“Yamamoto Isoroku” is Too Shallow to be Meaningful

Rating:  4/10

If there is a Japanese military officer from World War II that both Americans and Japanese respect, Adminiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy, is it.  The story that looks into this reluctant warrior who opposed Japan entering the war against the United States yet  planned the attack on Pearl Harbor would make a fascinating movie.  Unfortunately, “Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Navy Yamamoto Isoroku–Truth in the 70 Years Since the Pacific War” (2011) is too shallow to be such a film.

The film begins with Yamamoto, played by Koji Yakusho, in the Department of the Navy, vehemently opposing Japan entering into the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Italy on grounds that it will increase the likelihood of war with the United States.  A newspaper reporter, played by Hiroshi Tamaki, then narrates Japan’s path towards war with the United States and its demise from Yamamoto’s perspective, with particular focus on Pearl Harbor and the defeat at Midway.

And this plot summary illustrates the problem with the film, which doesn’t have the courage to admit that it is a biography, not a war film.  Because Yamamoto was the Commander in Chief of the entire Japanese Imperial fleet, he merely planned the attacks and the battles, never executed them.  Unlike the intellectually offensive and emotionally manipulative “Pearl Harbor” (2001), at least “Yamamoto Isoroku” accurately depicts Yamamoto as an observer of Pear Harbor and Midway, receiving  battle reports after-the-fact.  The filmmakers, though, lost the nerve to cut out the battle scenes entirely because, I suspect, they presumed that the audience expected Pearl Harbor and Midway scenes in a movie about Yamamoto.

The result is battle sequences that look both cheap and rushed.  The Pearl Harbor attack, for instance, focuses mostly on the Japanese fighter planes even though the amazing visuals are always with the sinking battleship Arizona.  The battle at Midway cuts from American fighter planes circling the fleet to four Japanese carriers going up in flames.  Neither of these scenes provide any stunning visuals and deepen the understanding of Yamamoto, the film’s main subject.

Indeed, the battle scenes detract from the core story of Yamamoto.  But sitting through the rest of the film, I doubt that the film would have been much better off in the hands of these filmmakers even if the battle scenes were handled better.   The film repeatedly hammers home one core message: Admiral Yamamoto opposed the war against the United States.  The filmmakers are so unrelenting in delivering this message that they can’t even end the film at Yamamoto’s death, instead jumping to the end of the war to hammer home the point that he had been right all along.

This is overkill, even more so because the movie delivers the message so shallowly. There is nothing novel with the film’s depiction of Yamamoto; it’s well-known that he planned the attack on Pearl Harbor because he knew Japan couldn’t win a prolonged war against the United States and he thought that only a high-stakes, all-in attack gave Japan any chance.  What would have made the message more persuasive–and subtly delivered–is if the film looked into why Yamamoto was so vehement in his opposition.  For that, it would have been necessary to tell the story of Yamamoto studying at Harvard or perhaps his experiences in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War–something a real biography would have–and should have–done but this film does not.

Nor does Yakusho present a commanding presence of Yamamoto when he is on screen, whose fault lies with Yakusho.  But more than that, the nonchalant way in which Yamamoto responds to important, tragic events  increasingly troubled me as the film progressed.  To the initial report that several carriers were sunk in the battle of Midway, he responds, while playing Japanese chess, “Oh yes?  Three were sunk?”  To the follow-up report that another carrier sunk, he responds, “Even Akagi sunk, huh?” in a monotone voice.  To the news of a death of a fighter pilot he befriended because they shared the same hometown, he emotionlessly replies, “So he died too.”

In the hands of a good actor working with good material, such scenes can depict a person in power acting calmly and collectively in times of great distress.  And that is how I initially viewed Yamamoto’s response to the troubling reports that no carriers were sunk at Pearl Harbor or that the Japanese embassy failed to deliver the declaration of war prior to the attack.  But increasingly, Yakusho’s Yamamoto comes off as callous as the number of sunken ships and lost lives mount.  Perhaps Yakusho was trying to depict Yamamoto as a grand figure who never lost his cool, but there is something deeply troubling about military leaders being emotionless in response to a report of huge number of people dying.  No doubt the film never intended to cast Yamamoto as a callous figure, but the film lacks any depth to view Yakusho’s Yamamoto as anything else.

“Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Navy Yamamoto Isoroku–Truth in the 70 Years Since the Pacific War” (2011) is currently in wide release across theaters in Japan.


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