Second World War kamikaze drama “The Eternal Zero” has emerged as one of the most popular films at the Japanese box office of recent years, having topped the list for an impressive eight consecutive weeks and now ranking as the country’s fifth highest-grossing live-action film of all time. Based on a novel by Hyakuta Naoki, the film was directed by Yamazaki Takashi, helmer of the hit nostalgic “Always” series and who recently gave audiences the visually stunning “Space Battleship Yamato” update.
Like many modern Japanese war themed films, “The Eternal Zero” revolves around a present day framing device, in this case following Kentaro (Miura Haruma, “Space Pirate Captain Harlock”), a law student who has failed the bar exam several times, and who at his grandmother’s funeral finds out that his grandfather Oishi is not in fact his biological grandfather. Aided by his sister Keiko (Fukiishi Kazue, “13 Assassins”), he looks into the matter, and finds that his real grandfather was a man called Miyabe Kyuzo (Okada Junichi, “Library Wars” and of the boy band V6), a fighter pilot during WW2 who died on a kamikaze mission. Determined to find out more, Kentaro contacts a series of Kyuzo’s old comrades and pilots, most of whom insist that he was a coward who fled from battle and put the lives of others at risk to save his own skin. However, it gradually emerges that Kyuzo was actually a highly skilled pilot who was simply desperate to return home to his beloved wife (Inoue Mao, “The Snow White Murder Case”) and young daughter, leading to the burning question as to why he would have volunteered for a kamikaze mission.
“The Eternal Zero” is undoubtedly one of the glossiest and best-looking Japanese films for some time, a full-on blockbuster with top notch production values. Visually, it’s stunning throughout, Yamazaki Takashi making glorious use of the clear blue skies and seas of the pacific and of the various locations as it leaps between a series of major WW2 battles and Pearl Harbor, Battle of Midway and the Bombing of Rabaul. The computer effects work is spectacular, Yamazaki (who also worked on the special effects himself) surpassing “Space Battleship Yamato” in this respect and choreographing some superb dog fighting action and large scale battle set pieces. As with most Hollywood war epics, this is combined with a fair amount of melodrama, though even at a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes the film never drags too much, and by the standards of the Japanese form there aren’t too many tears or hysterics. An interesting set of characters and solid performances from the leads also help to distract from the film feeling rather formulaic in places, and though perhaps not as emotional or moving as it’d like to be, it does keep the viewer interested in the enigmatic Kyuzo through till the end.
To be fair, how engaging “The Eternal Zero” is may vary between viewers, and it’s difficult to discuss the film without mentioning its subject matter and how Yamazaki handles it. Being about kamikaze pilots, and based on a novel by a nationalistic writer who in the past has made statements denying the infamous Nanjing Massacre amongst other things, the film unsurprisingly generated controversy both at home and abroad. Certainly, it walks a fine line between trying to portray the despair of war and the suffering it causes for everyday people, and romanticising blind patriotism and glorious sacrifice, building to an ambiguous conclusion that leaves the viewer to interpret Kyuzo’s actions – it’s hard not to see this as somewhat of a cop-out.
Yamazaki does try to defuse this by taking a generally humanistic approach, and by including present day scenes of young people debating kamikazes at a dinner (some describing them as being brainwashed and like ‘Muslim terrorist suicide bombers’), though the film’s message remains troublingly mixed. As such, perhaps inevitably, the film has attracted criticism both from the Japanese left wing for glorifying the war and kamikazes, and from the right for its vaguely negative portrayal of the country’s leaders. Even Hayao Miyazaki, whose “The Wind Rises” deals with somewhat similar subject matter, chimed in and savaged the film for an apparent lack of authenticity, and with countries like China and Korea decrying it, there’s no doubt that it’ll divide audiences.
Though unavoidable, this is a shame, as “The Eternal Zero” is a very solid Japanese blockbuster and an impressive war drama epic by any standard. Well-made and acted, and boosted by some fantastic action scenes and polished production values, it’s nevertheless understandable that while some viewers will embrace and appreciate what Yamazaki Takashi has attempted here, others will struggle to see past the film’s themes and possible underlying message.
Takashi Yamazaki (director)/Naoki Hyakuta (based on the novel by), Takashi Yamazaki, Tamio Hayashi (screenplay)
CAST: Min Tanaka
Haruma Miura … Kentaro Saeki
Mao Inoue … Matsuno
Jun’ichi Okada … Miyabe