The unsung, drowned tragedies of war
In 1944 flocks of Japanese students joined the army to become martyrs in a war against the United States that could no longer be won. Next to the infamous suicide airplanes, the ‘kamikaze’ (‘divine wind’), there existed also manned torpedoes. They were named ‘kaiten’, which means ‘return to heaven’. A lugubrious concept rarely seen in the mainstream, until this 2006 film.
Koji Namiki is a promising baseball player. Just like many of his fellow students he is whipped into a frenzy to defend the country. When he decides to volunteer for kaiten duty, we follow his long, arduous training and how his friends and family deal with it. Scenes inside the submarine, where Koji and the others are waiting for the signal to launch themselves, are nigh impossibly tense. These young people are ready to sacrifice themselves, but their dedication is put to the test by cruiser attacks and failing engines. When the launch is postponed again and again, we see Koji flail around at wit’s end. These are no nationalistic caricatures in a hero poem, but terrified youngsters burning with desperation and powerlessness.
It’s all too easy to see these pilots as fanatics who blew themselves up out of blind patriotism. Deguchi No Nai Umi attempts to bring a more nuanced image. They were ordinary students taken in by a nationalism they didn’t even understand. With propagandistic school songs they were drilled to give their lives for the emperor, but an important other factor was the social pressure not to be outdone by classmates signing up. All these themes are given room in Deguchi No Nai Umi. It’s an impressive war film that presents the drama on a small scale and because of that manages to be chillingly effective at times.