In keeping with my recent trend toward rewatching some of my favorite movies lately, last night’s relaxation was accompanied by Tora! Tora! Tora!, the 1970 production telling the story that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the impetus, if not the reason, why the United States entered the Second World War. Leaving aside for the moment that there are some serious inaccuracies in the movie and that one of the biggest mistakes the Americans have ever made in their history (which is saying something, given how many horrendous military blunders there have been) was participating not only in WWII but doing so against Japan, it’s a stunning work of cinema that, if you haven’t seen it, you should.
I should probably mention one thing at the beginning. The movie is subtitled. It’s all subtitled. Unless you have good comprehension in both Japanese and English (my spoken Japanese is far from good enough to catch most of it, especially at the speed it flies by), you’ll probably need the subtitles — if subtitles bother you, the movie is fairly evenly divided between the two languages so you’re not going to enjoy yourself. The other thing that’s useful to note is that it is a war movie. The entire thing is about the military actions. The side effects of that are that it’s got a pretty rigid feel to the dialog, which is obviously intentional and quite representative of the reality of the time, and that there are no significant female roles, given that the military of the 40s was pretty misogynist. Sure, there are some token wife-and-girlfriend parts but if you’re looking for something that passes the Bechtel test, look elsewhere. This ain’t it.
In case you don’t know the story of Pearl Harbor, I’ll summarize it quickly for you — the movie does, in fact, get most of the general stuff right. The Japanese government had become highly militarist by the time WWII began and it was already fighting in most of Asia — and doing relatively well. It had conquered Manchuria (a story I am happy to tell you in detail but this is not really the place for a history lesson) and overrun a good portion of the continent. Much of that was done without the consent of the government itself at the time. The military was incredibly powerful but the government was so aggressive they were mostly happy to accept victory regardless of the path that led to it. Anyway, it was seen as unlikely within Japan that America would approve of the conquests in Asia — quite possibly a mistaken assumption but we’ll never know now. And it was accurately assumed that the industrial capacity of the United States would be so incredible compared to anything else the world had ever seen that in a war of attrition, which was doubtless where the conflict was headed, a country the size of America would simply erase Japan from the map unless it could be made to back down and not start fighting in the first place.
While the Emperor, titular head of the Japanese government, in this case the Showa Emperor, was strongly against war, especially preemptive, first-strike war, the military was really calling the shots. The rise of State Shinto and a craze of population-wide devotion to racial and cultural triumphalism meant that war was coming — and it would be war on a scale never before seen, war with America. It was quite clear to everyone that the only way to win a war against America was not to have to fight one, to simply avoid a real war by making it unpopular enough that the American government wouldn’t engage. The destruction of the Navy, for example, would be so overwhelming that by the time it was restored to the point of being able to attack Japan, the general public would never support the kind of protracted war necessary to do the job, especially since the rest of the war would likely be over by that point. That was the theory and Admiral Yamamoto sees it as his only hope. He might indeed have been correct but, as his luck would have it, the real power of the navy at that point had shifted to naval aircraft launched from carriers, which weren’t in harbor at the time of the attack.
So the movie follows the path of the American intelligence and military services trying to figure out what was going on both in Tokyo and in Washington while the Japanese navy prepared for a decisive attack. The attack, by the way, was incredibly well planned and executed — the problem was that war hadn’t yet been declared, due to what can be seen as the most disastrous clerical error in recorded history. The United States decided to punish Japan for this in the only way the brutal militarists of the west knew how, pounding the island nation back to the stone age with its military might. It took four years and the development of atomic technology to do it, plus the stated intention of the Soviet Union to enter the war and fight the Japanese, too, but a nation the size of a continent did indeed blast one a fraction of its size into starvation and the resulting occupation.
I do appear to be talking quite a bit about WWII-era Japan in recent posts and, if that is not interesting to you, I apologize. It is a topic that I have found interesting most of my life but it’s not one I often write about so you’ll be happy to know this is more coincidence of what movies I’ve decided to talk about than an ongoing discussion for me.
The story out of the way, this movie has some interesting things beyond its plot. One is that it’s probably the first truly successful movie filmed in multiple languages for a western audience. There have certainly been plenty of movies not in English — some of the earliest ones, in fact, spanned the language spectrum. And there have been great movies on both sides of the Pacific since movie film was perfected. But that’s not what I mean. This movie doesn’t just have a few lines in a foreign language — it’s got about half in English and half in Japanese, meaning that it is alienating to everyone who watches it. Even if you’re a Japanese-American, the American side will feel alienating because you’re not for the American military’s perspective on the Japanese and the Japanese side will feel alienating since the country had devolved so far into the pockets of the military commanders, it had pretty much lost its cultural identity for a decade or so. That shock to the mind is something I have seen in other movies since but never anything before that point.
There was another movie made a few years later that tells much the same story, mostly from the American side (Midway), which is an excellent movie, too, and I’d highly recommend watching both, probably back to back, since it gives a totally different perspective. But it doesn’t come from the perspective of understanding, more from the perspective of seeing just how stupid people can be when they get fired up and want to fight.
What’s more interesting about this movie, though, is the story that it tells. It was courageous. At a time when most people alive well remembered the war, even if they were just children, Pearl Harbor was a sore spot in the American collective consciousness. To tell the story not just from the perspective of the Japanese commanders responsible but to tell it accurately was brave in a way being militarist never could be. You see, the highest level of the naval command in Japan went on record against the whole operation. The imperial position was that war should be avoided at all costs. The people who wanted this to happen were the army, who wasn’t going to fight the battle at all, and the less senior commanders, mostly those who hadn’t actually had to fight a real enemy and were happy to send Japanese domination all over the world. Those somewhat parodied positions were all too common in American media at the time, both the time of the war and the time of the movie’s release, portraying Japan as a country of barbarians and war-mongers who couldn’t be trusted.
This flew in the face of those assumptions and did so in a rather dramatic way — especially the last scene, which I would propose as being one of the most moving reflective moments in all cinematic history.
For most of its history, Japan was relatively pacifist with a few short-lived exceptions. World War II happens to be one of them but it has become the most obvious example of east-west relations in the minds of many Americans even to this day (as can be seen in the popularity of the recent remake of Midway in 2019). From internment camps to occupation forces, American treatment of the Japanese was unforgivable but it is a part of the past that has often been overlooked in a way that fighting against Germany or even the Civil War couldn’t ever be. That’s because fighting in Europe can be spun (inaccurately) to be about fighting for principle and the Civil War can be seen as fighting for freedom, which might even be somewhat legitimate as a lens. Fighting against Japan, especially fighting against Japanese civilians, both those living in America and those still in Japan, was nothing but shameful and it’s something that has been diminished in collective media memory ever since. It’s striking that this movie, one of the very few to do so, talked about it so openly and drew attention to something a whole hemisphere wanted to keep quiet.