Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tora! Tora! Tora!

I'm not a big fan of war movies as a general rule, but I saw a bit of TORA! TORA! TORA! on TV some time ago. It appealed to me because of my interest in Japanese films, since it was a U.S.-Japanese co-production and claimed to tell "both sides" of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It certainly does that, and it leaves the American viewer with a certain sense of schizophrenia about it. Well, this viewer anyway.

Because of its very nature, TORA! TORA! TORA! does not have any characters that you could call "villains." On the Japanese side (the side you would expect to be evil in an American war movie), I would say only Hideki Tojo (Asao Uchida) comes across truly poorly. Even his countrymen seem to regard Tojo warily. As for the rest, I would say they come across as men doing their duty for their country. Certainly, if I were to pick out one character in this film as the central figure and "hero," it would unquestionably be Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (So Yamamura). In Yamamura's excellent portrayal, the Admiral is an intelligent and honorable man trying to make the best of a situation that he does not think is wise.

By contrast, the Americans do not have a central figure around whom the story revolves. There are certainly "name" actors (Martin Balsam as Admiral Kimmel, Joseph Cotten as Henry Stimson, James Whitmore as Admiral Halsey, Jason Robards as General Short), but none of them really feels like the focus of the story. The closest I felt the Americans had to a sympathetic figure was E.G. Marshall's Lt. Colonel Bratton, who tries in vain to convince people that something will happen in the Pacific. His character pretty much fades away by the time the attack gets underway.

Not to say that the acting is weak. The American actors are all quite professional, but they suffer in that most of their characters are terribly restrained. The Japanese actors, on the other hand, get to inject a bit more passion into their side of the story. There is a great exchange between Admiral Nagumo (Eijiro Tono) and Admiral Yamaguchi (Susumu Fujita) that I thought exemplified "samurai acting" at its finest. There's also a profoundly odd character among the Japanese (his name escapes me) who I think would have benefited from more screen time. He probably gets it in the Japanese version.

The movie is very long, as you might expect. There are so many characters running around on both sides, and trying to give all of them their due necessitates that the movie be a bit longer than your average potboiler. I didn't so much mind the pacing, partly because of the knowledge that something big was going to happen, and it would be epic.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is an interesting thing. As we watch the Japanese prepare and then take off, I marvelled at how stirring it was. Then, I remembered that they were launching an offensive on the Americans, not on some space monster. Quite a sensation to know that a movie can make you forget exactly what's happening if you get swept into its POV.

The attack itself is a technical triumph, especially considering it dates back to 1970. It's quite lengthy and yet doesn't feel as if it is dragged out at all. There are attempts made to portray the heroism of the American forces, but they are blunted by the honest fact that the viewer hasn't seen these characters before. I can't find myself able to attach too much significance to a pilot who only appeared five minutes earlier, no matter how brave he might seem to be. I had more of a connection with Takahiro Tamura's Lt. Col. Fuchida, one of the Japanese fighter pilots.

The movie ends as it began, with the Japanese forces. Admiral Yamamoto reflects on the mixed victory of the day (the Japanese attack was only a partial success, and their declaration of war was delayed until after it was underway) and realizes that, perhaps, this was only the beginning of the end.

I really liked TORA! TORA! TORA!, partly because of some of its quirks that could be viewed as narrative flaws. An American movie giving a sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese, possibly even over the Americans, is just so bizarre that it's hard not to find it appealing. Of course, I'm sure that is what contributed to the movie's failure at the box office in 1970. How many people wanted to see this kind of movie less than 30 years after the event? As for me, I can't say it convinced me that the Japanese were the heroes (that doesn't seem to be the intent anyway), but it did give me a clearer understanding of what happened and why. There were mistakes made on both sides, and that was why things played out the way they did.

Besides the cast members I've already mentioned, Tatsuya Mihashi (WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY?) and Koreya Senda (BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE) are also featured, and there are bit parts by Japan-based Westerners Harold S. Conway and Mike Daning (Daneen?). Richard Fleischer directed the American side and Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukusaku (who finally managed to gain name value international fame in the last years of his life with the BATTLE ROYALE films) shared Japanese directing duties after the early release of famed director Akira Kurosawa. The DVD has commentary by Fleischer and writer Stuart Galbraith IV (whose name gets misspelled, poor guy). I found it rather interesting, but that's probably the film geek in me showing.

If you are interested in Japanese film or Japanese history, I recommend TORA! TORA! TORA! to you. You might not enjoy it the way I did, but you'll definitely learn something.

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