As an American with a deep interest in WW2 history, I am always curious to see representations of the War from “the other side.” The 2013 Japanese feature film The Eternal Zero 「永遠のゼロ」 tells the story of one contemporary Japanese family’s attempt to understand their grandfather’s death as a kamikaze pilot towards the end of the War. As the 20-something brother and sister conduct a series of interviews with aging Japanese veterans who might have known their grandfather, a rather unexpected image comes into view, both through the veterans’ talk and through flashbacks.
When I lived in Japan as a college student in 1986-87, I found that school-age children there seemed to have very little idea about any atrocities committed by Japanese forces in WW2. The notion that Japan was one of the world’s most peaceful nations remained largely undisturbed in their minds. To me, one of the bittersweet ironies about their blissful ignorance is that I don’t actually think they are wrong; Japanese society as those kids and I and many others know it is quite peaceful and orderly and friendly — which makes it all the more important for anyone alive today to understand how exactly such a nation came to commit the war crimes it did in the 1930s and ’40s. The first time I watched The Eternal Zero I wondered what version of that past I would see. Would it look anything like the American version, compliments of Hollywood and wartime messaging, showing fanatical Japanese pilots of all ages dying for the emperor, almost without a second thought? Or would it be a Japanese neo-nationalist revision of the kamikaze, depicting them as noble warriors who made the ultimate personal sacrifice? Or would it be something else?
It turned out to be something else: the film portrays the protagonist of the war story, Flight Officer Kyuzo Miyabe, as a highly skilled fighter pilot who assiduously avoids direct combat because he has promised his wife that he will come back to her and their newborn daughter. Contrary to all stereotypes, this Zero pilot really wants to get through the war alive! He builds a reputation as a coward and earns the widespread scorn of his compatriots. Because of his skill as a pilot, however, he retains his status and eventually comes to command a “special attack” （特攻 tokkô）¹ training squadron.
Now Miyabe finds himself in an acute moral dilemma. The officer who is so intent on surviving the war has been placed in charge of a cadre of extremely young recruits whose participation in combat will mean certain death for them. What does he do? For one thing, he stalls, rating his trainees as “not yet competent,” no matter how much their skills progress, for as long as he can. When that tactic no longer holds, Miyabe decides that he simply cannot send them to their deaths while he remains alive, and that is when — against all currents in the story up to that point — he resolves to die in a suicide mission. He dies not for the emperor, and far from willingly. And his painful choice is also not driven by any samurai code of honor. He dies because the ethics of the situation as he sees it leave him no choice.
As someone who believes that the way histories are told has the power to affect human choices right now, I care whether this movie has “gotten it right” — in my judgment. For instance, I would not want the film to glorify war or the kamikaze strategy, because that might justify the use of violence and coerced suicide around the world today. Does it? I would say not. Although there is a somewhat controversial scene in which the grandson defends the tokkô pilots as something very different from “terrorists,” as a friend calls them, the film portrays the entire history of suicide attacks as a sad and tragic episode in which young men were made to kill themselves whether they liked it or not, and the film makes it quite clear that they did not want to die. Yet I would also not want the film to do such a good job at repainting the Japanese face of the war that we conclude that the Japan of those years “wasn’t that bad.” I don’t think the film falls into that trap either. There are cruel fanatics in the story, and it does look like a bad time to be Japanese.
Ultimately, what the film does is to humanize the Japanese of the war era. They come across as individuals like anyone else embroiled in the moral and social complexities of wartime. Is that wishful thinking on the part of 21st-century Japanese filmmakers? Surely not. How can we ever really explain the panoply of monstrous actions taken in war — such as the infamous Rape of Nanking, perpetrated by the Japanese army in China, among a multitude of other atrocities committed at one time or another by virtually every nation throughout history — when we know that the vast majority of human beings are basically decent at the personal level, no matter where you find them? The real question is not whether certain countries are “good” and others “bad,” but rather how any country can get its warriors to do questionable, or even monstrous, things. The Eternal Zero offers one possible answer to that timeless, crucial question, and if any modern Japanese viewers were to take the film as license to inch back a bit closer towards aggressive nationalism, I would say that they were missing the point. In fact, this story should give everyone around the world pause when considering extreme nationalism anywhere.
¹In Japanese, the pilots who flew the suicide missions are not referred to as “kamikazes” but rather as tokkô, which is short for 特別攻撃 tokubetsu kôgeki or “special attack” units.
The “Zeke” models pictured here are actually based on the aircraft in The Eternal Zero. Tamiya came out with a version of the A6M5 with decals to match the fictitious squadron shown in the film. I purchased two of the kits so I could show two planes in a situation similar to that depicted in the movie. I struggled with the question of weathering and paint-chipping… Late-war Japanese aircraft seemed to lose a lot of their paint, but I had never tried recreating that look, and I was afraid I might ruin two perfectly good models if I flubbed it. I also knew that they could look really beautiful as fighter planes if I left them pristine, but in the end I went for it, and these are the results.
I used the “lost salt” method of paint chipping, which involves sprinkling salt onto a
water-misted undercoat of silver, letting the salt get dry and a bit crusty, airbrushing over it with the actual color, and then rubbing the salt crystals away when the paint dries. I think it kinda worked, but you can judge for yourself by the gallery below.
Images to accompany comment #3 below: