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.