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Kamikaze pilot plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata as another pilot
turns score in Gekkō no Natsu
(Summer of the Moonlight Sonata)

Films - Japanese

Since the end of the American occupation of Japan in 1952, many Japanese films have presented stories about the Pacific War. Bailey (1996) explains that these movies in the 1980s and 1990s rarely "signaled any renascent lust for military glory. On the contrary, what most frequently marks this particular genre is the presentation of Japanese as misunderstood innocents, victims in particular of the horrific atomic blasts." Japan's soldiers and pilots in these films are generally "portrayed as reluctant warriors." Recent movies starring kamikaze pilots fall into this category.

Although in recent years war films in Japan have decreased in popularity, a wide audience has seen four films released since 1993 about kamikaze pilots. These popular movies have influenced current Japanese perceptions about kamikaze pilots more than any other source. This section contains detail reviews of these four movies:

  • Gekkō no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) (1993) - Two kamikaze pilots visit an elementary school to play the grand piano there before they depart on their final mission. Search for two pilots in 1989 uncovers that one pilot is still alive, and he returns to the same elementary school to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
  • Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) (1995) - Professional baseball pitcher dies as a kamikaze pilot at age of 22 in May 1945. He throws ten straight strikes before departing on suicide mission.
  • Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old) (1998) - Three young kamikaze pilots visit a small inn near Chiran Air Base before they depart on their final mission. They make friends with the young girl who lives at the inn, and one pilot has a love affair with her single mother during his one-night visit.
  • Hotaru (Firefly) (2001) - A Korean kamikaze pilot dies in a suicide attack, but his two Japanese comrades survive the war. The Korean pilot leaves behind a Japanese fiancée, who marries with one of his comrades soon after the end of the war.

Hotaru (Firefly), one of the most popular Japanese films in 2001, received 13 Japanese Academy Award nominations. Gekkō no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata), seen by over 2.1 million people, received recommendations from Japan's Ministry of Education, National Congress of Parents & Teachers, and Japan Film Society. Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), an independent film not released commercially, received recommendations from the same three groups. Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old) was a television movie broadcast by TBS in 1998. 

The four movies have several similarities. They do not show any extended battle sequences but rather only brief scenes showing pilots being shot down during their flights to Okinawa. Each film has a significant part of the action that portrays mainland Japan in the first half of 1945, when the Japanese military was fighting a defensive war and launched mass kamikaze attacks from air bases in southern Japan. Excluding Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), the other three films use flashbacks to show kamikaze attacks from Chiran Air Base, the Army's largest sortie base for kamikaze attacks on Allied ships around Okinawa. These three films address how characters living today in the films relate to wartime events. Although these three films are based on actual historical incidents, many of the characters and details are fictional. The film Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old) has the most fictional incidents, whereas the writer of Gekkō no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) did extensive research to ensure the historical accuracy of many events portrayed in the film. The scriptwriter altered names and certain details in order to protect the privacy of the kamikaze pilots still living. The three movies all feature a visit of the present-day characters to the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, which displays about 4,000 photos, final letters, and articles left behind by Army kamikaze pilots who died during the Okinawan campaign.

Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) has several differences when compared to the other three films. The action takes place entirely during the war without use of flashbacks, and the film's use of black-and-white rather than color gives the movie an atmosphere of realism. The main character dies in an attack made by the Navy's kamikaze corps, whereas the other three films depict Army kamikaze pilots. About 65% of the roughly 3,900 Japanese kamikaze pilots who died in the war came from the Navy, and 35% came from the Army (Shirai 2002, 22). In contrast to the fictional stories of the other three films, Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) presents the biographical story of one kamikaze pilot.

Women play important roles in each of the four films. A Korean kamikaze pilot is engaged to be married to a Japanese woman in Hotaru (Firefly), and the newly married wife of the pilot in Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) dies during an American aerial bombardment. One of the three pilots in Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old) has a love affair with the woman who runs the inn where he stays the night before his kamikaze mission. Although Gekkō no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) does not emphasize romantic love, the movie's main character is a women teacher who hears the two pilots play her school's grand piano before their departure and who meets one of the pilots again when he returns to the school after she in 1989 successfully saved the old piano from being thrown away. The emphasis on romantic love in three of the movies is a departure from historical reality. Almost no kamikaze pilots during the war were married, and very few had girlfriends or fiancées. Most pilots were in their late teens or early twenties, and they had little opportunity to develop continuing relationships since they often transferred between air bases or were stationed outside mainland Japan. Also, arranged marriages were still prevalent in Japan during the war.

All four movies portray kamikaze pilots in an idealized manner, with focus on their kindness, loyalty, and commitment. One film has two kamikaze pilots who love piano playing and another film portrays a pilot crazy about baseball, both which are interests far removed from combat. No film shows the pilots as fierce warriors, but they are portrayed as courageous in the face of certain death. Hotaru (Firefly) and Gekkō no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) feature pilots who survived the war even though they flew on kamikaze missions. They returned to base due to engine problems or after being attacked by enemy planes. These pilots suffered from a sense of guilt for a long time since they by chance survived when their comrades died in battle. 

Several older Japanese films also tell stories of kamikaze pilots or other special attack force members. These films set during the war do not include flashbacks, and they show more battle scenes and more interaction between men in the military than the four films produced since 1993.

  • Ningen Gyorai Kaiten (Human Torpedo Kaiten) (1955) - Four men in kaiten (manned torpedo) corps go on mission in I-58 submarine to attack American ships. Two kaiten get launched from ship and sink an oil tanker and destroyer. Afterward, I-58 sinks heavy cruiser Indianapolis with conventional torpedo attack. Two remaining kaiten pilots later sink destroyer to save I-58 from depth charges.
  • Aa tokubetsu kōgekitai (Ah, Special Attack Corps) (1960) - Young pilots transfer to Hyakurihara Air Base for training in kamikaze squadron where they talk together about life and war. One newly married pilot's wife sees him off in a black kimono. Another pilot's love interest gets killed in front of his eyes in an aerial bombing attack.
  • Taiheiyō no Tsubasa (Wings of the Pacific) (1963) - The Naval Staff decides to use suicide attacks against Allied ships to try to stop their advance. Commander Senda opposes this strategy and forms an elite unit to make conventional aerial attacks. Famous actor Toshiro Mifune plays role of Senda.
  • Shutsugeki (Sortie) (1964) - Several groups of pilots depart from Chiran Air Base on kamikaze attacks. One newly married pilot sorties and returns three times when plane or engine develops problems in route, but he crashes into the shore at the end of film during a test flight. Gives personal vignettes of other pilots.
  • Saigo no Tokkōtai (The Last Kamikaze) (1970) - Fictional account of 24 kamikaze planes and 12 escort planes that make attack on final day of war. Commander of kamikaze unit makes successful hit on aircraft carrier even though wounded. When lieutenant who commands escort planes hears of Japan's surrender, he flies alone in a Zero as the last kamikaze. Famous actor Ken Takakura, who plays a surviving kamikaze pilot in Hotaru (Firefly), plays role of commander of kamikaze unit in this movie.

In 2005 and 2006, three popular commercial films were released that deal with special attacks by sea:

  • Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean (2005) - Characters in this action thriller portray differing attitudes toward Japan's wartime suicide attacks, but the film highlights the heroism of a high-tech sub's crew who undertake a suicide mission against the American Pacific Fleet to ensure a future for the younger generation in Japan.
  • Otokotachi no Yamato (Yamato: The Last Battle) (2005) - Depicts battleship Yamato's suicide mission to Okinawa. Some characters protest the needless waste of lives, but film pays homage to men who sacrificed their lives for their country with no hope of victory.
  • Deguchi no nai umi (Sea without exit) (2006) - Four men in kaiten squadron on suicide mission display extreme emotions when they cannot be launched from submarine. Stars former pitcher for college baseball team who dies in a kaiten practice run in preparation for his second suicide mission.

A variety of documentaries cover the history of Japan's special attack forces, including the following ones recently released. 

  • Tokkō: Kuni yaburetemo kuni wa horobizu (Special attacks: Although the country was defeated, it has not fallen) (2001) - Fascinating film with extended interviews of surviving kamikaze pilots. Shows museums with kamikaze exhibits and sites of former kamikaze air bases, including those in Philippines. Numerous historical photos shown during documentary. Broadcast by Fuji Television on August 16, 2001.
  • Tokkō (Special attacks) (1998) - Two videos with first part covering October 1944 to January 1945 and second part covering January to May 1945. Straightforward recounting of history of special attack forces. Very similar to typical English-language documentary, with many U.S. Navy film clips of kamikaze attacks. Also has many clips taken by Japanese media.
  • Isho: Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (Last Letters: Special Attack Corps) (no date given) - Focus on 24 last letters written by kamikaze pilots, one kaiten pilot, and Vice Admiral Ohnishi, who initiated kamikaze attacks in the Philippines in October 1944 and committed suicide after hearing of Japan's surrender. Wartime film clips and special attack history interspersed between presentation of letters.

Hokui 15° no Dyuo (15 Degrees North Latitude Duo), filmed entirely in the Philippines, portrays two Japanese actors who visit the significant places associated with Japan's first Kamikaze Special Attack Unit.

Fūon (The Crying Wind), filmed on location in Okinawa, features a kamikaze pilot's skull in which present-day Okinawan villagers find meaning as it makes a crying sound when the wind passes through a bullet hole in the skull's left side.

The animation film Matsuo Keiu to sono haha (Keiu Matsuo and his mother) idealistically portrays the life of Navy Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo, who gave his life in a midget submarine attack at Sydney Harbor during the night of May 31 and June 1, 1942.

Kaiten crew in Deguchi no nai umi (Sea without exit)

Sources Cited

Bailey, James. 1996. Bombing at the box office: War films no longer stir Japan's imagination. Asiaweek.com. <http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/96/0816/feat5.html> (November 15, 2003), link no longer available.

Shirai, Atsushi. 2002. Tokkōtai to wa nan datta no ka (What were the special attack forces?). In Ima tokkōtai no shi o kangaeru (Thinking now about death of special attack force members), Iwanami Booklet No. 572, edited by Atsushi Shirai. Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten.

See Bibliography for additional information about films mentioned on this web page.