By the mid-1970s, Japanese cinema at least had become much more comfortable with critiquing the wartime past, considering it from a greater distance than the often raw depictions of war in the films from the previous two decades. 1974’s Father of the Kamikaze (ゝ決戦航空隊, A Kessen Kokutai), however, is among the few to skew towards the nationalist rather than the ambivalence or simple anti-war messages of other similarly themed films of its era.
Starring ninkyo icon Koji Tsuruta who served in the air force himself, the film is a kind of biopic dedicated to Admiral Onishi who oversaw the kamikaze operations at the end of the war. As is pointed out, Onishi had been against the war in general terms even before its inception and is originally against the philosophy behind the kamikaze squadrons but as Japan’s fortunes continue to decline he becomes its biggest advocate citing a kind of sunk cost fallacy that it would be in someway unfair to the men that have already died to surrender while insisting that suicide missions are the only feasible way to turn the tide because one kamikaze could take out a hundred men by destroying battleships singlehandedly.
The film in part attributes this extreme solution to the prevailing with your shield or on it philosophy of the contemporary society which placed extreme shame on the act of being taken prisoner. In the prologue that opens the film, a squadron of downed pilots whose heroic deaths have already been recorded is discovered alive in an American prisoner of war camp but as being a prisoner of war is so shameful and would reflect badly on the military, the decision is taken to fix the books by sending the men on a mission from which they are not intended to return. Onishi is opposed to the plan, he asks why they can’t find a way for the men to live, but the decision is already made. In any case, he describes the action of a suicide mission as a “beautiful ideal” even when insisting that a war cannot be fought in that way not least for purely practical reasons in that they do not have the resources to be wilfully sacrificing skilled pilots and their planes.
Having come round to the idea, however, Onishi is a crazed zealot who cannot accept the idea of surrender and even goes so far as to barge into a cabinet meeting to urge ministers against a truce even though the war is clearly lost. To his mind, the only way to honour the sacrifices of those who’ve died is to fight to the last man. Kozono (Bunta Sugawara), another officer opposed to the kamikaze, eventually meets a similar fate in refusing to obey the order to lay down his arms and ending up in a psychiatric hospital. His objection had partly been that it’s wrong to turn men into ammunition, but also that the kamikaze project is itself defeatist and self-defeating when there are men such as himself who are committed to fighting on.
In this the film leans into the image of militarism as a death cult in which dying for the emperor is the only noble goal of the whole imperial expansion. In its eventual lionising of Onishi’s image, his bloody suicide atop a white cloth resembling the flag of Japan while his parting words scroll across the screen in text, it does not shy away from his more problematic aspects in which he fails to object to a request from a junior officer that soldiers should be allowed to test their swords on American prisoners of war, roundly telling a subordinate who breaks protocol to insist that such a thing is not only morally wrong but will ruin their international reputation that he has no need to think of consequences because Japan will win this war. He claims to want to find a way of defeat that will satisfy the living and the dead, but in reality cannot accept it not least in that it would entail admitting that he sent 2600 young men to their deaths for nothing.
Tsuruta brings the same level of pathos to his performance as he did in playing conflicted yakuza stoically committed to a destructive code, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the film focuses mainly on Onishi’s personal suffering as a man who sent other men to die for a mistaken ideal and then could not admit his mistake offering an apology only in his death in which he urged the young people of Japan to work to rebuild the nation in the name of peace. In switching to the present day and showing us Onishi’s dilapidated former residence and in fact the room in which he died with its tattered shoji and peeling paintwork, he veers towards the nationalistic in uncomfortably reinforcing the nobility of his death rather than the folly of war or absurdist tragedy of the kamikaze programme. Adopting a quasi-jitsuroku approach with frequent use of onscreen text, a narratorial voiceover, and stock footage of kamikaze in action Yamashita may portray war as madness in Onishi’s crazed devotion but cannot help depicting it as a “beautiful ideal” even in the undignified violence of Onishi’s ritual suicide.