Film Review: ‘The Eternal Zero’

The Eternal Zero Review

Staggering aerial combat footage and a wrenching human story distinguish this otherwise politically confused drama about kamikaze pilots.

A fictional account of a Japanese WWII pilot that features the most breathtaking images of aviation seen in an Asian war film since South Korea’s “Soar Into the Skies” (2010), “The Eternal Zero” marks another vfx victory for helmer Takashi Yamazaki, here surpassing the technical sorcery of his “Space Battleship Yamato” while delivering an elegantly crafted human drama. One of Japan’s 10 biggest hits of all time (having bagged $82.7 million to date), the eight-week B.O. champion cloaks its nationalistic message in an emotionally wrenching story that sweeps the viewer right along  but cops out in the finale, with a glorification of kamikaze missions that contradicts its initial criticism of blind patriotism. While Koreans and mainland Chinese may take issue with the film’s ideology, its crackling action scenes rep a selling point in other overseas markets, even if its mammoth length presents a challenge for theatrical release.

The film is adapted from an epic bestseller by TV-scribe-turned-novelist Naoki Hyakuta, a close friend of prime minster Shinzo Abe and governor of national TV broadcaster NHK who has gained international attention for claiming that the Nanjing Massacre was “a fabrication,” among other inflammatory statements. Though Hayao Miyazaki has decried the film as “a pack of lies,” Yamazaki’s interpretation of Hyakuta’s ideas largely echoes his own bourgeois melodrama “Always: Sunset on Third Street,” celebrating community spirit and modest individualism. Thus, “The Eternal Zero” paradoxically seems to be couched in a particular humanist strain of Japanese wartime propaganda cinema helmed by masters like Tomotaka Tasaka (“Five Scouts,” “Mud and Soldiers”) and Keisuke Kinoshita (“The Army”), honoring the stoicism of foot soldiers rather than glorifying the empire’s military feats.

The “Zero” of the title refers to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a fighter aircraft deployed by the Japanese navy between 1940 and 1945, and recently featured in Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises.” But in contrast with that anime, with its geeky aviation know-how, here the planes are only treated as the symbolic embodiment of Japan’s fighting spirit.

The story is framed by a failed law student’s discovery of his grandfather’s past, a sentimental education that awakens his zeal to serve his country. At the funeral of his grandmother Matsuno, Kentaro Saeki (Haruma Miura) learns that Kenichi Oishi, the man he’d called grandfather, is not related to him by blood. At Oishi’s prompting, Kentaro and his sister Keiko (Kazue Fukiishi) embark on research about their real grandfather, Kyuzo Miyabe (Junichi Okada), who died in a kamikaze mission at the tail end of WWII.

At first, various war veterans write him off as a coward who, despite being an ace pilot in the elite navy corps, dodged dogfights to save his own skin, but then contrary accounts emerge from officers whom he rescued or inspired. That Miyabe’s military conduct unravels in “Rashomon” fashion not only builds intrigue around his persona, but also sets up a compelling clash of values  between the prevailing doctrine of dying for the Emperor as the highest honor, and the humanist, egalitarian ideal that every life is precious. Miyabe’s argument that “my death won’t alter the outcome of the war, but without me, my wife and daughter will suffer” will naturally resonate with contempo audiences.

Miyabe’s all-consuming love for his family is demonstrated on his day off to see Matsuno (Mao Inoue) in Yokohama, when he stumbles like an excited child across the tatami to greet his baby Kiyoko. With a moving depiction of long-suppressed desire and its too-brief fulfillment, their reunion brings the narrative to an emotional high, further enhanced by a cut to the middle-aged Kiyoko’s reaction when her children recount the episode to her.

For the rest of the film, Miyabe expands his personal agenda into a moral philosophy that he imparts to his trainees by rescuing them or forcibly holding them back from perilous missions, even against their will; this gives rise to exhilarating scenes of airborne combat, with magnificent visuals of the vintage Zeroes in action. Miyabe’s conviction that these noble young men can better serve Japan alive than dead gains credibility in the face of his superiors’ brutal authoritarianism, and the film even makes the controversial disclosure that tokkotai (kamikaze pilots) were sometimes drafted by force. The tone turns dark and poignant as Miyabe gradually becomes a mental wreck, watching helplessly as hastily trained, poorly equipped recruits drop like flies into the ocean before coming anywhere near their bombing targets.

Yet, when it comes to the climax of Miyabe’s suicide mission, his motives and final sentiments are rendered in an overly elliptical manner. Having convincingly argued that kamikaze operations are ineffective and senseless, the film contradicts itself in its closing reels, proclaiming their “sacrifice” a monumental legacy to future generations. The screenplay even justifies Miyabe’s change of heart by working a twist into his promised return to Matsuno “even if … reincarnated.” The sappy epilogue rhapsodizes about Japan in a tone that jars with the film’s harrowing depiction of the cruelty of war and the pain suffered by civilians in its wake.

Boy-band singer Okada (“Library Wars”), who plays mainly stout, generic men of action, embraces the role of a lifetime here without grandstanding, instead evincing a plain-talking sincerity and humility even under extreme circumstances. Playing a mother for the first time, Inoue attains a new level of maturity that needs no dialogue to convey great depths of longing. Miura, however, disappoints with his gawky, one-note expressions of surprise.

The seasoned supporting cast — which includes diverse talents like comedian Gaku Hamada, up-and-comer Shota Sometani and former action stars like Isao Natsuyagi — form a gallery of characters whose checkered histories are adroitly woven into Miyabe’s story arc. Among them, butoh master Min Tanaka (“47 Ronin”) stands out as a hot-blooded yakuza with a death wish so fierce it’d make Michael Winner tremble.

Tech credits benefit from the deep pockets of production company Toho without looking too splashy, and lenser Kozo Shibasaki turns heads with his kinetic aerial cinematography, capturing the pulse of the planes’ soaring movements. Yamazaki’s use of CGI to conjure a panoramic period canvas is nothing short of virtuosic, particularly in the sweeping shots of Tokyo’s 1940s low-rise cityscapes, infused with a lush, nostalgic visual texture.

Film Review: 'The Eternal Zero'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 7, 2014. (Also in Udine Far East Film Festival.) Running time: 143 MIN. (Original title: "Eien no 0")

Production

(Japan) A Toho Co. release of an Toho Co., Amuse, Amuse Soft Entertainment, Dentsu, Robot Communications, Shirogumi, Abe Shuji, J Storm, Ohta Publishing Co., Kodansha, Futabasha Publishers, Asahi Shimbun Co., Nikkei, KDDI, Tokyo FM Broadcasting Co., Nippon Shuppan Hanbai, Gyao presentation of a Robot Communications production in association with Toho Pictures, Abe Shuji. (International sales: Toho Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Taichi Ueda, Shuji Abe, Chikahiro Ando. Executive producers, Minami Ichikawa, Tatsuro Hatanaka.

Crew

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki. Screenplay, Yamazaki, Tamio Hayashi, based on the novel by Naoki Hyakuta. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kozo Shibasaki; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music, Naoki Sato; music supervisor, Akihiro Okase; production designer, Anri Kamijo; set decorator, Tetsuji Tatsuya; sound (Dolby Digital), Kenichi Fujimoto, Akihiko Okase; military consultant, Yuichi Higashi; visual effects supervisor, Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya; visual effects, Shirogumi; line producer, Hideharu Yamashita; assistant director, Toru Yamamoto; casting, Keiko Ogata.

With

Junichi Okada, Haruma Miura, Mao Inoue, Shota Sometani, Kazue Fukiishi, Isao Natsuyagi, Min Tanaka, Hirofumi Arai, Gaku Hamada, Isao Hashizume, Takahiro Miura, Tatsuya Ueda, Jun Fubuki, Mikijiro Hira. (Japanese dialogue)

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  1. Serenity says:

    “Having convincingly argued that kamikaze operations are ineffective and senseless, the film contradicts itself in its closing reels, proclaiming their “sacrifice” a monumental legacy to future generations. The screenplay even justifies Miyabe’s change of heart by working a twist into his promised return to Matsuno “even if … reincarnated.””

    I have to disagree with this because I had an entire different understanding of the movie. I don’t feel that Miyabe ever changed his heart, simply that no matter how much he loved life and his family or how much he disagreed with the tactics that were used, neither could he abandon his sense of duty to his country. It was to show that Kamikaze pilots weren’t necessarily evil, cruel people but some were merely people who did it ultimately out of duty. I’m not sure how people understood the film in this way since since Miyabe sacrificed his own life in such a way so that he could spare the life of another pilot. Also, the expression on his face as well as the sadness and tears in his eyes during the final scene clearly negate the idea that he’d had a change of heart. The sacrifice he made for future generations, in my eyes, was not about winning the war but about leaving a lesson to be learned so that future generations do not repeat what was done in wasting the lives of fine men. After all, it was already established that the lives of the kamikaze pilots were simply being wasted. The film depicts people in the present time all crying, terribly sad, and even the grandson Kentaro became visibly upset while envisioning his grandfather make the ultimate sacrifice during the final scene. Nobody in the movie was cheering happily so how did viewers come up with the idea that the intent of this movie was to spark nationalism? And the whole twist about Miyabe keeping his promise to return to Matsuno no matter the circumstance was about the other half of his struggles: his love for her and his family. In the end, he was, in a sense, able to keep his promise to her. It’s not meant to be justification for “a change of heart”, however, but to demonstrate the strength of his love to his family and to make his death more poignant.

  2. Serenity says:

    I think it’s silly that every time we talk about a movie regarding a subject such as WW2, all people care about is which country started it or which county was in the wrong. I wonder if people even watched this movie because they keep accusing it of being something it is not. This movie does not attempt to lay blame on anyone at all. It has nothing to do with that. It does NOT in any way glorify the Kamikaze pilots or try to paint Japan as a nation that was victimized during the war. Eien no Zero(The Eternal Zero) is a pretty anti-war movie about humanity and the inner-struggles of one’s love for life/family VS one’s duty to one’s nation. It portrayed how Kamikaze tactics wasted precious lives and how one man was wrongly criticized as being cowardly due to his beliefs against such tactics. It wasn’t until the children dug further into their grandfather’s story did they realize what a fine soldier and man he was despite what he was accused of being. Sadly, he ended up eventually sacrificing his life for his country as was his duty but, by being the one to make the sacrifice, saved the life of another soldier and managed to keep his promise to his family. As a human being, I was emotionally moved by the waste of such a fine man and pray that no nation ever employs this style of tactic again. In fact, it made me think about war and how deeply it affects the lives of people. I don’t think those who found this film to be controversial really understood the message behind it. Unfortunately, all people seem to care about is who started the freakin’ war.

  3. Paul Giguere says:

    Ah so!! is this film available for us to see? Does it have English subtitles?

  4. Marco Giannangeli says:

    I agree that Eternal Zero is a well executed and thought-provoking film, so indicative of Japan’s continuing schizophrenia over its Second World War record. As for this review, however: “helmer”? “contempo”? “lenser”? It seems that the English language attended the same Kamikaze cadet school as Kyuzo Miyabe …

  5. taktak says:

    I’m Japanese. I can say there’s no one who want to war after watching this movie.
    This movie is very carefully made, there is nothing to glorify war, it exposes the tragic waste of war.

    For example, there is no scene Japan won the battle (ex. Indian Ocean raid or Battle of the Coral Sea).
    And there is no scene Kamikaze hit the fleet, and Kamikaze pilots are drawn as the meaningless death.

    I watched this movie, I feel very sad and sad, and feel angry with old Japanese leaders and Japanese people , who thought lightly of human life, even our Japanese soldiers, genius skillfull pilots, highly educated students, and the common father who only want to seurvive and want to return to his family.

    At last, in the pilot Miyabe’s face, there are many kind of emotions. He is crying, there are tears in his eyes, and he is angry, but he smiles, and he seems cool-headed, but he seems fall into Insanity.

    At first, for Japanese, the title “Eternal 0” seems like “The eternal glory of Zero fighter”. But as last, we notice that means “The tragical event like this have to be eternal 0”.
    I’m not sure that you foreigners can enjoy this movie, but I believe you can find some universal values in this movie.

  6. tito cruz says:

    My brother saw the movie while in-flight inside Japan Airlines 747. He said this movie made him cry. He said I must watch this movie, too and that is why am on the look out for its DVD release or in torrent format.

  7. RDW says:

    This is one for the Boycott Bin. Japanese nationalism, and the denial of the atrocious behavior they exhibited during WW2, is very disturbing. Their actual history of monstrosity, which includes even cannibalism, is being repressed in Japanese schools. They are being lied to, and they want all of us to believe the lie, too. We didn’t start WW2. And it sort of looks like we didn’t finish it, either.

    • Fugitive says:

      American must know that you and Japan were lured into WW2 by the trick of Hull note (an ultimatum) made by F. Roosevelt, which was hidden to the US congress. This fact has been written by Hamilton Fish (served in the United States House of Representatives from 1920 to 1945). Read his book “FDR: The other side of the coin (How we were tricked into WW2)”. Also you are tricked by the propaganda made by Chinese and Koreans. Nanking Massacre is a typical lie that Chinese have spread. The cruel acts on the victims (some of them are Japanese) were really done by Chinese themselves. Korea was a part of Japan 1910-1945 and Korean had citizenship with the right to vote and even eligibility for election of Japan. British, French, and Dutch are so irresponsible to have colonized South-east Asia.

    • Matt says:

      Have you seen the movie? The depicted Japaneses veterans speak of Pearl Harbor with remorse. Kamikaze pilots are treated like cowards. Heck, the whole movie revolves around one man trying to shut the whole program down. In the end, the “Eternal Zero” dies not for his country, but because he was a mental wreck who was no longer capable of caring for his family.

    • John says:

      What they did was awful for sure but us Westerners really dismiss how messed up dropping an atomic bomb on thousands of innocent people is. It ruined generations of Japanese.

      • John Shea says:

        And saved millions of Japanese. Compare how many Germans died in the invasion and subduing of their country. Not to mention how many Allied soldiers died. There was nothing ‘messed up’ about FDR’s and Harry Truman’s decision.

  8. Cliff says:

    Using the reasoning of this reviewer, it’s easy to wonder if a film about Nazi fighter pilots that ends with them depicted heroically would only be controversial among Jews. The double standard with Japan during World War II remains staggering. They were every bit as brutal and vicious as the Nazis. Hopefully this is controversial to more than just Chinese and Koreans, but humanity as a whole.

    • John Shea says:

      Amen Cliff! And imagine if the Nazi fighter pilot movie was based on a book by a well-known Holocaust denier, which Naoki Hyakuta is the Japanese equivalent of.

      All the peoples of Asia, America, Europe and elsewhere should indeed take issue with this movie’s ideology. No amount of time and nostalgia can obscure the simple fact that the suicide pilots who flew their planes into our warships were largely motivated by a hatred of our country (and of other countries) as all-consuming as that which motivated the suicide pilots who flew into our buildings in 2001. Will we or our children see some similarly sentimental movie about the 9/11 attackers in say 2084, or earlier?

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