Film shoots down old image of kamikaze

By David McNeill

Trying to imagine Toshio Yoshitake as a wild-eyed 21-year-old hunched over in the cockpit of a flying bomb is not easy.

Yet this kindly pensioner with the easy laugh was once one of a legendary squad of Japanese pilots who terrorised the United States Navy fleet in the Pacific as it inched toward invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Long before 9/11 and today's suicide bomber came the kamikaze, or tokkotai (special attack unit) as they were known in Japan. Like the jihad martyrs of the Middle East, the World War II kamikazes were depicted as desperate, fanatical men who burned with hatred for the US and were ready to die for their god, the emperor.

But a new documentary shows a different story.

In Wings of Defeat, directed by Japanese-American Risa Morimoto, the dwindling group of ageing pilots who survived express sadness, regret and even anger at their leaders, who told them they were fighting madmen who would kill them all.

"They thought they were fighting to end all wars, and they were lied to - as we are being lied to now in Iraq," Morimoto told the Japan Times.

Launched as the US began its attack on the Philippines in 1944, the kamikaze wave damaged or destroyed 300 US warships by flying bomb-laden planes straight at them though a blizzard of anti-aircraft fire.

The strategy cost the lives of about 5000 Japanese men barely out of their teens, who had no chance of turning the tide against the US juggernaut.

Like Morimoto's interviewees, Yoshitake's survival was a fluke.

On the way to attack US ships in the Philippines his plane was shot down and he crashed and was badly injured. He still has nightmares.

"In my dreams I'm trapped in my burning plane on Mactan, trying to escape. But my legs won't move."

In the documentary, former pilot Masaaki Kobayashi says the pilots "thought we were fighting and giving our lives for our families and our comrades".

Wings of Defeat arrives amid a burgeoning revisionist movement led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which is attempting to rewrite the history of Japan's wartime past, and hot on the heels of a very different movie.

In I Go To Die For You, written by Tokyo's right-wing Governor Shintaro Ishihara, the pilots are eulogised as self-sacrificing heroes.

"The worries, sufferings and misgivings of these young people ... are something we cannot find in today's society," Ishihara said after the movie was released this spring.

"That is what makes this portrait of youth poignant and cruel, and yet so exceptionally beautiful."

Nationalists often glorify the kamikaze as "falling cherry blossom petals".

According to Kazuo Watanabe, who helped compile a book of the secret writings of young Japanese soldiers, the imagery and the relentless barrage of wartime propaganda helped force the men to strangle their emotions and "accept the irrational as rational".

Japan has several museums dedicated to the kamikazes; the largest in Kagoshima Prefecture is visited by half a million people every year.

Morimoto was persuaded to come to Japan from her native New York and interview survivors after learning that her beloved uncle was once a tokkotai pilot. Until then, she says all her images of the kamikaze were from US propaganda movies, which were completely at odds with the "kindly, gracious man" she knew.

After years of silence, the former pilots relished the chance to explain their experiences. One even criticised wartime Emperor Hirohito.

Producer Linda Hoaglund told a Tokyo press conference that when they showed it to the US survivors of kamikaze attacks, some cried.

"For the first time they realised they were just high-school boys back then, shooting at other high-school boys," Hoaglund said.

"It took 60-plus years for them to realise that."

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