Commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, the battleship Yamato is a fitting metaphor for the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire during World War II. Reflective of Japan’s ambitions, she and her sister ship Musashi were the largest battleships ever made. The name Yamato itself is telling too—it is an ancient name for Japan, and a term often used to describe the Japanese ethnicity. Like the Empire of Japan, the Yamato met her bloody end in 1945. In April of that year, the Japanese Navy sent her and eight smaller escorts on Operation Ten-Go, a suicide attack meant to thwart the American invasion of Okinawa. Needless to say, the operation failed. The US Navy threw 386 planes, 11 aircraft carriers, six battleships, 11 cruisers, and over 30 destroyers at the Japanese force. With no air cover, the Yamato was hit numerous times and exploded in a massive mushroom-shaped cloud. Less than a tenth of her crew survived.
Sixty years later, the 2005 Japanese film Yamato relives this tragedy on screen. Its title’s literal translation, “The Men of the Yamato”, is probably more reflective of the film’s content than simply “Yamato”. Adapted from a book of the same name by writer Jun Henmi, Yamato follows a group of young recruits and older enlisted men serving as anti-aircraft gunners aboard the battleship.
The film opens in the present day. At Kure Harbor, a woman seeks someone who can take her to the location where Yamato sank. She meets Katsumi Kamio, an old fisherman who initially spurns her request but changes his mind after discovering that she is the adopted daughter of Petty Officer Mamoru Uchida, a comrade of his who he thought had died aboard the Yamato. As they set off in Kamio’s fishing boat, the main narrative spills forth through extended flashbacks.
In 1944, Kamio and a group of teenaged recruits are assigned to the Yamato. They are subject to exceptionally harsh discipline, but soon come to respect, and gain the respect of, Petty Officers Uchida, Moriwaki, and Karaki, who have served on the Yamato since its launch. The recruits soon get their first taste of combat at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and begin to realize that war is not the glorious affair propaganda depicts.
Like with most war films, Yamato carries themes of disillusionment and loss. Scenes alternate between sea and land, and we get a view of what everyone has to lose when the ship embarks on Operation Ten-Go: Kamio has a mother and girlfriend in Kure, Moriwaki has a wife and newborn son, and Uchida has a geisha girlfriend. While this gives context to the men’s sacrifice, the film ultimately implies that what they fear losing the most is each other.
With that said, Yamato feels like a cross between Letters from Iwo Jima and The Pacific, with elements of Saving Private Ryan sprinkled into its present-day framing narrative. As a war film, it isn’t particularly groundbreaking in message nor technique. There’s the brotherhood of war, the heat of battle, and a stirring soundtrack by renowned composer Joe Hisaishi, but nothing horribly revelational à la Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Though character development is decent overall, backstories occasionally feel somewhat abridged, leading us to wonder whether the film would work better as a miniseries.
The film is still a solid piece though. It’s a war movie and not an art installation, and it performs its duty well, using tried-and-true methods to tell a story that hasn’t been given a proper movie treatment in either Japan or the West. Social context is an important judging filter here, because Saving Private Ryan-esque World War II movies are (unsurprisingly) rather rare in contemporary Japan. In this sense Yamato is a rare specimen, one whose subject matter, if not form, brings some fresh substance to viewers.
Yamato (Japanese: 男たちの大和)—Japan. Directed by Junya Sato. First released December 2005. Running time 2hr 25min. Starring Kenichi Matsuyama, Nakamura Shidō II, Takashi Sorimachi, and Tatsuya Nakadai.