A A Look at World War II from the Eyes of a Japanese Flying Ace
I remember seeing the movie `Ozora no Samurai, ' (`Samurai of the Sky' in Japanese) which was based on a memoir (released in the U.S. as `Samurai') written by a Japanese fighter pilot Lt. (jg) Saburo Sakai, when it was first released in 1976. I read the memoir and its sequel titled `Samurai of the Sky' and `Samurai of the Sky, the Sequel' several years after I saw the movie. This movie shows the blood-soaked battles of Sakai, the highest-scoring Japanese naval aviator ace (at least 65 confirmed kills; some unconfirmed reports state 130) who survived World War II.
Even though many well-known brave soldiers look no different from an average human being; one could probably distinguish Sakai during World War II from an average person from miles away. Judging from his photographs from this period, Sakai's eyes looked extremely fierce and vicious like those of predatory animals or murderers. In fact, Sakai and his squadron mates were often referred to as `wild beasts' or `devils.' These wild beasts and devils were members of the Tainan Squadron, an elite Japanese naval flying squadron who considered themselves to be the spiritual descendants of Richthofen's legendary Flying Circus. The Tainan Squadron flew the skies of Southern Pacific like a fierce wolf pack and shot down hundreds of Allied planes.
One can understand why Sakai turned into a predatory animal. The air battles over the Solomon Islands, where Sakai shot down most of his kills, were extremely vicious. One conveniently forgets that these kills are literally murders, not just shooting down enemies at your nearest video arcade. In one sense, this kill record is no different from a rap sheet of a serial killer. Sakai honestly admits in his memoir that he probably killed dozens of enemy fliers. It was really a kill or get killed battle. Surrounded by constant danger and enraged by the death of their comrades, Sakai became a vicious predatory animal filled with murderous energy. (When this kind of murderous energy explodes, the result may be a massacre of enemy soldiers or even innocent civilians. This is why battlefield brutalities occur so often.) But how can we condemn Sakai or any other soldier while sitting comfortably in our living room? In spite of the numerous battlefield kills, Sakai was definitely not a murderous sociopath. After the war, he led a law-abiding life as a president of a printing company. In the 1970's he appeared in several documentary movies. He looked like a perfectly mellow and polite gentleman. (However, when he reminisced about the war, the predatory instinct lit up in his eyes.)
In this movie, the director portrayed Sakai as a ferocious but brave pilot, but not as a vicious killer, which he really was. I guess the director had to keep Sakai a sympathetic character to please the audience. The director used special effects to excellently film the ferocity of dogfight scenes even though he had to rely solely on the technology available back in the late 1970's. (This was before the days of Star Wars or computer animation.) To film the dogfight scenes, the special effects director used an innovative approach. Instead of filming stationary model planes, which are suspended from the ceiling using invisible wires, the director used radio-controlled model planes which actually flew at the altitude of about 1000 meters while the camera crew filmed the dogfight scenes from a cessna.
Actor Hiroshi Fujioka (who is seen in the U.S. movie "K-2") portrays Sakai with a great skill even though I felt that Fujioka looked too kindly to play Sakai during World War II. As stated earlier, Sakai from this period was literally a predatory animal. Other actors, including Taro Shigaki playing flying Ensign Sasai, were competent. The entire cast members succeeded in humanizing Japanese navy pilots, who are usually portrayed in American movies as mindless predators. Just like many fact-based movies, the story was told in a rather uncreative, straightforward way.
I would like to end my comment with a prayer for Lt. Sakai, one of the last surviving aces of World War II. He died in Sept. 2000 of heart attack; he was 84 years old. I would like to make this movie comment into a belated obituary for him.
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