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Taiheiyō no Tsubasa (Wings of the Pacific)
Director: Shūe Matsubayashi
Scriptwriter: Katsuya Susaki
Special Effects Director: Eiji Tsuburaya
Cast: Toshirō Mifune as Commander Senda
   Yūzō Kayama as Lt. Shirō Taki
   Makoto Satō as Lt. Teppei Yano
   Yōsuke Natsuki as Lt. Nobuo Ataka
   Yuriko Hoshi as Miyako Tamai
Toho, 1963, 101 min., DVD

Near the end of World War II, top Japanese military leaders adopted suicide attacks as their main strategy to stop American forces advancing on the Japanese mainland, but certain senior officers never fully agreed with this approach. The 1963 film Taiheiyō no Tsubasa (Wings of the Pacific) depicts the historical exploits of Naval Air Group 343 commanded by Capt. Minoru Genda (name changed to Senda in film), who strongly opposed the use of kamikaze tactics. He formed an air group with top fighter pilots, each flying a new Shiden-Kai fighter plane considered superior to the Zero, in order to regain air superiority over Japan. While Genda had some initial successes, the vastly outnumbered Air Group 343 could never regain control of the air over the Japanese mainland and stop American forces. Despite that, the film portrays Genda as a strong leader with a magnetic personality and his three squadron leaders as heroes who fought fearlessly until their deaths. Taiheiyō no Tsubasa depicts with realism the emotions of Japanese naval fighter pilots who fought to protect their homeland in the last year of the war.

Even though this film generally presents suicide attacks in a negative light, two Air Group 343 squadron leaders decide on their own against Commander Senda's direct orders to make suicide attacks. Senda makes very clear to Naval Staff officers and his men that he firmly opposes suicide attacks, but the movie also clearly implies that Senda, despite few words on the subject, considers these two squadron leaders to have died as heroes. One short scene, before Air Group 343 pilots have fought any battles from Matsuyama Airfield, depicts a squadron of five kamikaze pilots in an exaggerated and comic manner as they strut with false bravado and taunt the Air Group 343 pilots for their cowardice even though several had fought multiple air battles before they returned to Japan. Regarding the suicide mission of the battleship Yamato when it left Japan to fight in Okinawa, the film portrays the naval leaders' decision as foolish but the crew's bravery as admirable. This movie's thoughtful presentation of suicide attacks shows the complexity and controversy of this issue in Japan even many years after the war's end.

Taiheiyō no Tsubasa features exceptional acting, a tightly focused storyline, and high-quality special effects for its time. Toshiro Mifune, Japan's most famous actor, plays the charismatic Commander Senda, who shows himself to be a strict but caring father figure to his men. Each of Air Group 343's three squadron leaders and the film's only female character do an excellent job in creating memorable characters and in portraying the anguish and terror of war. These three actors and one actress each continued to perform in numerous films for several decades into the 21st century. Although the movie deals seriously with the subject of war, a couple of characters provide humorous moments throughout the film. In addition, the third-rate English-speaking actors on the PT torpedo boat and B-29 bomber also unintentionally provide some good laughs with their lines. The movie has a good mix of action and crisp dialogue, with the film's emphasis always on human relationships rather than fighting. Each scene in the movie either quickly moves the plot forward or reveals something about the main characters' emotions and personalities. Eiji Tsuburaya, who did the special effects for the original Godzilla movie in 1954 and many other films, used models for the movie's several air battles. Although it is clear that the pilots are on a stage and the planes are models, the overall quality of special effects far exceeds even some recent low-budget Japanese war films.

Although this movie is based generally on the history of Air Group 343, a few incidents never took place. Also, specific details differ from actual history, and names have been changed. As mentioned before, the film's Commander Senda was Genda in real life. The actual Air Group 343 had three ace squadron leaders: Lt. Naoshi Kanno (Squadron 301), Lt. Yoshishige Hayashi (Squadron 407), and Lt. Takashi Oshibuchi (Squadron 701). They all died in battle, but much later in the war and in different ways than shown in the movie (Sakaida and Takaki 2003, 15-17, 205). The scene where Air Group 343 pilots go to see off the battleship Yamato on her way toward Okinawa has no basis in history. Despite several discrepancies between the film and actual events, for the most part Taiheiyō no Tsubasa accurately portrays key events related to Air Group 343's formation, initial battle success, and eventual defeat.

At the beginning of the movie, Japan's Naval Staff meets at headquarters in Tokyo to discuss what can be done to stop advancing American forces that have destroyed hundreds of Japan's warplanes during 1944. Two staff officers explain that Japan has about 5,000 planes in reserve, but Senda points out that these will not solve the problem due to lack of fuel and the low quality of these remaining planes that include even trainers in the total number. Vice Admiral Ōnishi states that all 5,000 planes should be used in "special attacks" (tokko in Japanese) in which they crash into enemy ships. Although Admiral Oikawa, Chief of Naval Staff, and the other staff officers agree with Ōnishi's position, Senda argues that the Navy needs to regain command of the air by forming an elite group of new fighter planes. He expresses his strong opposition to kamikaze attacks and believes the key to a turnaround will be to live and fight to take control of the air. Oikawa approves Ōnishi's plan for kamikaze missions, but he also allows Senda to go forward with his proposal. At the end of the meeting, Senda shows the Naval Staff a Shiden-Kai, the new fighter to be used by his unit. The new plane has four 20-mm guns and more advanced capabilities than the Navy's current Zero fighter.

Senda selects three top pilots to be his squadron commanders. He considers these men to have battle experience, skills, and character to be leaders of men in his new elite unit, Air Group 343, based at Matsuyama Airfield on the Japanese island of Shikoku. These three men, scattered throughout the Pacific, each receive a telegraph message to proceed to Matsuyama at whatever risk. The first part of the movie tells the story of how each man returns to Japan even though none of them has a plane when they receive the orders to return. The film's middle part covers the formation and battle success of Air Group 343. The final part shows how each squadron leader dies bravely in defense of the country.

Lt. Nobuo Ataka and his squadron are first shown in the film as they hide in an Iwo Jima cave waiting for the American invasion as planes bomb the small island. In order to rendezvous with a submarine, at night his squadron uses motorboats to escape between enemy ships already surrounding the island. However, the next day an American plane finds the motorboats and strafes them, killing several men. After it becomes dark, the submarine picks up the only two survivors, Ataka and another pilot. Ataka sends the following telegraph message to Commander Senda when he reaches the submarine, "My heart is already in Matsuyama."

Lt. Teppei Yano and his squadron are relaxing on a beach in Rabaul, where they have no plane or boat to escape the island. When they spot an American PT torpedo boat patrolling off the shore, they trick the crew to come ashore to investigate what they think is a downed American plane. Yano's squadron steals the PT boat and heads toward Japan. Along the way they mistakenly launch two torpedoes toward a Japanese destroyer, which barely dodges them and then fires its artillery at the PT boat. Yano excitedly sends a message by semaphore flags to the destroyer's signalman, who recognizes that they are Japanese Navy men and sends a message by semaphore to the men on the PT boat, "You idiots."

Lt. Shiro Taki and his squadron are fighting in mountainous jungles in the Philippines. The Navy arranges for them to use a transport plane to get back to Japan, but they must first drive through the mountains to get to the airfield. Guerillas attack and then later two planes strafe their truck, causing the deaths of five men in Taki's squadron. When they finally reach the airfield, Taki receives a telephone call from a staff officer requesting that one man be selected for the next day's kamikaze attack, the last one scheduled in the Philippines. A stranded pilot who previously met Taki's squadron in a ground battle volunteers for the suicide mission, but the next day he first shoots down two American fighters attacking the slow and heavy transport plane leaving the Philippines with Taki's squadron. Four men in Taki's squadron die from the two enemy planes' strafing, and the right fuel tank also starts leaking badly. Taki must order his men to throw out all nonessential items, including the four dead bodies. The plane just makes it to Tainan Air Base in Taiwan, and they proceed immediately to Matsuyama.

When all squadron leaders and pilots reach Matsuyama Airfield, Commander Senda delivers a passionate speech about his battle philosophy. His address includes the following statements that make clear his firm opposition to kamikaze attacks: From now on you will value your lives. Making body-crashing attacks has recently become popular, but people are not bombs. Fight in a splendid manner. Survive and fight until the very end. Do not let go of the control stick even if you can only move one finger. You will not do ramming attacks or blow yourself up. Anyone who dies is such a way, I consider him to be a coward who abandoned the war!

While the squadron leaders and other officers of Air Group 343 relax together one evening, five kamikaze pilots come strutting in to proclaim proudly that the next day they will sortie toward Iwo Jima. One kamikaze pilot asks them why they returned to the mainland (with the implication they are cowards), but Ataka calmly replies, "To fight." Another kamikaze pilot doubts the response and asks why they fled in their planes when there was an air raid on Matsuyama, but Taki coolly responds, "To fight." In this incident, Senda had ordered his reluctant men to flee since the enemy planes were bombers rather than fighters. The Shiden-Kai fighters used by Senda's air group were designed to be most effective in battles with other fighters rather than bombers. After Taki replies, one kamikaze pilot thrusts his sword into the floor and yells at them to shut up. Yano, laughing as usual, takes up the sword, throws an apple into the air, and cuts the apple cleanly in two in midair. Yano's skill in wielding the sword most likely refers to Air Group 343's popular name, Tsurugi Butai (Sword Force).

The time to fight (one day earlier than actual history) arrives when the American task force approaches close to mainland Japan on March 18, 1945. Senda in his underground command bunker receives a report that 400 enemy planes are approaching Japan, with 100 of these heading toward Matsuyama. The Americans bomb and strafe Matsuyama Airfield, and Senda finally gives attack orders to his three squadrons in the air. They fight an intense battle with the Americans in the skies over Matsuyama, and Japanese pilots win most of the dogfights. Both naval personnel and civilians come out of their bunkers to cheer the pilots winning the air battle. When the pilots return to base, Senda indicates that Air Group 343 through their skill and teamwork had downed 63 planes in comparison to only 15 Japanese planes lost, but the number of American planes destroyed is quite overstated in comparison to actual history.

The Naval Staff admirals meet again in Tokyo and compliment Senda on his battle results. Admiral Oikawa asks Senda to be responsible for an expanded geographic area, but Senda has serious concerns that he does not have enough planes to stop the enemy over such a wide area. After leaving the meeting, Senda runs into Admiral Ito, who says that he has received orders to take the battleship Yamato on a special attack (suicide) mission toward Okinawa with fuel for only one way. He also mentions that one of Senda's pilots had dropped a flying boot on his head when he stood on Yamato's deck, but he took the incident with good humor since a message inside the boot read, "Yamato, Banzai!"

Men dominate this film, and only one woman, Miyako Tamai, has any lines of dialogue. When she comes to Matsuyama to find out details of her brother's death, she is shocked when Taki tells her that he had to throw out her brother's dead body from the transport plane on the way from the Philippines. Although she gets over the shock after a few days and comes to Taki to apologize, he tells her that it's best for her to always hate him. He says to her that it would be a lie for a kind-hearted woman to not hate him. He explains that he fights to protect the country so that kind-hearted Japanese women may live within a beautiful Japan. Before running off in tears, she says, "Please do not die!"

When reports come in of 30 P-51 fighters heading toward Japan from Iwo Jima, Senda only has enough planes to send up one squadron. The three squadron leaders draw lots, and Yano gets the assignment to meet the enemy fighters with his squadron's 16 Shiden-Kai fighters. However, Yano gets wounded in battle from an American fighter's strafing. He manages to land at Matsuyama Airfield, but he dies from his wounds even before he can get out of the cockpit. Taki expresses his anger by taking his plane alone to go after the Americans, but he soon gets into trouble with American fighters on his tail. However, Senda goes after his rash squadron leader, shoots down one of the enemy planes, and orders Taki to return to the airfield.

Pilots in Air Group 343 express with sadness that the battleship Yamato will have no air cover on her way toward Okinawa, so they ask their commander to see this symbol of Japan's military might one last time. Senda lets his pilots go so long at they turn back to Matsuyama at the designated time of 0800. Yamato's officers and crew react with wild enthusiasm when they see Air Group 343's fighters, but the planes start to return at the designated hour. However, four pilots, including Ataka and the pilot who previously had dropped his flying boot on Yamato, ignore Senda's orders and go back to fight with the giant battleship against a huge wave of approaching enemy planes. Senda later reports to his men that Yamato sank on the way to Okinawa when attacked by over 400 enemy planes. Without any criticism, Senda also announces the death in battle of four of his men who fought in the skies over Yamato.

Air Group 343's fighters scramble when American fighters and B-29 bombers approach, but both Senda on the ground and Taki in the air witness many Shiden-Kai fighters getting shot down. Taki then finds himself alone when he spots a squadron of B-29s far below him. The B-29 flight commander announces to the squadron's crewmen in unnaturally calm English, "There's a kamikaze diving down on us from one o'clock high. I think it means to get one of us." In spite of this announcement, Taki does not actually begin his dive until more than a minute later. The voice of Miyako, hiding from the American bombing in an underground shelter, expresses her thoughts, "Perhaps I am the person who hates this war more than anyone, and you [Taki] are the person fighting more fiercely than anyone. However, the war will surely end sometime." Senda orders Taki to return to base, but he does not respond and disconnects his radio. As Taki examines the huge bombers below, he remembers Miyako's words, "Please do not die!" He then goes into a steep dive and rams one of the B-29 bombers. Both planes go down in a fiery explosion.

This thoughtful movie provides excellent entertainment and a convincing depiction of Air Group 343's formation, exploits, and ultimate defeat. Toshiro Mifune portrays Commander Senda as a strong leader not afraid to oppose suicide attacks advocated by Japan's naval leaders. A strong supporting cast depicts Senda's three squadron leaders as courageous young men willing to die for their country even though not as part of officially-sanctioned kamikaze attacks.

Source Cited

Sakaida, Henry, and Kōji Takaki. 2003. Genda's Blade: Japan's Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai. Hersham, Surrey, UK: Classic Publications.