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Lt. Koji Kitami is a navigator-bombardier in Japan's Naval Air Force. He participates in the Japanese raid on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and is welcomed with pride in his hometown on his return. As Japan racks up victory after victory in the Pacific War, Kitami is caught up in the emotion of the time and fights courageously for the standard of Japanese honor. But his assuredness of his government's righteousness is shaken after the Japanese navy is defeated in the debacle of Midway. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR Rare opportunity to get Japanese perspective of the war
I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR is one of the very few Japanese films about World War II to be released in English and offers a fascinating window into Japanese attitudes toward the war expressed some 15 years after their defeat. Granted, this was seen on VHS in a cut, English-dubbed print with some re-editing, so we can't be entirely sure about the points of view expressed in the original. Numerous questions arise. For instance, did the original open and close with Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio addresses on the soundtrack as this version does? Or did Japanese audiences hear Emperor Hirohito's speeches on the soundtrack?
The film, as seen in this version, glosses over the causes of the war and the reasons Japan was in it. There are no mentions of the United States or of Americans at all and, of course, no mentions of Japanese occupation of so many Asian countries during the war. The pilots heading out to Pearl Harbor at the beginning are told it's their sacred duty to Japan and the Emperor and that the fate of the Japanese empire rests on them. They cheer a "successful mission" after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a sequence that takes up the first 19 minutes of the film. Most of the rest of the film is taken up with the Battle of Midway (which took place, as I write this on June 4, on this date 69 years ago). The film is quite explicit in depicting the mistakes made by the Japanese commanders at Midway that allowed the American forces to prevail that day. As the battle progresses to Japan's not-so-inevitable defeat, radio reports heard in Japan tell complete lies about the outcome of the battle. It's evident to an informed viewer that the Japanese military consistently lied to the people and brainwashed its soldiers and pilots so that they could launch lethal attacks without any moral qualms and without any realistic sense of what they could accomplish against American industrial might. This is a pretty profound admission of some form of guilt. Yet it's undercut by the fact that the pilots are treated as noble heroes throughout. There are sentiments of regret voiced at the end of the film acknowledging what a mistake it all was, but they come too little and too late to satisfy me.
I watched the Hollywood film, MIDWAY (1976), right after this, in order to get an American account of the battle. The two versions stick quite closely to the facts and many of the Japanese military figures from I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR are indeed in MIDWAY as well. MIDWAY even used some shots from this film, along with quite a lot of actual color film footage taken by American combat photographers during the battle itself. Toshiro Mifune plays Admiral Yamaguchi in I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR and Admiral Yamamoto in MIDWAY, 16 years later. He's dubbed in both films by familiar voice-over actor, Paul Frees, the absolute wrong voice for Mifune. (In MIDWAY, Frees' attempt at a Japanese accent is completely at odds with the unaccented English spoken by all the Japanese-American actorsJames Shigeta, Pat Morita, et al--playing the other Japanese officers.)
Some of the reviews here cite the depiction of the Japanese pilots in this film as "ordinary" and "honorable" men, who showed "humanity" and "courage." I'm sorry, but that's like characterizing Nazi concentration camp guards in a film about the Holocaust as "ordinary" and "honorable" men who were just following orders. When you allow a fascistic militaristic mindset to dominate your thinking and behavior, and when you plunge wholeheartedly into campaigns of murderous aggression against innocent peoples as the Japanese so frequently did (just ask China) and call it your "sacred duty," you can no longer be called "honorable" or "courageous." As a baby boomer who writes extensively about Japanese film, television and pop music, but who grew up in the shadow of the war and whose father trained marines to fight in the Pacific, I have difficulty seeing the Japanese soldiers and pilots who fought us back then as anything but the "bad guys," no matter how many tears they shed over fallen comrades or letters they wrote home to mothers and girlfriends. When I watched this film I found myself cheering whenever the "enemy" appeared. And when "enemy" planes launched their attacks on the Japanese carriers, I applauded loudly. Now I know how American Indians feel when they see a film about Custer's Last Stand.
For a better film about Pearl Harbor, see TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970), a U.S.-Japan co-production, which also shows the Japanese side of events, but does it against the larger context of Japanese imperialist aggression in Asia and a diplomatic comedy of errors. It doesn't soften or gloss over what the Japanese did, nor does it ennoble the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor. It's a straightforward rendering of events and it's much more instructive in that regard than this film. Still, I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR does give us some revealing insights into the nostalgic haze through which so many Japanese war veterans chose to remember their efforts.
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