Running time: 89 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
The possibility of being able to conduct a sit down interviews with living kamikaze pilots would strike most people as impossible. It would be like having a dinosaur enclosure at the city zoo or sitting down to listen to Beethoven himself conduct his 5th Symphony. The dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, Beethoven left us in 1827 and the men of the Imperial Japanese Navy who willfully crashed their planes into Allied battleships during WW2, by the very nature of their mission, all died. That's what most people would believe in fact that's what I believed up until hearing about New York-based filmmaker Risa Morimoto's 2007 documentary "Wings of Defeat".
It was only a few years ago that Morimoto, who previously produced the award-winning series “Cinema AZN” on the now defunct cable network AZN Television, learned from one of her cousins that her late Uncle Toshio had trained as a tokkotai, an abbreviation of tokubetsu kogeki-tai, or “special attack squadron” the name more commonly used in Japan for the kamikaze. She was obviously shocked by this revelation. Having been born and raised in the United States Morimoto’s image of the kamikaze was the same as that held by many Americans: fanatical suicide pilots who possessed blind loyalty to then Emperor Hirohito. How, though, could she reconcile this image with her kindly Uncle?
It’s that basic dilemma that led Morimoto to travel to Japan in 2005 to speak not only to her aunt and cousins about Uncle Toshio, but historians about the real role that the kamikaze played in the last days of WW2. Had “Wings of Defeat” relied solely on these secondhand accounts it would have been a competent, but undistinguished film, but two things elevate it to the status of a contemporary classic, comparable to Kazuo Hara’s harrowing 1987 documentary “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” about Japanese soldiers surviving at all costs in the jungles of New Guinea at the of the war.
Obviously the first thing that makes “Wings of Defeat” such a special film is the input and interviews with four former tokkotai pilots: Takehiko Ena who was drafted as part of Japan’s Student Mobilization program in 1943 and survived after crash landing on the island of Kuroshima, Takeo Ueshima, who was also drafted, endured the often savage training of an Imperial Navy pilot, but who was thankfully saved from a suicide run once the war ended, Shigeyoshi Hamazono, a former flight instructor and fighter ace who flew and survived with his novice gunmen and fourth tokkotai who Morimoto speaks with, Kazuo Nakajima, by abandoning their mission and flying back to Japan.
It’s through these remarkable men that our image of the fanatical kamikaze changes. The first squadron of kamikaze was ordered by their commanders to crash into U.S. ships in a bid to hold back them back during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It was an inhuman decision made by a desperate military who knew that they were losing the war. Subsequently kamikaze attacks became Japan’s primary military strategy and it fell to haphazardly trained and insufficiently armed boys to give up their lives for a nation that was too proud to admit defeat. And yes, you read that correctly. Of the 4,000 kamikaze who died during the last year of the war 3,000 were boys not even old enough to shave.
Besides the invaluable accounts of these men and these heartbreaking statistics the other thing that sets “Wings of Defeat” apart is the astounding footage that Morimoto and her co-producer and writer Linda Hoaglund dug up through months of exhaustive research. Not only does the film include never before seen battle footage shot in the Pacific, but personal journals and memorabilia, propaganda films and posters from both sides of the conflict, and Japanese newsreels rarely seen in the West. Combine that with accounts given by the men of the U.S.S. Drexler, the 336 man battleship sunk after being attacked by kamikaze in 1945 and “Wings of Defeat” becomes am invaluable resource.
With the younger generation quickly forgetting the sacrifices that were made during the Second World War and those who fought in it often reluctant to share their painful experiences a film like “Wings of Defeat” becomes a powerful caution, especially when we face wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, wars in which so many young people on both sides are being asked to give up their lives, some, sadly, at their own hands.