Tuesday, 18 August 2015

From Japan: a striking study of death in war, and another of peace in death

Don’t get me wrong: The Eternal Zero is not a great film. There’s far too much overacting, some of the sentiment is nothing short of cheesy, and the use of massed violins in the background whenever the plot gets poignant is so overstated you have to smile at it.

No. What makes The Eternal Zero worth watching is that it’s a Japanese view of the Japanese side in World War II, and that’s immensely refreshing.

The story starts with the discovery by a young woman and her younger brother that the man they have always called grandfather, is in fact the second husband of their grandmother and the stepfather, rather than natural father, of their mother. Their blood grandfather, Kyuzo Miyabe, was an airman of the Japanese Imperial Navy, killed in a 1945 Kamikaze mission. His role gives the film its title: he flew Mitsubishi Zero fighters.

The Mitsubishi Zero
The film has been criticised as a glorification of the Japanese war effort, which surprised me. It struck me as a well-crafted denunciation of the war. As the young people find out more about the film’s true protagonist, Miyabe, they get to know a man whose only objective in the war was to survive it and to return, alive, to his family. Already, after taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, where he points out to the triumphant young pilots that there was nothing to cheer about since they sank not a single aircraft carrier, he realises that the war is lost.

From then on, therefore, he sees every life lost as a waste. Some of the finest young Japanese men are being recruited as pilots; he believes that they have much more to contribute to Japan alive, after the fighting is over, than dead in a lost cause. That view only intensifies when he finds himself training these men to take part in Kamikaze missions.

Sacrificial victims in a hopeless cause
Did anyone hold these views in Japan back then? I don’t know. But it’s a pleasure to see them being advanced by a film maker today, as a legitimate view of the war, especially when leading figures, such as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, are still not prepared to face up to the shame and waste of the nation’s war effort. And whatever its other failings, the film communicates its central message powerfully.

So how did a man committed to surviving manage to die as a Kamikaze pilot? Well, that’s the central irony of the film, and you’ll have to watch it to find out. In my view, the explanation it gave worked and wrapped up the plot well. If, perhaps, a little cheesily…

Still, well worth watching for all that.

Departures – a film I keep coming back to
Since I’m on the subject of Japanese films, did you ever see Departures? Now that really is extraordinarily good. The fact was recognised in its winning the 2009 Oscar for best foreign film (beating Waltz with Bashir which is maybe a little over the top – the Israeli study of the horror of the invasion of Lebanon is outstanding).

Departures is the tale of a young cellist with a Tokyo symphony orchestra that goes bankrupt. He’s forced to find a new job, for which he heads back to the old family home he has inherited, out in the country, where he was brought up by his mother after his father left them. He takes a job with a company called ‘Departures’. However, it isn’t a travel agency, which would have been honourable, but a company concerned with that other, final departure we all have to face, to an undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller ever returns.

The handling of the dead is, apparently, regarded as far from honourable, leading to terrible shame when the truth finally comes out.

The film deals with issues of life as well as of death, it handles loss and joy, shame and vindication, with sensitivity and poignancy. It explores what it is to be a parent, a partner or a child. It shows how colleagues can react with loyalty and support. Above all, it shows how the sensitive and, in this instance, supremely skilful treatment of a dead body can contribute to making harrowing loss bearable.

A bereavement accompanied can be more bearable
Strongly to be recommended.

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