Friday, March 6, 2009

INTERVIEW: Risa Morimoto discusses her documentary "Wings of Defeat"

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

It all started with an off hand comment at a family gathering in 2005. One of Risa Morimoto's cousins mentioned that her late Uncle Toshio had trained as a tokkotai, the common Japanese term for the notorious suicide pilots of WW2, the kamikaze. "I was really stunned, and it just didn't make any sense to me," explains Morimoto on the phone from the New York offices of Edgewood Pictures, the production company that she founded with filmmaker Paul Griffin in 1997, "I grew up speaking English and not really speaking Japanese. I could understand it, but I couldn't speak it, so Uncle Toshio was actually one of my only relatives that I could actually communicate with. So, I had such very fond memories of him as a child." But the New York born filmmaker couldn't reconcile those fond memories with the propaganda images that she grew up with. "I realized more and more how disappointed I was in myself, that I never even questioned who these men were or what the image was and how strange it was that 60 years later the image of Japanese has changed so radically, yet that of the kamikaze has not."

It was this initial disconnect that led Morimoto to pick up her camera and head back to her ancestral home of Japan, one that she hadn't visited in over a decade, in the hope that that her aunt and family there could shed some light on Uncle Toshio's past, but was surprised by what she discovered when she got there. "He had told them virtually nothing about his experience training," she admits, "I had such a keen interest in finding out this history I think that they were hoping to find out some information too." With neither party being able to enlighten the other Morimoto suffered a moment of panic. "I was like, 'Oh my god! I don't have a movie. What am I going to do?' There's no story here because no one knows anything. And that's when I realized that it was just going to have to be something different."

That something different was the award-winning documentary "Wings of Defeat", an unprecedented exploration of the kamikaze and the battered Imperial Japanese Navy who purposefully sacrificed them in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. Premiering initially here in Toronto at the 2007 Hot Docs Festival it has since screened around the world for enthusiastic audiences, including a theatrical run in Japan, and will air Tuesday, May 5th on the PBS program "Independent Lens". While the recognition that Morimoto and her co-producer and writer Linda Hoaglund have received has been welcome it wasn't critical praise and accolades that motivated the film. "My original intentions were to change the perceptions of the Western world in terms of how we saw [the kamikaze], but what I quickly realized was that Japan also had these very sterile, one dimensional stereotypes of who these men were. So, it wasn't only the Western world, but it was Japan that needed to reanalyze what their experience was, and to hear their stories."

And when Morimoto says "their stories" she doesn't mean dry readings from diaries or dramatic reinactments. What makes "Wings of Defeat" such a remarkable work is that it's built around the first hand accounts of surviving kamikaze pilots. It was through U.S. Japanologist Bill Gordon, who maintains the largest online English resource on the kamikaze, that Morimoto was introduced to Takehiko Ena, Shigeyoshi Hamazono, Takeo Ueshima, and Kazuo Nakajima, four men who had trained to be tokkotai pilots. "Ena-san is very well respected and very well known as kind of an advocate for really speaking out on behalf of the tokkotai," Morimoto explains, but his openness turned out to be an exception rather than a rule. Like her Uncle Toshio the three remaining men were reticent to discuss their war-time past. Nakajima, who Morimoto's creative partner Hoaglund discovered after he was quoted in a newspaper article, had never granted an interview with an American, and nearly didn't grant one to Morimoto. "He'd been interviewed very few times and had actually said no three times and on the fourth time he said yes." Meanwhile Ueshima had kept his training as a tokkotai a secret from the 100 employees of his audio equipment import company. "He is very kind of grandfatherly," recalls Morimoto, "and we were kind of joking with him saying, 'You know, with this movie coming out I guess it's time to tell your employees.' And he said, 'Yeah I guess they're going to find out now.'"

It was Morimoto's sincere desire to learn from these survivors that eventually alleviated their cautiousness. "I feel that if they sense you have a genuine interest in something they really open their doors and really do anything they can to help you. I think that since my Uncle had trained to be tokko, and because I was of a younger generation asking these questions I think they were really excited." That excitement translated to the screen differently for each man, especially Nakajima who doesn't gloss over his anger at the men who sent him to die when he was only 17-years-old. "His emotions were clearly very raw," says Morimoto, "I think was very nervous because he was embarrassed by some of the things that he had said, but I told him that if anything people will regard him as a hero because those are things that they'd said privately in their own homes, but never really publicly, so it was such a relief for Japanese audiences to see someone speak so honestly and candidly either about the Emperor or ending the war sooner."

"Wings of Defeat" isn't a one-sided argument though. Morimoto wanted the testimonies not only of the men ordered to sacrifice themselves for Hirohito, but also the men who had to defend themselves from this barbaric military strategy, but it was during her conversations with survivors of the U.S.S. Drexler, the American battleship that was sunk by kamikaze off the coast of Okinawa in March of 1945, that she got some surprising answers. "We were that patriotic," says one veteran in the films, "If we were put in the position of defending the West Coast I could see guys doing what they did." It's not the kind of answer that most people would expect. "There's definitely those that still cannot converse with someone who is Japanese. There's still a lot of that I think, but I was surprised when he said that honestly," admits Morimoto, "but also it's 60 some odd years later. I don't think I would have been able to get those answers had it been even 10 years ago." It was that hint of understanding and reconciliation that grew when Morimoto and Hoaglund screened "Wings of Defeat" for the veterans of the Drexler at their annual reunion in Philidelphia in May of 2007. "Afterwards we were talking to a couple of the guys and they were saying, 'My god! I can't believe it! We were just high school boys shooting at high school boys. I had no idea!' And they said before we die we'd love to meet former kamikaze, so of course we were like how do we say no to that?" So Morimoto and Hoaglund pulled enough money together for airfare for two of the former tokkotai and brought them to meet their former enemies. "People just cried all week and they were hugging and they're holding hands, and it was just really incredible to see these men come together." So remarkable was the event that Morimoto and Hoaglund captured the event on film, "...and what was supposed to be this kind of 5 minute DVD extra wound up being this 40-minute companion piece," titled "Another Journey".

In the end not only did Morimoto gain some understanding as to what her Uncle Toshio had gone through during those dark days, but her film managed to bridge the gap between former adversaries, a victory that didn't come without cost. "It wasn't even an official museum," Morimoto says as she recalls the collection of kamikaze memorabilia she visited in Japan that a woman had put on display in the basement of her home, "that's what was incredible about that place is that you can touch everything. So, I'm looking through these kids notebooks and that's when you realize, Oh my god! When you look at all these doodles and these notes to their friends you realize, Oh my god these kids, they were really just kids! Kids now who doodle in their notebooks and what not. That's where I felt really, What did they do? They lost a whole generation of people."

Learn more about "Wings of Defeat" at its official website.

1 comment:

Shaun said...

Excellent interview! And a very moving documentary