2013 was a good year for Japanese aviation fans. Hayao Miyazaki released his magnum opus The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (the man behind the famous Mitsubishi Zero-sen fighter) and Takahashi Yamazaki came out with The Eternal Zero, which like the Miyazaki animation, also features the Zero-sen. Yamazaki’s film is a refreshing take on the men who flew the Zero-sen, as the last film along these lines was Zero Pilot, a 1976 classic based on Japanese ace Saburo Sakai’s autobiography.
The air combat genre (if there even was one) finds its roots in the WWI aviation film Wings (1927) and stays alive thanks to advancements in aviation technology and subsequent wars that lend themselves to more varieties of stories. World War Two is an oft-visited conflict, the subject of hundreds of these films; and The Eternal Zero joins the ranks of 1940s period aerial combat classics such as Battle of Britain (1969) and Dark Blue World (2001).
The Eternal Zero follows the journey of Kentaro Oishi (played by Haruma Miura), a young man in present-day Japan. Oishi seeks the truth about his real grandfather, Kyuzo Miyabe (played by Junichi Okada), a kamikaze pilot who died under mysterious circumstances in 1945. Initially, Kentaro and his sister Keiko (played by Kazue Fukiishi) hear nothing but stories of cowardice and incompetence from frustrated old fighter pilots that flew with their grandfather. However, the siblings eventually begin to unravel the truth behind Miyabi’s character and unwillingness to die–they were the result of a promise that he made to his wife (Mao Inoue) to return from the war alive.
Like The Wind Rises, The Eternal Zero pays close attention to the aircraft involved, particularly Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero-sen, arguably the world’s finest fighter in WWII’s early days. It features two main variants of the Zero-sen: the early-war A6M2 Type 21, and late-war A6M5 Type 52. Unlike Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), which utilizes later model Type 52s anachronistic for December 7, 1941, The Eternal Zero accurately portrays Type 21s during that attack and the subsequent 1942 Battle of Midway. Type 52s make an appearance later in the movie as the war progresses and, finally, the two variants are accurately seen side-by-side as Japan’s resources begin to run low and its military is forced to deploy obsolete aircraft on kamikaze missions.
In addition to his accuracy in representing the different variants of Zero-sens, Yamazaki explores some interesting aspects of the Pacific Air War, particularly from the perspective of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service (IJNAS). For example, because the Imperial Japanese Navy lost the majority of its carriers six months into the Pacific War during the Battle of Midway, a large portion of air operations were conducted from island bases such as Formosa and Rabaul. Pilots are seen regularly transferring between islands in the film, and this allows for some interweaving paths between the cast. Another aspect of the film that I liked (as a student of military history) was how fatigued the (few remaining) IJNAS pilots that survived to the final days of the war are portrayed. By 1945, tasked to escort kamikaze pilots to their targets, Miyabe is distraught and depressed, feeling useless against the onslaught of superior American fighters that make his mission impossible.
However, The Eternal Zero, thanks to its depiction of kamikaze pilots and Japan’s constitutional enshrinement of pacifism, received just about as much flak from the Japanese public as the real-world Mitsubishi Zero received from US Navy anti-aircraft guns. Present-day Japanese aren’t too keen on movies that glorify the kamikaze, and Hayao Miyazaki himself criticized the film, calling it “a pack of lies” and “a phony myth”. I personally didn’t see the movie as one that glorified the kamikaze or war in general, and Yamazaki also rejected such claims on the basis that he felt “the film depicts the war as a complete tragedy”, asking “how can you say it glorifies war?… I really don’t get it”.
Controversies aside, The Eternal Zero leaves its mark on me as an incredibly poignant movie. Yamazaki tells a touching, well-imagined, and immaculately researched story that focuses on the humanity of soldiers instead of wartime heroism and action–a very different approach compared to the gung-ho action-packed air combat films that defined the genre.
The Eternal Zero (Japanese: 永遠の0)–Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Takashi Yamazaki. First released December 2013. Running time 2 hr 24min. Starring Junichi Okada, Haruma Miura, and Mao Inoue.