Junya Sato’s The Last Kamikaze (最後の特攻隊, Saigo no Tokkotai) opens with a title card explaining that it has nothing to do with the life of Matome Ugaki, which seems disingenuous at best given that the narrative has tremendous similarities with his life. In any case, 25 years after the war in a very different Japan which is perhaps becoming more willing to reexamine its wartime history, Sato’s film nevertheless walks an ambivalent line clearly rejecting the idea of the kamikaze special attack squadrons as absurd and inhuman yet simultaneously glorifying the deaths of the men who willingly took part in them.
For sympathetic Captain Munakata (Koji Tsuruta) the issue is one of consent and willingness more than it is of essential immorality. Placed in charge of the very first suicide attack, he elects to go himself rather than ask someone else but is first overruled before deciding to go anyway after appealing for volunteers and coming up one short. His general, Yashiro (Bontaro Miake), who had voiced his opposition to the policy in the opening sequence reminding his own commander than even when men were given impossible missions in previous wars they were always ordered to return home if possible, takes the unprecedented step of climbing into an aircraft himself in an act of protest insisting that this be the last and final time that men were ordered to their deaths. The mission, however, does not succeed. All of the pilots bar Yashiro are shot down before reaching their targets while Munakata, injured and having lost sight of the general, aborts his mission and returns to base only to face censure from his superior officers.
Sent back to Japan, he wrestles with himself over whether his decision was one of cowardice and he turned back because he was afraid to die rather than, as he justifies, because he did not want to die in vain and did what he thought was right. Far from cowardice, it may have taken more courage for him to ignore his orders and choose to live yet there must also be a part of him that believes dying to be heroic if not to do so is to be a coward. As the situation continues to decline and suicide attacks become the only real strategy, Munakata is recalled for an ironic mission of heading the escort squad designed to protect the pilots from enemy attack so they can reach their targets. He first turns this down too not wanting to be an angel of death but is finally convinced to accept on the grounds that the men will die anyway and at least this way their deaths will have meaning.
Munakata was greeted on his return to Japan by the sight of his father (Chishu Ryu) being carted off by the military police for expressing anti-war views, stopping only to tell him that people should be true to their own beliefs. Nevertheless, even if Munataka objects to the tokkotai strategy he does not oppose it only emphasise that the men should should be willing and resolved rather than forced or bullied. There is indeed a shade of toxic masculinity in the constant cries of cowardice along with a shaming culture that insists a man who refuses to give his life for his country is not a real man. Munakata comes to the rescue of a young recruit, Yoshikawa (Atsushi Watanabe), who twice returns from a tokkotai mission claiming engine trouble but does not try to save him only to petition his superiors that he be given ground duty until such time as he gets used to the idea of dying. Because of Munakata’s kindness in saving him from a suicide attempt after being rejected by the mother he worried for if he were to die, Yoshikawa is pushed towards a “hero’s death” that does at least help to change the mind of Yashiro’s zealot son (Ken Takakura) who knew nothing of the reasons behind his father’s suicide and believed wholeheartedly in the necessity of the special attack squadrons.
The younger Yashiro’s rationale had been that to show compassion to a man like Yoshikawa was to shame the memories of the men who had already died, yet even in realising the futility of the gesture he still resolves to proceed towards his own death as do others like him such as a student who had been against the war and ironically consents to the suicide mission in order to end it more quickly. “There’s nowhere to run to” Yoshikawa’s mother (Shizuko Kasagi) had said on his attempted desertion, echoing the words of another that there was no escape from this war, while poignantly crying over her son’s ashes that she wishes she had raised him to be a coward. The human cost is brought fully home as the families storm the airfield fence in an attempt to wave goodbye to their loved ones as they prepare for their glorious deaths, another pilot reflecting on the fact that each of these men is someone’s precious son rendered little more than cannon fodder in an unwinnable war. Even with the escort squads, only 30% of the special attacks succeed. Most of the pilots are so young and inexperienced that even assuming they survive the anti-aircraft fire they are incapable of hitting their targets.
To add insult to injury, Munakata returns from his final mission to an empty airfield where a drunken engineer (Tomisaburo Wakayama) explains to him that the war is over and the generals knew it 10 days earlier but still sent these men to their deaths anyway. Overcome with remorse, Munakata posits his own suicide mission but is instructed to live on behalf of all those who died only to take off and fly into a technicolor sunset as Sato switches from the period appropriate black and white to vibrant colour elegising Munakata’s death while lending it an otherwise uncomfortable heroism. Casting ninkyo eiga icons Koji Tsuruta and Ken Takakura as the infinitely noble yet conflicted pilots and employing jitsuroku-esque narratorial voice to offer historical context the majority of the audience probably does not strictly need, Sato rams home the righteousness of these men while casting them as victims of their times trying their best to be true to what they believe but finding little prospect of escape from the absurdity of war.