Admiral Yamamoto (Rengo kantai shirei chokan – Yamamoto Isoroku, or “Combined Fleet Admiral – Isoroku Yamamoto,” 1968) is one of a long line of war epics produced by Japan’s Toho Studios featuring elaborate miniature special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, et. al. This one, directed by Seiji Maruyama, is a bit different, functioning partially as a biopic of one of the few Japanese “heroes” of the Pacific War, a man whose reputation, at least among the Japanese, remains unimpeachable. Yamamoto, played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, vehemently opposed Japan waging war against the United States and the other Allies, recognizing America’s vastly superior industrial might against a Japan notably lacking in natural resources. Nonetheless, he was one of the architects behind the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s early victories in late 1941 and early ’42.
Postwar Japanese movies about World War II generally fall into one of four categories. A tiny number, mostly confined to a handful of movies produced by Shintoho in the late 1950s and into 1960, whitewash Japan’s militarists and their culpability. Others, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-61) trilogy, uncompromisingly depict the war as it truly was, a great tragedy during which Japan inflicted unimaginable harm on both foreign peoples and its own citizenry. A third type, exemplified by Kihachi Okamoto’s Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Human Bullet (1968), are grimly comical and cynical.
Toho specialized in the fourth type, large-scale epics full of romanticized action and spectacle similar to concurrent American-made war movies like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). However, these films temper iconography recognizable to western viewers with equal sobering doses of bitter reality, through protagonists recognizing the great folly that ultimately leaves Japan in ruins and a generation of men wiped out for nothing.
That particular sub-genre peaked with Shue Matsubayashi’s marvelous Storm Over the Pacific (also known as I Bombed Pearl Harbor, 1960), the biggest of these big-scale productions, and which co-starred Mifune. In that film he played a real-life admiral named Tamon Yamaguchi, though Mifune’s characterization was virtually indistinguishable from his later portrayal of Isoroku Yamamoto, a role he’d go on to play twice more (in Toho’s The Militarists, 1970, and the American film Midway, 1976). Matsubayashi had himself been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy, and brought to Storm Over the Pacific and his other war movies a verisimilitude lacking in almost all other films of this type. He’d been there, even aboard a ship sunk by Allied fighter planes. He saw these films as sad memorials to his fallen comrades.
By 1968, when Admiral Yamamoto was made, domestic box-office figures were plummeting fast industry-wide, mainly due to the growing popularity of television, in virtually every household since tuning in for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Undoubtedly Admiral Yamamoto was prompted partly by Akira Kurosawa’s widely publicized deal to co-direct the 20th Century-Fox financed Tora! Tora! Tora!, a long-in-gestation multi-million-dollar epic from which Kurosawa was notoriously fired shortly after filming began, and which, unfortunately for Kurosawa, brought the controversial production even more press.
Toho’s decision to make Admiral Yamamoto amidst all this couldn’t have pleased Kurosawa, especially with longtime muse Mifune in the title role, to say nothing of the myriad other actors (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Masayuki Mori), writers (Shinobu Hashimoto) and others (composer Masaru Sato) with which Kurosawa was so closely associated.
Dramatically, Admiral Yamamoto is a mixed bag. It’s so damn reverential Mifune has little opportunity to be anything more than a God-like pillar of stoic and savant-like wisdom, but there are many nice moments throughout. The picture opens well, in 1939 Japan where Yamamoto, back in his hometown of Nagaoka, enjoys a leisurely boat ride along the local river at the height of cherry blossom season. He challenges the skilled boatman (Ryutaro Tatsumi) punting him downriver to bring him to shore while Yamamoto stands on his head. This attracts a lot of attention and the two men eventually end up in the drink, much to Yamamoto’s delight. This is neatly bookended late in the film when Yamamoto encounters the boatman’s son on the battlefield.
The movie integrates facets of the historical Yamamoto’s personality well: his love of gambling, his passion for (Japanese) calligraphy, in addition to his various successful and (mostly) unsuccessful naval strategies. What it does not show or ever even vaguely allude to is any aspect of Yamamoto’s private life. His wife and four children are never mentioned once, nor the Geisha mistress he reportedly kept (according to the wife). Quite possibly this was a deliberate decision for legal or other reasons (the film, after all, was made barely 25 years after Yamamoto’s death) but their absence hinders Mifune’s and the screenwriters’ efforts to humanize the character.
In other respects the movie soft-pedals Yamamoto’s personal contributions to Japan’s militarism. In one fascinating scene, it is Staff Officer Kuroshima (Yoshio Tsuchiya), one of Yamamoto’s adjuncts, who delivers and makes the case for Yamamoto’s proposal to attack Pearl Harbor rather than the admiral himself. This might be historically accurate, but it also seems a deliberate attempt to downplay Yamamoto’s culpability for what was a tremendously successful sneak attack with disastrous long-term consequences for Japan.
As with virtually all other Toho war movies of this type, a significant amount of screen time is allotted to a younger supporting character, always played by a rising Toho star. In Storm Over the Pacific the role of the idealistic young pilot was played by Yosuke Natsuki; in Matsubayashi’s Wings Over the Pacific (also known as Attack Squadron!, 1963), also starring Mifune, it was Yuzo Kayama; and here it’s fresh face Toshio Kurosawa as 1st Lt. Kimura, a poor farm boy Yamamoto helped get into the Naval Academy. Here, with the focus squarely on Yamamoto, more than ever this subordinate character seems to exist solely because there had always been one like it in Toho’s past successes, and that the studio was loathe to tamper with a proven formula.
And, as in past Toho war films, virtually every male actor under contract to the studio, along with a few big independent names, appear in Admiral Yamamoto: Daisuke Kato, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi (that’s three of Mifune’s Seven Samurai co-stars), Yuzo Kayama, Makoto Sato, Masayuki Mori, and Susumu Fujita, as well as talent familiar to kaiju eiga fans, including Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya. Yoko Tsukasa and beautiful Wakako Sakai turn up in token female roles, and Tatsuya Nakadai narrates.
Declining attendance figures seems to have impacted the film’s budget. This may be the first Toho special effects feature to utilize extensive stock footage from earlier successes. Toho was already doing this to a lesser extent in its giant monster movies, but never to this extent. For Admiral Yamamoto, nearly all of the attack on Pearl Harbor and much of the Battle of Midway are special effects lifted from Storm Over the Pacific while footage from Wings Over the Pacific turns up elsewhere.
However, Eiji Tsuburaya and his Toho Special Effects Group team still came up with several impressive effects sequences. The first is involves an effort to drop barrels containing food, presumably rice, off the coast of Guadalcanal, hoping it will reach the starving Japanese soldiers marooned there. As the stranded men desperately swim toward the dropped barrels, enemy fighters arrive and begin strafing and bombing the light cruiser transporting the food, eventually sinking it while the doomed men frantically try to swim back to shore and the relative safety of the jungle. The effects shots are a complex mix of miniatures and well-executed mattes and represent some of the department’s best-ever work in a Toho war movie.
(Spoilers) For the film’s climax, Tsuburaya’s team recreated the downing of the bomber carrying Yamamoto over Bougainville. The sequence matches historical records of Yamamoto’s death pretty closely, and yet the miniature effects are almost poetic in the way they are photographed. Indeed, they’re more stylized and cinematic than all but a few of the live-action scenes.
Admiral Yamamoto arrives on DVD from an unexpected source: Spain’s Tema label, which also released Storm Over the Pacific, Wings Over the Pacific and a few others simultaneously. The DVD is a real deal, just 8,25 Euros (USD $11.23) versus the usual $50-$65 Toho Video typically charges for its own domestic DVDs, and those are without English subtitles. Here, Admiral Yamamoto is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital mono in both Japanese and Castilian Spanish, supported by Castilian Spanish and English subtitles. The English subtitles aren’t great, with their share of typos (e.g., “Scared War Unit” instead of “Sacred War Unit.” “Ensing Kimura” instead of “Ensign Kimura”) and a few lines of dialogue here and there aren’t subtitled at all, but overall it’s a decent job.
The region 2/PAL video transfer, 16:9 enhanced and thus preserving the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is surprisingly good. Extras include a photo gallery and original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Admiral Yamamoto rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Photo gallery, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and Spanish
1968 / Color / 2.35:1 CinemaScope / 130 min. / Street Date April 9, 2013 / Euro 8,25
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Tsukasa, Toshio Kurosawa, Makoto Sato, Daisuke Kato, Masayuki Mori, Wakako Sakai, Koshiro Matsumoto..
Cinematography Kazuo Yamada
Art Director Takeo Kita
Music Masaru Sato
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Seiji Maruyama, and Katsuya Susaki
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya
Directed by Seiji Maruyama