2007, 89 minutes
Digital video, color, and black & white
In English and Japanese with English Subtitles
In the fall of 1944, U.S. forces were advancing on the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, who had bungled the defense of the islands at the beginning of the war, was about to make good on his vow to return.
Japan's defeat seemed inevitable, but the militarists and Emperor Hirohito turned to a desperate policy that they hoped would lead to a negotiated peace. They sought to inflict unacceptably high losses on the American fleet . The means to achieve those losses was suicide pilots crashing their bomb-ladened planes into American vessels.
Termed Kamikaze, after the "Divine Wind" (most certainly a typhoon) that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, they referred to themselves as Tokkotai, or Special Attack Forces. They came into being on October 20, 1944, and by the end of the war they had sunk about forty ships. Their overall effect on the course of the war was negligible. Approximately 4,000 of them had died. But some of them lived.
Risa Morimoto, born and raised in New York, was surprised to learn recently that a beloved uncle, dead for several years, had been trained as a Kamikaze. Having never questioned that they were fanatics, she was now faced with the puzzling question of why her good-natured uncle had wanted to become a Kamikaze. Her efforts to resolve this conflict led to interviews with family members, other surviving members of the Tokkotai, and with survivors of the U.S.S. Drexler, a destroyer that perished in a kamikaze attack.Those interviews form the core of this extraordinary and fascinating documentary. From it emerges a far different view of the Kamikaze than the conventional one. Here they are seen for the most part as young men who saw this as a duty that one had to fulfill, though they did so with no great enthusiasm. Most interestingly, one of the survivors of the Drexler calmly acknowledges that Americans might well have done the same thing against Japan or Germany if necessary to defend the West or the East coast.
(Photo credit: Takeo Ueshima)
While one cannot assume that those interviewed represent all Kamikaze, clearly the stereotypical view of them as nothing more than totally crazed fanatics, veritable demons, can no longer by accepted. The film does a remarkable job of humanizing at least some of the Kamikaze. At the same time it sheds considerable light on the mindset of the Japanese populace during the war years. It also makes clear how the attitude of the populace was shaped by the militarists and the Emperor.
One of the high points of the film, at least for me, was listening to a former pilot named Nakajima refer to Hirohito as "that Emperor," his voice practically dripping with disdain. Nakajima also epitomized the inner conflict felt by many of those who survived. Apologizing to those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he acknowledges that with the near total destruction of those two cities, he knew the war would end soon and realized "Now I can live."
Another touching revelation was that the pilots flew off with little dolls attached to their flight uniforms. Made by women and girls, the dolls symbolized the thought "Take me with you."
Wings of Defeat will be shown at Japan Society tomorrow, Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 8:00 pm. Preceding the film will be a reception at which director/producer Morimoto and writer/producer Linda Hoaglund will be present. Two former Kamikaze pilots featured in the film, Takehiko Ena (age 84) and Takeo Ueshima (85), and Fred Mitchell (83), a U.S.S. Drexler survivor, will be special guests. A Q&A session and discussion will follow the screening.
Director Morimoto has made a very special and touching film. It deserves to be seen by a large audience. Hopefully screenings such as the one tomorrow night at Japan Society will ultimately result in it having some sort of decent theatrical release and perhaps eventually being broadcast on Public Television.
In the meanwhile, DVDs of Wings of Defeat and Wings of Defeat: Another Journey, a 40 minute follow-up film about U.S. veterans going to Japan to meet and reconcile with former Kamikaze pilots, are available separately or together for purchase or rental. Interested universities, institutions, public libraries, and non-profit groups should go to http://www.wingsofdefeat.com/.
For further information about Tuesday's screening at Japan Society, click here.