August 05, 2015
The 2011 biopic Admiral Yamamoto (Toei Pictures) focuses on the last decade of Yamamoto's life. But even at 140 minutes, it only skims the surface, a surface made all the thinner by telling a peripherally-related "homefront" story at the same time. The "fiction" in this "historical fiction" gets a good workout.
As for the "historical" part? That's pretty much fiction too.
To cite one technical detail, Yamamoto's plane was shot down near Bougainville in 1943. We're shown the version carried in the Japanese press, that has him dying elegiacally in the crash. In fact, U.S. Naval Intelligence knew where he was and he was killed mid-air by a P-38 Lightning during its initial strafing run.
Well, call it "subjective" history. This shameless hagiography burnishes Yamamoto's reputation the same way Robert E. Lee's record was "rehabilitated" after the Civil War. As a military commander, Lee was less than he was cracked up to be. Like Lee, Yamamoto was a disaster at every offensive action he initiated.
But the buck stopped nowhere. However reluctant he might have been going in, Yamamoto pushed hard for the Pearl Harbor attack. And then with no carriers to hit, he refused to launch a necessary second wave to destroy the tank farms. Later in the film he declares Pearl Harbor a failure. Which it was, largely because of him.
The movie does show how the Doolittle Raid fueled Yamamoto's obsession with Midway (a welcome result entirely unintended). Forced to divide his forces to keep the Midway option alive, Coral Sea was a halfhearted effort the U.S. Navy was able to fight to a draw.
Then at Midway, Yamamoto failed to rein in Admiral Nagumo after the battle was lost for certain, and acquiesced to Rear Admiral Yamaguchi going down with his ship. No, you don't let experienced officers kill themselves after the enemy failed to do so.
Veteran actor Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance) depicts Yamamoto as practically a spectator to the war he's waging. Director Izuru Narushima apparently wants us to associate "passive" and "detached" with "peaceful." Except depicting Yamamoto as a saint makes him as delusional as his ideological foes in the Imperial Army.
In real life, Yamamoto was anything but a bystander when it came to the war planning. In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully recount that
In the midst of the Pearl Harbor debate, [Yamamoto] had let it be known that he and the entire staff of Combined Fleet were prepared to resign if his views were not confirmed. [Admiral] Nagano, given the choice between acquiescing or confronting his wayward subordinate, had backed down. In so doing, he essentially let Yamamoto hijack the Navy’s strategic planning process and place it under the purview of Combined Fleet.
Both McClellan1 and MacArthur also thought themselves indispensable men. Lincoln and Truman let them know they weren't.
I subscribe to the theory that when the critical information fell into his hands, Admiral Nimitz might possibly have balked at killing Yamamoto for the same hypothetical reasons Lee would have balked at killing McClellan in 1862. Why eliminate your best asset?
At its heart, Admiral Yamamoto wants to be one of those old-fashioned, patriotic, big-screen blockbusters like The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Battle of Britain (1969) and Midway (1976). Those were movies that celebrated the "good war" and the "greatest generation" and starred every big-name actor under the sun.
(And to lend extra gravitas: John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker dies on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi in the last reel after the iconic flag raising. Charlton Heston's Captain Garth dies in the last reel ferrying a fighter from the sinking Yorktown. Alas, Yakusho's Yamamoto dies in the last reel amidst a "transfer of troops.")
Those earlier classics were made with the cooperation of the military branches, along with mothballed equipment pulled out of storage and plenty of repurposed newsreel footage. Admiral Yamamoto make good use of digital effects to create more convincing snapshots of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the Solomons.
Unfortunately, live-action digital effects like this don't come cheap in Japan, where a "feature film" is "low budget" by Hollywood standards. So Admiral Yamamoto gives us maybe ten minutes of actual cinematic battles and two hours of actors pacing around soundstage sets.
It's on those sets that Teruyuki Kagawa steals every scene he's in as a fiery newspaper editor in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Then does a 180 when the war is lost. (John Dower notes in Embracing Defeat that this was a not uncommon phenomenon in 1945.)
The more interesting (perhaps unacceptably iconoclastic) story would have shown us the war from the point of view of Kagawa's newspaperman, who goes from hero worship to cynic, and yet concludes (as Jimmy Stewart is informed in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance), "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
1. Both McClellan and Yamamoto had great press and the affection of their subordinates. Both were enamored of elaborate battlefield strategies that promised the deliver a crushing blow to the outfoxed enemy (Parshall and Tully explore this failing at length). Both couldn't accept that "no plan survives the first shot." As a result, neither knew what to do next besides retreat. Unlike McClellan, Imperial Japan didn't have more capable officers waiting in the wings. Yamamoto was the basket in which they had placed all their eggs.