the war. So, he has mixed feelings about the bombs. 'I sincerely apologise to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,' he says. 'But all I remember is that it meant I could live.'

Morimoto became interested in the subject when she learned that an uncle had trained to be a kamikaze pilot. 'I realised that I only knew about kamikaze from the propaganda,' she says. 'The Americans portray them as crazy fanatics, and the Japanese portray them as patriotic heroes. It seems they were neither. The more I learned about kamikaze, the more important I thought it was to tell the truth about them.'

When Morimoto attended a reunion of kamikaze survivors in 2005, they were surprisingly open to questions, she says. 'There's a culture of 'don't ask, don't tell' about the war in Japan, and many have survivors' guilt. Most haven't spoken about their experiences because no one has asked them to.

'But, as soon as I met them, a whole world opened up to me,' she says. 'The fact that I was an American helped - I could ask direct questions that would have been taboo for a Japanese to ask.'

Morimoto says the former kamikaze members seemed like ordinary people. 'The men I met - who are all admittedly in their 80s now - seemed like normal men, not crazy, suicidal fanatics,' she says.

'Some kamikaze were gung-ho types who thought they were doing the right thing. But many were not as convinced.'

In Japan, kamikaze are portrayed as heroic, self-sacrificing patriots by right-wingers. But Morimoto discovered that there were many dissenters in their ranks.

'Most of the documentation about the men who died has been censored, so we only get the official point of view,' she says. 'That says they were happy to sacrifice themselves for the glory of the emperor. But I found some letters that were very critical of the government and what they had to do. They felt like they were going to die in vain.'

Morimoto says that the military authorities put pressure on young men to become kamikaze. 'Essentially, they were forced to volunteer,' she says. 'Their officers told them to write their names on a sheet of paper if they wanted to volunteer. But they stood over them and pressured them. The men were all about 18 years old, so they were susceptible. They were shamed into signing up.'

The Japanese release of the film goes head-to-head with another kamikaze film, May I Go to Die for You. This is produced by Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo. Ishihara's film - which had its premiere in Tokyo on Monday - is said to portray the orthodox view of kamikaze.

'The right-wing perception of kamikaze remains frozen in time,' says Hoaglund, who was born and raised in Japan. 'It reflects the myths perpetuated about them by the militarists during the war: that they were noble young men who willingly chose to die for their country. The myth has shifted slightly recently, as shown by the title of Ishihara's film. Once, they were assumed to have died for the emperor. Now they're presumed to have died to save their loved ones. But unchanged is the idea of willing sacrifice.'

Nobility in death remains important for some Japanese because the impermanence of life was so pervasive for so long in Japan, says Hoaglund. 'Between the civil wars that wracked Japan for centuries, not to mention natural disasters, premature death seemed inevitable. To accept and ennoble early death was their way of having some control over its inevitability.'

The Japanese who have seen the film have appreciated its point of view, says Morimoto. 'They told me that a Japanese filmmaker would have felt too restrained to ask some of the questions that we did.'

But officials barred shooting at Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, and Hoaglund says she's unsure how the Japanese right-wing will respond to the film. 'We've scrupulously fact-checked every statement in the film,' she says. 'The most radical statement about the emperor is made by a former kamikaze. It's backed up by newsreel footage that illustrates that the emperor supported the kamikaze tactic.'

Morimoto and Hoaglund hope their film will spark debates about Japanese wartime history in the country. 'Japan still denies the Nanjing massacre happened, and is now trying to say there were no comfort women,' Morimoto says. 'The Japanese still have a long way to go when it comes to recognising their wartime actions. I'm hoping that Wings of Defeat will start some debates about it.'