Izuru Narushima’s well-crafted, rather old-fashioned and unquestioning elegy to Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, at once the strongest opponent to Japan’s entry into WWII and its greatest naval hero, succeeds where many biopics fail in fully integrating the private man and the public figure. As played by Koji Yakusho (“Babel”), Nagashima’s Yamatoto not only comes off as always right, but also extraordinarily likable. Though clearly intended for domestic auds, this engrossing saga, entirely centered on the war, could score big with biography and history buffs in ancillary.
The pic opens on the navy’s controversial opposition to Japan’s joining the Tripartite Pact, making it the target of riots and Yamamoto, as one of the service’s strongest antiwar proponents, the recipient of death threats. To place things in perspective, the film includes a rabidly pro-Axis newspaper editor (Teruyuki Kagawa) and a thoughtful, increasingly conflicted young reporter (Hiroshi Tamaki), whose ongoing chronicle of events often serves as narration.
Once Japan commits to joining the Axis, Yamamoto, surprisingly promoted to commander in chief of the combined fleet, focuses his strategic skills on devising an attack designed to force the Allies into brokering an early peace. Believing that America’s superior resources can withstand a protracted conflict, where Japan’s cannot, he comes up with the plan to bomb Pearl Harbor.
The film makes clear that Yamamoto feels it essential that the Americans be warned of the attack beforehand. Failure to do so would mean that the devastation of the U.S. fleet, far from demoralizing the enemy, would strengthen its resolve for eventual retribution. Consistently throughout the film, all of Japan’s failures are ascribed to either superiors’ or feckless subordinates’ inability or unwillingness to follow Yamamoto’s lead.
Aside from the admiral’s formidable intelligence, which largely determines his actions, Yakusho’s Yamamoto emerges as a quiet, smiling man who loves food — sweets in particular — and genuinely relates to his men. He can intensely plot tactics and then serenely play a game of shogi (a Japanese version of chess) while the real-life epic battles, now beyond his influence, rage on. Indeed, helmer Narushima spends almost as much time lovingly detailing Yamamoto’s apportioning of a fish at the family dinner table as he does showing his deployment of ships for the Pearl Harbor raid.
Though the cast of characters looms large, including Yamamoto’s closest allies, biggest detractors and a trio of airmen who furnish familiar faces for the dogfights (their fates weighing the increasing cost of war), the film’s scope stays relatively small and quasi-documentarian, with little CGI-enhanced mayhem. Instead, the battle scenes demonstrate Yamamoto’s strategies and their effect on his command.
Period recreation excels without seeming forced or showy.