Governor brings politics to anthem for kamikaze youth
Taku Shinjo doesn't class his new film as political. For Those We Love, he emphasised, was the tragic tale of young men sent off to die by their leaders in the closing days of the second world war as members of the tokubetsu kogeki tai, or special attack units. He justified his stance, saying the movie did not spend a great deal of time on scenes of kamikaze diving into American warships supporting the invasion of Okinawa, instead focusing on the human drama before the pilots' final missions.
But for all his good intent, merely having Tokyo's right-wing governor, Shintaro Ishihara, credited with writing the screenplay and as chief production director will inevitably raise questions about the underlying message. Mr Ishihara is not known for an interpretation of history that is sympathetic to 'comfort women' or the victims of the Nanking Massacre, for example.
'Ever since I was in the sixth grade of elementary school in Okinawa, I have always had a dream of making a film about the kamikaze pilots because they were very young, very brave and they gave their lives for the nation,' Shinjo said. 'Because this is a project with Mr Ishihara, there is an immediate assumption that it will be an extremely right-wing film, but all I wanted to do was to tell the story of these pilots and he wanted to make a movie about Tome Torihama. I think I can honestly say the film is about beautiful and tragic youth.'
Audiences in Japan had a chance to judge for themselves at the weekend when the movie - which cost 1.8 billion yen (HK$116.97 million) to make - was released.
Set primarily in Chiran, in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima, the story revolves around Torihama, played by Keiko Kishi, who became known as the 'mother of the kamikaze'. The owner of the Tomiya Restaurant, she was adored by the young men who were stationed at the nearby airfield and served as a surrogate parent in their final days. Between late 1944 and the end of the war, 439 pilots left Chiran Airport on their kamikaze missions.
Sepia-tint posters for the film show men in flying hats and goggles, Rising Sun flags stitched onto the shoulders of their flying suits, alongside Torihama. The film, however, displays some of the failings of other Japanese movies, including the usual over-acting. The pilots march up and down in a train carriage singing: 'We're the shield of the empire.' Torihama trades her prized last kimono for a couple of eggs. Girl students draw hinomaru Rising Sun flags in their own blood. The heroine tells the pilots, 'These bruises are my medals', after being roughed up by the kempeitai secret police.
In the final scene, Torihama and a pilot who survived the conflict visit Yasukuni Shrine and are confronted by the ghosts of his former comrades-in-arms.
Shinjo said he interviewed several hundred kamikaze pilots who were unable to fulfil their missions and their reaction to the film was unanimously supportive. Their feelings to this day were of regret that they had been left behind by their friends.
When Torihama died, in 1992, Mr Ishihara requested that she be publicly honoured. When that was not forthcoming from the government, he turned his attention to writing the screenplay based on his interviews with her.
In a press conference in Tokyo in March, Mr Ishihara said: 'I want to pass on the fact that those beautiful young people really existed. This film is not meant to glorify the special attack forces, but neither is it an anti-war movie.'
Some of the dialogue underlines Mr Ishihara's unabashed nationalistic sentiments and may raise eyebrows - and hackles - among some of Japan's neighbours. In the film, Vice-Admiral Takijiro Onishi declares that the kamikaze squadrons are the only way 'to protect our national identity' and that Japan is 'fighting to free like-coloured people and races from the grip of the white man'.
Koreans, in particular, are unlikely to be happy with the prominent part played by the pilot identified as Kanayama, a Korean who is nevertheless keen to fly his Hayabusa fighter into a US Navy vessel. In the scene on the eve of his departure, he visits Torihama and expresses his gratitude for welcoming him without prejudice before singing the Korean folk song Arirang.
'It is a sensitive and delicate matter, but that character was based on fact and I did not want to bend or warp historical fact,' Shinjo said.
'There was documented evidence that a Korean pilot sang Arirang before his death and we wanted to portray that accurately in the film.'
The director said that in the beginning, Japan 'waged war to be able to ensure its own survival', but at some point, 'that changed into something else', he said, 'and that may be best left to historians to discuss, but I believe it started as a war of self-defence'.
For Those We Love - which also had the working title I Go to Die for You - hits Tokyo screens 18 months after another big-budget, second world war film, Yamato: The Last Battle, and there are several parallels. Both focus on the young men who died, as well as the women who waved them off, on hopeless kamikaze missions. Both are sentimental and have nationalistic undertones.
'I had no intention of glorifying war or making it seem beautiful, and I am furious at the military commanders who ordered these young men to do these things, but I had to show the historical facts,' Shinjo said. 'This is not shown to us in Japan, it was never taught to us.
'I understand very well that when a person makes a film about the war, they will be subject to harsh criticism, but I didn't want to shirk from my responsibility to show the truth. I want people to understand what happened and their conclusion will be that war is terrible and must be avoided at all costs.'