This is Armistice Day, mainly called Veteran's Day in the U.S., so let's talk about soldiers some more. A movie about soldiers released in Japan last year, The Eternal Zero (永遠の0), is one of the top ten grossing films in the history of Japan and was praised by both the Prime Minister and his wife but there doesn't seem to be any plans to release it in the U.S. Perhaps because it portrays the attack on Pearl Harbour in a positive light or perhaps because it simply seems too Japanese. While it does seem specifically designed to shame modern Japanese men into holding themselves to a standard of Bushido machismo, it's a point of view on manliness, and the role of a soldier as a yard stick of manliness, that could have meaning for any culture with a history of patriarchy. It has good performances, and some exciting dogfights, but the film is much more interesting as a cultural artefact than for its intrinsic value.
Yoko Ono has praised the film, focusing, as many of its proponents have, on an apparent pacifist message present in it. The central character, Kyuzo Miyabe, portrayed with charisma and heart by Junichi Okada, is a kamikaze pilot who's determined to survive the war. Many of his comrades consider him a coward though he demonstrates almost supernatural piloting skills. His sorrow felt over the deaths of other pilots is greeted with amazement and scorn.
Miyabe's story is framed by scenes set in modern day where Miyabe's grandchildren, Kentaro (Haruma Miura) and Keiko (Kazue Fukiishi), learn of his existence for the first time at their grandmother's funeral. The reason Miyabe's existence was kept secret is never made clear except to give the grandchildren reason to investigate.
Even this isn't enough to motivate Kentaro, though, whom we see awoken by a phone call from his sister in a room littered with junk food and manga, marking him as a typical NEET--"Not in Education, Employment, or Training", a demographic of young men in Japan that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, exciting no small amount of concern in media and politics. One may wonder how a country that formerly produced pilots willing to fly planes into war ships for the Emperor is now producing men unwilling to do anything but indulge themselves. Keiko has to bribe Kentaro with cash just to get him to come along with her as she interviews surviving World War II pilots who knew Miyabe--she's a freelance writer and she's hoping to find material for a book. And yet, halfway through the interviews, she inexplicably ceases to accompany Kentaro as the movie begins to solely focus on his obsession with his newly discovered grandfather.
Almost everyone they interview calls Miyabe a coward until they meet a man dying of cancer who tells them that Miyabe was as far from a coward as you could get, his abjuring common sentiment about honourable death being a mark of courage. Furthermore, it turns out Miyabe had made a promise to his wife and child--Kentaro's grandmother and mother--to return from the war alive.
After this, Kentaro goes alone to interview two other men who speak of Miyabe with deep reverence. One man is an enormously successful CEO whom Kentaro interviews in his top floor office and the other is a powerful and intimidating yakuza, a gangster.
Although Kentaro is obviously a little wary of him, the yakuza is portrayed in a very positive light, partly because his ability to see Miyabe's virtue is a mark of wisdom. Gangsters have a generally more positive presence in Japanese media than they do in the U.S. largely because the yakuza are a significant political power in Japan--there are anime series and live action sitcoms that portray yakuza as rough edged but ultimately good dads not unlike the traditional U.S. sitcom patriarchs. This isn't Tony Soprano, a complicated man with positive qualities whose criminal tendencies are leading him on a downward spiral, this is more like the kind of person Tony Soprano might see himself as--the model of a man who suffers and works hard to provide for his family. That's also Miyabe and that's also the CEO Kentaro meets.
You would think Kentaro's mother would be at least as interested in learning about her father but she has only a peripheral presence. The film is clearly meant to be an instruction to modern, unmotivated young men; be a CEO, be a principled soldier, be a gang lord. But for goodness sake, think of Japan.
Among the people critical of the film is Hayao Miyazaki who said of it, "They’re trying to make a Zero fighter story based on a fictional war account that is a pack of lies . . . They’re just continuing a phony myth, saying, ‘Take pride in the Zero fighter.’ I’ve hated that sort of thing ever since I was a kid." This is a curious position given the fact that he released a movie the same year, The Wind Rises, which tells the story of the designer of the Zero aircraft in a very romantic and positive light. Perhaps the difference is in the focus of Miyazaki's film on the aircraft designer's passion for creating something beautiful. But more importantly, The Eternal Zero, unlike The Wind Rises, is filled with broad stock characters written more out of a desire to influence others based on an ideology. In this way, The Eternal Zero is not far from the propaganda films that endorsed honourable suicide like Mizoguchi's version of The 47 Ronin from 1941.
Of course, with the suicide rates in Japan being infamously high, Miyabe's condemnation of the basic function of a kamikaze pilot could be taken another way in which the film is attempting to influence young people. But it's ironic that the larger than life expectations of becoming a CEO or a gang boss or an impossibly skilled pilot are just the sort of things that make a worthwhile existence seem unachievable.