In terms of its narrative
and visual style, Junya Sato's big-budget, CGI-enhanced
World War II epic Yamato draws heavily from two
landmark Hollywood films: reigning all-time box office
champ, Titanic, and Steven Spielberg's classic
war opus, Saving Private Ryan. In and of itself,
this traceable lineage neither helps nor hinders Yamato,
but one cannot help but notice the sheer number of similarities
and their subsequent effects, both positive and negative,
on this big screen take on a real-life tragedy.
Putting that issue aside for
the moment, it might be best to address the film's subject
matter which - on title alone - will likely be evident
to most Japanese citizens: the Yamato, the largest
battleship in the entire Japanese Imperial Navy. On
April 6, 1945, the crewmen of the formidable Yamato
were sent on a suicide mission to attack the US fleet
near Okinawa. But without the luxury of air support
to back them up, the Japanese forces did not prevail.
In fact, the American aircrafts proved too much for
the Yamato, and it sank, killing some 2, 475 Japanese
sailors in the process.
Like Titanic and Saving
Private Ryan before it, Yamato begins with
a frame story. On the eve of the sixtieth anniversary
of the sinking of the Yamato, a woman named Makiko Uchida
(Kyoka Suzuki), who turns out to be the adopted daughter
of a Yamato survivor, attempts to find a boat captain
daring enough to bring her to the site of the wreckage.
Through a minor twist of fate,
she finds herself a seafaring escort in the form of
an elderly fisherman named Kamio (legendary actor Tatsuya
Nakadai, from Yojimbo and Sword of Doom).
After some initial hesitancy, Kamio decides to help
her, as it turns out that not only is he a Yamato survivor
but that Makiko's father was Petty Officer Uchida (Shidou
Nakamura), a man he befriended all those years ago.
Cue flashback here.
With intermittent return trips
to the present day, Yamato turns its attention
to the year 1944, with a group of inexperienced young
sailors hopping aboard the Yamato. Two of the men highlighted
are Kamio (now played by Kenichi Matsuyama), and the
klutzy Nishi (Kenta Uchino). Although there are many
more characters introduced, the film emphasizes two
in particular: petty officers Moriwaki (GTO's
Takashi Sorimachi), and Uchida (Nakamura). The ensuing
scenes involve a trial by fire for these young recruits,
and emphasize the budding sense of camaraderie that
quickly emerges from this grueling initiation process.
But as these friendships and individual storylines begin
to develop, they do so in the shadow of the inevitable,
as the date nears for their total annihilation.
Director Junya Sato delivers
the rare war film, one which valorizes the soldiers
without endorsing the war aims of their superiors. To
be sure, there is a certain strain of nationalistic
sentiment, but it either manifests itself in a sort
of vague notion of a "Japanese spirit" or is counterbalanced
by critiques or pointed questioning. And unlike certain
other war films, the dissenting opinions do not emerge
from the characters marked as "cowards," and are thus
treated on equal, if not elevated terms.
Yamato achieves another
rare feat in that it is a war movie with no villains.
True, the Americans are the de facto opposition, but
they are faceless enemies devoid of any substantial
negative connotations. Japan's involvement in World
War II comes across almost as if it is a fact of life,
not as if it emerged from any sort of actions taken
by the Japanese government. On one hand, Sato can be
complimented for not churning out a propaganda film,
but on the other, audience members may feel that his
apolitical treatment of the Yamato tragedy is a blown
opportunity to criticize the Japanese war effort.
Of course, it would be out
of the bounds of the storyline to bring up Japan's wartime
atrocities, but even within the constraints of the film's
subject matter, there's ample room to critique Japan's
war policies. Namely, how and why could the Japanese
government condemn so many young men to die for no reason
whatsoever? The film touches on this, but it really
only goes so far as to give a somewhat convenient "after
the fact" justification for the question: "What does
it mean to die for a nation, especially if that death
Saving Private Ryan is, of course, the benchmark for depictions of war,
and the gory, sudden, and altogether inglorious demises
of many of the sailors in Yamato is almost as
brutal and chaotic as it is in Spielberg's classic war
film. Strangely though, there's an unreal glossiness
to much of the movie that immediately disappears when
the war scenes commence, which then proceeds to reappear
once more the gunfire subsides. In that sense, Yamato sometimes feels like a live action video game, as things
return to status quo once the fighting's over.
Yamato's debt to Titanic isn't just in its frame story. Like its predecessor,
this film is a melodrama, and in Yamato's case,
it is too often a clichéd one. And worst of all, the
"emotional" moments are poorly staged. To wit, there
is a scene in which an officer tells his young recruits
- most of them still in their teens - how to prepare
themselves for death. He then proceeds to tell them
to express their sorrow and call out to their loved
ones. Consequently, the young men run to the railings
of their ship and essentially "cry home to Mommy." I
don't mean to be flippant about the concept itself (it
actually could have made for some effective drama),
but the terrible acting on display here makes the whole
scene feel phony, incompetently manipulative, and very
much out of place.
And really, how many scenes
must we get of the elder Kamio's eyes tearing up when
he learns more about Makiko, Uchida, or the Yamato?
This repeated focus on Kamio's unseen reaction robs
the film of the emotional impact that the story so clearly
deserves and the filmmakers seemingly hope to foster.
And let's not forget the repeated scene in which two
different soldiers' loved ones reveals that they're
headed for Hiroshima. One scene like this makes for
sad cosmic irony; two equals unintentional comedy.
Thankfully, the inclusion of
Takashi Sorimachi and Shido Nakamura does much to enliven
the film. Last seen in films like Fearless and Be With You, Nakamura transforms himself into
an unpredictable, yet honorable wild man of sorts for Yamato, and although his performance can be over-the-top
at times, the energy his character projects is a welcome
sight. Furthermore, the chemistry he has with Sorimachi
is palpable, so much so that it makes you wish the filmmakers
would have focused on drawing that relationship out
a bit more. It certainly would have helped ramp up the
emotion of the film's already action-packed climax.
And if the core of this film
is the depiction of the friendship among the Japanese
sailors, then Yamato spreads itself a bit too
thin. It's not just about how Moriwaki, Uchida, and
Kamio became pals, it's about any number of different
friendships. In this respect, Yamato seems to
be a film that wants to be about the individual costs
of war, yet somehow speak for every single soldier on
the boat. It thus casts a very large net, incorporating
various smaller storylines into the larger narrative.
As a result, the "bond" that forms between the main
characters is downplayed or ignored in favor of certain
narrative detours, all of which take away from the main
plot. It also doesn't help that many of the young recruits
are rather wooden and interchangeable. And if you really
want to be a stickler: if this is Kamio's flashback,
how does he know about everyone's individual war experience?
But even with these many faults
- and an overlong running time to boot - Yamato isn't a failure. The film's pointed interest in the
experience of the common soldier is pretty much its
saving grace. Although the approach has its drawbacks,
the ability to glorify the soldiers without resorting
to petty jingoism is a welcome deviation from the war
movie formula. Sure, its attempts to elicit tears from
its audience seem ham-fisted and unnecessary. But ignoring
that, Yamato, thanks to its strong acting performances
and a purely apolitical message makes for an intriguing,
if not wholly satisfying experience. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)