Flights of fancy - box office smash The Eternal Zero reopens old wounds in Japan with its take on wartime kamikaze pilots

Box-office smash The Eternal Zero reopens old wounds in Japan with its take on wartime kamikaze pilots, writes Mark Schilling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm

Based on a best-selling novel by Naoki Hyakuta about the pilots of the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane used in the second world war, Takashi Yamazaki's The Eternal Zero has soared at the box office in Japan, earning nearly US$84 million since its December 21, 2013, release - the second highest box office total of any film for the year to date.

The Eternal Zero has inspired controversy, however, with master animator Hayao Miyazaki publicly blasting Hyakuta's novel as a "pack of lies" and Yamazaki's film for propagating "a phony myth" about Zero fighter pilots. Ironically, the Studio Ghibli doyen's latest and last film as a director, The Wind Rises, is loosely based on the life of Zero fighter designer Jiro Horikoshi.

The film depicts the war as a complete tragedy, so how can you say it glorifies war?
Takashi Yamazaki 

One reason for the uproar is that the pilot hero (played by J-pop singer and actor Junichi Okada) volunteers for one of the kamikaze suicide squadrons flying one-way missions in the closing days of the second world war. Over the decades, the kamikaze pilots have become objects of veneration for Japanese rightwingers, while their leftist opponents view this sympathy as suspect, since it is not matched by similar sentiments for the Japanese military's many war victims.

Another is that Hyakuta, an avowed nationalist, made headlines early this year with his revisionist pronouncements that the Nanjing Massacre "never happened" and that the postwar Tokyo Trials of Japanese war criminals were a "cover up for America's own atrocities," including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But Yamazaki, whose long string of hit films includes the warmly nostalgic Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy along with 2010 live-action sci-fi fantasy Space Battleship Yamato, describes The Eternal Zero - whose title refers to the Zero plane deployed by the Japanese military during the second world war - as less of a war film than "a love story," with the hero, Kyuzo Miyabe (Okada), vowing to return alive to his young wife (Mao Inoue) and young child.

"It's centred on its human drama, with the war era as a backdrop," the filmmaker tells me when we meet in a coffee shop next to the Toei studio in a Tokyo suburb, where he is working on a new movie. "It's similar to Titanic, which was a love story set against the backdrop of the Titanic sinking."

At the same time, Yamazaki admits that The Eternal Zero falls squarely in the "war movie" category. "In Japan, the box office limit for war movies is about US$15 million, but I thought that if we tried hard we could do better than that," he says. "Even so, I never expected it to become such a hit," he adds with a laugh.

Unlike many Japanese second world war films that assume an acquaintance with that era's die-for-the-emperor mentality, The Eternal Zero frames its hero and his times in ways that a younger audience, whose knowledge of the second world war is spotty, can understand. "A hero who is called a coward [by his fellow pilots] for clearly saying he wants to survive the war is something new to Japanese war movies," Yamazaki explains. "But people now can relate to the feeling of wanting to live for the sake of your family."

He also believes that such a hero can appeal to foreign audiences. "The character of Miyabe is simple to understand on a human level," the director says. "Even if you were to remove him from the context of Japan, you can still sympathise with him. He says he wants to return alive to his family, which seems like common sense to us now. But he says it in an era when he isn't supposed to say it. And more than that, he acts on it."

The story largely follows Hyakuta's novel, though Yamazaki and co-scriptwriter Tamio Hayashi had to excise many characters and incidents. "More than just making cuts, we were making choices," Yamazaki explains. "We really struggled at the script stage, trying to extract the essence of the novel." Hyakuta, however, had no objections to the finished script.

When casting for the film, Yamazaki wanted, "young actors who had something of the atmosphere of that time about them", he says. "We cast them on the basis of whether they were right for the role, not their popularity," he adds.

That was especially true of Okada, though he is a founding member of V6, one of the most popular Japanese boy bands. "He was extremely close to our image of Miyabe," Yamazaki says. "In the film the character knows martial arts, so Okada studied hard. He got so much into it that he became a shihan [qualified teacher]. He's a guy who's really thorough when he focuses on one thing."

But while trying hard for a period look and feel, Yamazaki was not interested in replicating the hanky-wringing sentimentality of so many older Japanese war films. "We tried to suppress that kind of thing, actually," he says. "But people cried anyway - they really cried."

As for its critics who complain that The Eternal Zero celebrates war, Yamazaki has little but contempt. "That kind of thinking is strange," he says. "The film depicts the war as a complete tragedy, so how can you say it glorifies war? I'd like [the critics] to explain that. I really don't get it. In the end, people see what they want to see. If you think from the start that 'this movie glorifies war' you're going to see it as a movie that glorifies war, no matter what."

The 49-year-old filmmaker's own understanding of the second world war's realities was deepened by not only watching newsreel footage of kamikaze attacks, but meeting some of the surviving pilots from the suicide squadrons. "I realised that they didn't want to be pitied," he says. "When they were in that situation in that era, they felt they had to do this one thing. They didn't want anyone to feel sorry for them. They were just doing their duty."

Nonetheless, Yamazaki says, "Of course, I do feel sorry for them." Elaborating on his point of view, he says: "I think they had feelings they kept to themselves. To understand it you really have to experience it yourself and then you probably think about it your whole life. When I met the pilots, I felt that."

The Eternal Zero opens on May 15