Although she circles only the most topical reason for exploring the fabled kamikaze of World War II — namely, their kinship with Mideast suicide bombers — “Wings of Defeat” helmer Risa Morimoto has made a sturdy, even revelatory doc about the one-way pilots of the Japanese Imperial forces. Destination should be a comfortable broadcast niche and devoted following by students of war, culture and the wobbly line between patriotism and fanaticism.
Following the increasingly popular gambit of making nonfiction film into personal stories, Morimoto establishes her familial connection to the subject — an uncle who had been one of the celebrated “boy pilots” trained to be part of the kamikaze (or “divine wind”). “Wings of Defeat” would have felt more personal if the uncle had still been alive, or if his niece had had a substantive relationship with him — or if the uncle had ever flown a mission. But Risa, a New Yorker, travels to Japan anyway. “I’m hoping my family can help me,” she says, in one of her narration’s several unnecessary asides.
The family does help, providing a sense of ambiguity among the Japanese about the kamikaze and their legacy. She discovers a similar attitude among the former kamikaze themselves — survivors who, for whatever reason (a downed plane, an aborted mission) never met their intended fate. Having reconciled themselves to death at such an early age has apparently given them an exuberance for life 50 years later — the ex-fliers’ sense of irony and humor is delightful. But they don’t boast about having been of part of a suicide squad. On the contrary: They’re vaguely embarrassed.
It wasn’t until late in 1944, when Japanese chances for victory were all but lost, that the kamikaze corps was established. Things got so bad that the emperor decreed every every citizen a kamikaze.
Production values are top-notch, the archival material is first-rate and the director and her producer-writer Linda Hoaglund, a noted translator, subtitler and expert on Japanese cinema, use that material to wonderful effect — battle films, stills, propaganda posters all feed the energy of the long-ago war effort. Unfortunately, the film flattens out when Morimoto re-enters. “I find it so sobering to see the youthful dreams of these young boys so caught up in winning a war,” she says, needlessly.
According to a postscript, 4,000 kamikaze gave their lives to the cause, sinking only 34 U.S. ships. Perhaps the most startling moment in the film comes during an interview with a survivor of the USS Drexel, one of those 34 sunk ships. “We had people who would have done that,” he says about flying kamikaze-style missions. “We were that patriotic.” The line between love of country and blind obsession remains forbidding territory, and “Wings of Defeat” flies right into it.