To think of Japan in the context of World War Two is to immediately think of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the epochal image of the mushroom cloud remains a continual reminder of what was then an escalation of (nuclear) violence unlike any other, with “effects of radiation and devastation on a human scale never before imaginable (Chow, 3).” Indeed, Japan’s post-war national identity centered around its victimhood:
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki became icons of Japanese suffering––perverse national treasures, of sort, capable of fixating Japanese memory of the war and what had happened to Japan and simultaneously blotting out recollection of the Japanese victimization of others (4).”
Certainly, Japan fell victim to what was undeniably an atrocity of the highest order. The U.S.’s absolute belief in its own exceptionalism––a fixation on Japan as racially and morally inferior to itself, which was undeserving of the violence of war––justified the atomic bombings as pacific acts. But Japan’s current image of pacifism––codified in legal terms by the constitution drafted by American scholars during U.S. occupation––denies the criminality of Japan’s invasion of China and Korea, and its legacies of rape, torture and violent imperialism.
Japan has sustained a “national victimology and phantasm of innocence,” actively promoting a peace-loving ethos through purposeful forgetfulness and denial; still to this day, school curriculums fail to properly address Japanese militarism, and the country has offered only limited (and half-hearted) apologies to its victims. Contemporary filmic representations of World War Two from the Japanese viewpoint chronicle the country’s continued rhetoric of victimhood, and reveal rising attitudes favoring nationalism and militarism.
The Eternal Zero (dir. Takashi Yamazaki, 2013) dramatizes WW2, focusing on the story of Kyuzo Miyabe (Junichi Okada), a member of the Special Attack Unit, or “tokkōtai,” known commonly as kamikaze suicide squadrons. The film was hugely successful, earning more than eight billion yen at the box office, becoming one of the top ten highest grossing Japanese films of all time. Despite its popularity, the film did engender controversy: was it just a “creepy, weepy apologia for the war (Leheny)?” Famed Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki, who also made a film about a ‘Zero’ fighter, vehemently disapproved:
“They’re trying to make a Zero fighter story based on a fictional war account that is a pack of lies…They’re just continuing a phony myth, saying ‘Take pride in the Zero fighter.’ I’ve hated that sort of thing ever since I was a kid.”
But the film garnered praise from political leader, Shinzo Abe, then the Prime Minister of Japan. Abe described himself as “deeply moved,” a sentiment echoed by his wife, Akie Abe, who wrote on Facebook that she “couldn’t stop crying,” and that the film “made [her] really think about how we should never wage war again, and we should never, ever waste the precious lives that were lost for the sake of their country.”
Akie Abe’s words ring true with Takashi Yamazaki, the film’s director, who has defended The Eternal Zero against criticism of war glorification: “The film depicts the war as a complete tragedy, so how can you say it glorifies war? I’d like [the critics] to explain that. I really don’t get it.” Yamakazi’s humanistic approach clearly muddies any attempt to avoid romantic nostalgia––though he attests to “[trying] to suppress” the “hanky-wringing sentimentality” that characterizes older Japanese war films. The Eternal Zero is undeniably melodramatic, failing to conceal its right-wing nationalistic (and militaristic) edge.
World War Two is presented in the film as a series of flashbacks, framed to us through the words of the “generation that lived through it (Watanabe).” In modern-day Japan, siblings Kentaro (Haruma Miura) and Keiko (Kazue Fukiishi) embark on a journey to research their late grandfather Miyabe. Many of those who knew their grandfather, echo militaristic rhetoric, claiming that he was a “coward,” who did not want to die for the sake of Japan. The Eternal Zero frames Miyabe as a (rebellious) figure of moral superiority, his will to live antithetical to the kamikaze ethos, but still rooted in a desire for the nation’s strength: “No one… is meant to die like this. For the sake of Japan after the war… They are the ones who ought to have lived on.” But the film confuses itself with its anti-war sentiment.
When Miyabe dies, he sacrifices himself in the stead of fellow pilot Kenichiro Ōishi (Shōta Sometani). Miyabe switches his own faulty plane with that of Kenichiro, leaving his prized photo of his wife and child and a note requesting him to take care of them. Kenichiro lives on, and fills the void that Miyabe leaves, as if destined to marry his wife Matsuno (Mao Inoue) and father his child Kiyoko. Miyabe volunteers for this kamikaze mission––a decision uncharacteristic of his earlier depicted anti-war sentiments, and whose motivation is never quite developed. When Miyabe accepts his fate, he flies his plane into an American aircraft carrier. As he does, the film’s theme song begins––obviously coding this moment (and all war-related moments) as tragic but righteous. Miyabe deftly avoids the counter-attacks of the Americans (notably the first and only time we see Americans, they exist otherwise in the film as a faceless enemy), soaring up into the air and then downward, preparing for his death; his face gives way to a smile, the film ending on a close-up of this strange image of heroism.
The Eternal Zero doesn’t just glorify war, it falsifies history. And the film doesn’t have to concern itself in plot with the specific atrocities carried out by the Imperial army to do so. It weaponizes the same “global narrative of the universal history of humanity” that validates the country’s perception of its own innocence. The choice to focus entirely on the emotional, “human drama,” and only depict the war “as a backdrop,” falls trap to precisely the “hanky-wringing sentimentality” that Yamazaki claims to avoid.
Shinzo Abe’s fondness for Yamazuki’s film then, can be explained by its similarity to his own “nationalistic brand of revisionist history.” This September Abe retired as the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history. During his eight year run, he firmly established his right-wing conservatism, echoing Trumpian sentiment in “restoring Japan’s pride and national identity (Harris, Wang).” Abe, belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party (the conservative party which has been in nearly continuous power since 1955), has made it his agenda to “normalize Japan,” that is, to revise the constitution, removing its pacifist tenets and rehabilitating the country’s military.
And although the greater Japanese public has been hesitant towards Abe’s militaristic agenda, their “fascination with the military has been growing (Rich).” What is perhaps more concerning though is that Abe’s “appeal to nostalgia and nationalism” has already translated into school curriculums, worsening what was at first a scarcity into a virtual absence: “[twenty] years ago, all mainstream history books at secondary schools carried information about the ‘comfort women’, the Korean and Chinese victims of colonization who were trafficked into sex work for the Japanese army. Now none do (Surak).” Nippon Kaigi (“Japan Conference”), a right-wing organization with neo-imperialist goals, boasts a large number of parliamentary members, who have helped enforce this scholarly suppression of information.
In preparation for The Eternal Zero, director Yamazaki spoke to surviving tokkōtai pilots. After that experience, he spoke to reporters saying: “the war is not a legend or a folk tale––it’s an event that has real impact on the present. We are living in a continuation of the world the people of that time made…All of us, me included, have to think about what that means.” Yamazaki stumbles over his own statement; his film presents a nostalgic fantasy of war, one in which victimhood wholly erases Japanese war crimes. In spite of criticism received, the film’s immense popularity communicates a rise of nationalism and a co-existing politically-unengaged youth. Will Japan ever confront its past?
*“Zero” refers to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft used in war
** It should be noted that Eternal Zero is based on a novel written by Naoki Hyakuta, who is not just close to Abe, but ultra-nationalist. Hyakuta has actively expressed his historical revisionism, making a shameful claim that the Nanjing massacre never happened.
David, Leheny. “Op-Ed: Shinzo Abe’s appeal to nostalgia and nationalism.” Los Angeles Times, 2 August 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-01/shinzo-abe-japan-nationalism-parliament-elections-postwar-history. Accessed 30 October 2020.
John, Watanabe. “The Eternal Zero: Propaganda in the service of present day militarism.” World Socialist Web Site, 2 April 2014, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/04/02/zero-a02.html. Accessed 30 October 2020.
Kristin, Surak. “Shinzo Abe and the rise of Japanese nationalism.” NewStatesman, 15 May 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2019/05/shinzo-abe-and-rise-japanese-nationalism. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Lee, Maggie. “Film Review: ‘The Eternal Zero.’” Variety, 12 April 2014, https://variety.com/2014/film/asia/film-review-japanese-hit-the-eternal-zero-1201155266/. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Leheny, David. “Op-Ed: Shinzo Abe’s appeal to nostalgia and nationalism.” Los Angeles Times, 2 August 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-01/shinzo-abe-japan-nationalism-parliament-elections-postwar-history. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Maggie, Lee. “Film Review: ‘The Eternal Zero.’” Variety, 12 April 2014, https://variety.com/2014/film/asia/film-review-japanese-hit-the-eternal-zero-1201155266/. Accessed 30 October 2020.
Mark, Schilling. “Debate still rages over Abe-endorsed WWII drama.” The Japan Times, 20 February 2014, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/02/20/films/debate-still-rages-over-abe-endorsed-wwii-drama/#.U40-OyhdBGU. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Mark, Schilling. “Flights of fancy – box office smash The Eternal Zero reopens old wounds in Japan with its take on wartime kamikaze pilots.” South China Morning Post, 11 May 2014, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/1508179/flights-fancy-box-office-smash-eternal-zero-reopens-old. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Rich, Motoko. “A Pacifist Japan Starts to Embrace the Military.” The New York Times, 29 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/world/asia/korea-missile-japan-pacifism.html. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Sieg, Linda. “Lower voting age leaves many wondering ‘Where’s Japan’s Bernie?’” Reuteurs, 30 June 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-election-youth/lower-voting-age-leaves-many-wondering-wheres-japans-bernie-idUSKCN0ZG39T. Accessed 31 October 2020.
Watanabe, John. “The Eternal Zero: Propaganda in the service of present day militarism.” World Socialist Web Site, 2 April 2014, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/04/02/zero-a02.html. Accessed 31 October 2020.