Director: Yasuo Furuhata
Cast: Ken Takakura as Shuji Yamaoka, Yuko Tanaka as Tomoko Yamaoka, Tomoko
Naraoka as Tomiko Yamamoto, Hisashi Igawa as Yoji Fujieda, Takami Mizuhashi as
Toei Video, 2001, 114 min., DVD
A Korean kamikaze pilot dies in a suicide attack, but his
two Japanese comrades survive the war when one returns due to engine problems
and the other makes a forced landing when shot down and wounded.
The Korean pilot leaves behind a Japanese fiancée, who marries with one of his comrades soon after the end of the war. This story and many
other specific details and incidents of Hotaru (Firefly) are fictional,
but several of the film's characters and episodes are based on actual history.
Hotaru was one of the most popular films in Japan in
2001. The movie received nominations but did not win in 13 categories of the
Japanese Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor (Ken Takakura),
best actress (Yuko Tanaka), best director (Yasuo Furuhata), and best film
score. The movie tries to present many interwoven themes, which ultimately
leads to it falling short of its potential.
Most scenes in the movie take place in Kagoshima, the
southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan. Shuji Yamaoka, a surviving kamikaze
pilot, has lived there with his wife Tomoko since they married shortly after
the end of the war until 1989, the year in which the action takes place. Tomoko
suffers from kidney problems and has been on artificial dialysis for more than
ten years. Yamaoka now has a business of fish farming after having been a
fisherman for many years.
Emperor Hirohito dies in January 1989, and soon thereafter
Yamaoka's war comrade Yoji Fujieda who lives in Aomori Prefecture in northern
Japan comes with his granddaughter Masami to visit Chiran, which served as the
Army's largest sortie base for kamikaze attacks during the Okinawan campaign.
Fujieda visits the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, where he remembers
back to when he sortied in a kamikaze mission but had to return to base because
of engine problems. On the day the war ended, Yamaoka stopped Fujieda
from departing alone on a kamikaze mission by hitting him in the face. Fujieda also talks about the war with
Tomiko Yamamoto, who ran a restaurant in Chiran during the war and treated many
of the young men like her own sons when they visited. Fujieda
tries to contact Yamaoka to see him in Chiran, but he is away from home. A few
days later, Yamaoka finds out that Fujieda committed suicide by wandering out into a snowstorm.
Kanayama (middle) talks with Yamaoka and Fujieda in front of Tomiya
Restaurant (now the Hotaru Museum)
Yamaoka and his wife Tomoko visit Fujieda's grave in Aomori Prefecture,
but Tomoko is hospitalized when she falls ill at the end of the long trip.
Yamaoka goes to Chiran to visit Tomiko, who asks him to return a small bag with
an attached pendant to the family of a Korean kamikaze pilot, Second Lieutenant
Kanayama (or Kim Sonje in Korean), who died during the war and had left the
items with Tomiko before he sortied. Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910,
so during the war Koreans also fought in the Japanese military. Kanayama had
been the senior officer and the friend of both Yamaoka and Fujieda, and he
had also been the fiancé of Tomoko, now Yamaoka's wife. Tomiko wanted to
deliver the items personally to Kanayama's family near Pusan, Korea, but she
cannot due to her weak legs, which have become so bad that she has decided to
move into a senior citizens' home. Many former kamikaze pilots come to a party
for Tomiko before she moves in order to thank her for all she has done for them
over the years.
Yamaoka investigates donating a kidney for a transplant
operation for Tomoko, but she refuses his offer. Masami, Fujieda's teenage
granddaughter, visits Kagoshima again to deliver a note written by her
grandfather to Yamaoka. In the note Fujieda has written his thanks to Yamaoka for his care over
the years and his apology for leaving alone to the place of his war comrades.
He also writes out the oral will that Kanayama recited to Yamaoka and Fujieda
before he sortied to Okinawa.
After Yamaoka and his wife Tomoko go with Masami to visit Chiran
again and to talk with Tomiko, Yamaoka takes Tomoko to the same place next to
the sea where her deceased fiancé Kanayama gave his oral will. Yamaoka recites
Kanayama's will to his wife. Kanayama said he would not die for the Japanese
empire, but rather he would sortie for his family, Korea's families, and
Tomoko. Yamaoka then asks Tomoko to go with him to Korea so he can tell
Kanayama's family the will and return his bag and pendant.
About a dozen of Kanayama's relatives are waiting outside
their home when the Yamaoka and Tomoko arrive. A man shouts at him ,
"Sonje cannot die for Japan! Why did Sonje die, and you a Japanese did not
die?" However, in the midst of stony silence from the Koreans, Yamaoka
reads the words of Kanayama's will and sings the Korean song Arirang,
which Kanayama had sung at Tomiya Restaurant on the night before his sortie. A
few of the Korean relatives seem to soften a little, and the younger sister of Kanayama's
mother accepts the bag and pendant, and she invites them to see a photo of
Kanayama and Tomoko. Yamaoka and his wife visit the graves of Kanayama's parents,
since his family never built a grave for him without word from
Japan on what had happened to him. The movie's final scene takes place 11 years
later in 2000. Yamaoka, without Tomoko, watches as the boat he had with his
wife is burned. As he watches the flames, he remembers his departed wife's
words that she was truly happy living together with him.
Shuji Yamaoka (left) and Tomoko Yamaoka (center) say
goodbye to Masami Fujieda (right) when she leaves Chiran
The title of the movie comes from an incident right before
Kanayama's sortie, when he told Tomiko that he would become a firefly and
return the next day. The young men at Tomiko's restaurant spot a firefly the
next evening, and they silently remember Kanayama. When Yamaoka and Tomoko
visit his parents' graves in Korea, they also spot a firefly and believe that
Kanayama has now come home.
Although several characters in Hotaru are based on
historical figures, many differences exist between the two. Kanayama is a
composite of two actual kamikaze pilots, Second
Lieutenant Fumihiro Mitsuyama and Sergeant Saburo Miyakawa. Out of the 1,036 Army kamikaze pilots who died in
sorties from Chiran and other Japanese air bases during the Battle of Okinawa,
11 were Koreans. On the night before Mitsuyama's sortie, he sang the Korean
song Arirang to Tome Torihama, the historical person who ran Tomiya
Restaurant in Chiran, and her two daughters (Akabane and Ishii 2001, 130-9;
Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha 1990, 15-6). During the evening before Miyakawa's
sortie, he told Tome and her two daughters that he and his comrade Takimoto would return
the following evening at 9 p.m. as fireflies. His comrade returned to base
because of bad weather and went to Tomiya Restaurant that evening, when at
9 p.m. a firefly flew into the restaurant through the front door (Akabane and
Ishii 2001, 156-169; Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha 1990, 27-8).
The movie tries to present the complexity of Japanese and
Korean relations during and after the war, but in the end this issue does not
get explored in depth. Kanayama's background, including his motivation for
joining the Japanese military, remains unknown. Other than the brief
outburst by a member of Kanayama's family about not understanding how Sonje
could die when Yamaoka survived, the viewer gets nothing from the Korean
perspective. The movie mentions that the remains stored in Yutenji Temple in
Tokyo of over one thousand Koreans who died in battle as soldiers in the
Japanese military have not yet been returned to their home country. However, the
movie does not follow up on this issue so the viewer can understand the
Although the movie touches on a number of themes, the
central one seems to be the true lasting love between Yamaoka and his wife
excellent acting by Ken Takakura and Yuko Tanaka, both famous movie stars for
many years in Japan, gives a realism to the relationship between Yamaoka and
Tomoko. After several decades of marriage, they still laugh and have fun
together. Yamaoka shows his love for his wife in such ways as volunteering to
donate a kidney for a transplant.
The character Tomiko Yamamoto is based on the historical
figure of Tome Torihama, who ran Tomiya Restaurant in Chiran and who
treated the young kamikaze pilots as if they were her own sons. Through her
desire to remember the young men who gave their lives, she actively worked
toward the establishment of the Chiran Special Attack Peace Kannon Temple and the Chiran
Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. The portrayal of Tomiko in the movie
generally corresponds with the character of the Tome, who passed away in 1992
at 89 years of age.
Although Hotaru is a fine work as evidenced by the
number of Academy Award nominations it received, the film ultimately does not
achieve its potential. The Korean descent of Kanayama distracts from the main
story of the relationship between Yamaoka and his wife. Although a few pilots
of Korean descent did fly kamikaze missions, this part of the film departs the
most from historical facts since nobody had a Japanese fiancée or said he would
not die for the Japanese empire but rather for the Korean people. Although the
wartime and postwar relation between Korea and Japan is an important topic for
examination, this movie adds little to the discussion since it does not present
the Korean side of the issue. Kanayama's Korean descent does not get revealed
until about halfway through the film, but the Korean references in the last
half of the film, including the climax at the Korean home of Kanayama's
relatives, seems to drown out some other important topics introduced earlier.
The themes best presented in Hotaru are the close
bond between the Yamaoka couple and the silent anguish experienced by the two
kamikaze pilots who survived the war. However, the feelings of the two
surviving kamikaze pilots often remain unspoken, so at times it can be
difficult to understand their thinking. The movie tries to tie together the
death of Emperor Hirohito and Fujieda's subsequent suicide, but this
relationship remains unclear. In summary, this fine movie deserves a watch, but
you may finish with the feeling some issues introduced in the film remain
1. At 1:33:10 in film.
Akabane, Reiko, and Hiroshi Ishii. 2001. Hotaru kaeru
(The firefly returns). Tokyo: Soshisa.
Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha. 1990. Sora no kanata ni
(To distant skies). Fukuoka: Ashishobo.