20 November 2006 | dmuel
Little attraction for viewers who are not Japanese
Here we have the epic tale of the battleship Yamamoto. This ship was eventually destroyed by a U.S. air strike off the coast of Okinawa; well over 2,000 crewmen went down with the ship, and most where new conscripts who were merely teenagers. While adhering to most factual details, the movie embellishes with dramatic tales of family and friends, lovers and mothers, the effect of which is intended to heighten the sense of tragedy over the loss of youthful lives. The viewer also witnesses the brutal discipline of the Japanese military of that era, replete with punishment and beatings for those who fail to meet the exacting service standards demanded by superior officers.
The young sailors are depicted as striving with gusto to serve in the capacity expected of them. The fact that all are deluded into thinking they are serving to protect Japan is left to modern historic sensibilities to recognize. No mention is made of the abhorrent brutality of the Japanese military in Asia. On the other hand, American airplanes attacking the ship are merely an impersonal airborne antagonist; the planes appear as nothing more than menacing vehicles streaming down from the sky in much the same manner as the Japanese aircraft in the American movie Pearl Harbor.
While one might argue the exaggerated masculinity that the Japanese military exhorted its members to assimilate led to the ruin of the young men, and this may be a central tragedy the movie sought to explore, the relish which most sailors seem to take in the fight does little to promote sympathy from the viewer. In cinematic terms, one strong point of the film is the Yamamoto's final battle where a grim and bloody onslaught, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, depicts the Yamamoto's denouement.
Another feature of the film: it is told in a limited "flash back" style. It begins with a young woman seeking to find the Yamamoto's grave on the anniversary of its sinking, (There is more than one debt the movie owes to Saving Private Ryan). The movie ends with the young woman and friends in a small boat saluting the dead at sea. While this scene, too, is calculated to yield a strong sentimental response from the audience, its most useful purpose is to show that the issues of World War II remain difficult for contemporary Japanese to accept and resolve. But surely the difficulty is much more than grappling with the results of a failed military adventure.
One very weak point of the movie is the fact that most of it was shot in a studio, something easily discernible. There is no out-at-sea feeling to the movie; scenes are shot too tightly to give the impression of being out in the open on a large vessel. The CGI effects are very poor, with the Yamamoto looking like a battleship on a video game display.
In spite of strong performances by a number of the actors here, the movie cannot escape its own limited scope--it will not attract viewers outside of Japan. It is a movie designed for Japanese, and one that asks a limited number of questions about that nation's tragic march to disaster.