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Takashi Sorimachi and Shidou Nakamura in Yamato
Japanese: 男たちの大和  
Year: 2006  
Director: Junya Sato  
Producer: Haruki Kadokawa  
  Cast: Takashi Sorimachi, Shidou Nakamura, Yui Aoi, Kyoka Suzuki, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kenichi Matsuyama
  The Skinny: The sinking of the famed Japanese battleship Yamato, as filtered through the lens of Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. Although clichés abound, the performances and the completely apolitical approach make it an intriguing, if not wholly satisfying experience. Based on the book by Jun Henmi.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

In terms of its narrative and visual style, Junya Sato's big-budget, CGI-enhanced World War II epic Yamato draws heavily from two landmark Hollywood films: reigning all-time box office champ, Titanic, and Steven Spielberg's classic war opus, Saving Private Ryan. In and of itself, this traceable lineage neither helps nor hinders Yamato, but one cannot help but notice the sheer number of similarities and their subsequent effects, both positive and negative, on this big screen take on a real-life tragedy.

Putting that issue aside for the moment, it might be best to address the film's subject matter which - on title alone - will likely be evident to most Japanese citizens: the Yamato, the largest battleship in the entire Japanese Imperial Navy. On April 6, 1945, the crewmen of the formidable Yamato were sent on a suicide mission to attack the US fleet near Okinawa. But without the luxury of air support to back them up, the Japanese forces did not prevail. In fact, the American aircrafts proved too much for the Yamato, and it sank, killing some 2, 475 Japanese sailors in the process.

Like Titanic and Saving Private Ryan before it, Yamato begins with a frame story. On the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the sinking of the Yamato, a woman named Makiko Uchida (Kyoka Suzuki), who turns out to be the adopted daughter of a Yamato survivor, attempts to find a boat captain daring enough to bring her to the site of the wreckage.

Through a minor twist of fate, she finds herself a seafaring escort in the form of an elderly fisherman named Kamio (legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai, from Yojimbo and Sword of Doom). After some initial hesitancy, Kamio decides to help her, as it turns out that not only is he a Yamato survivor but that Makiko's father was Petty Officer Uchida (Shidou Nakamura), a man he befriended all those years ago. Cue flashback here.

With intermittent return trips to the present day, Yamato turns its attention to the year 1944, with a group of inexperienced young sailors hopping aboard the Yamato. Two of the men highlighted are Kamio (now played by Kenichi Matsuyama), and the klutzy Nishi (Kenta Uchino). Although there are many more characters introduced, the film emphasizes two in particular: petty officers Moriwaki (GTO's Takashi Sorimachi), and Uchida (Nakamura). The ensuing scenes involve a trial by fire for these young recruits, and emphasize the budding sense of camaraderie that quickly emerges from this grueling initiation process. But as these friendships and individual storylines begin to develop, they do so in the shadow of the inevitable, as the date nears for their total annihilation.

Director Junya Sato delivers the rare war film, one which valorizes the soldiers without endorsing the war aims of their superiors. To be sure, there is a certain strain of nationalistic sentiment, but it either manifests itself in a sort of vague notion of a "Japanese spirit" or is counterbalanced by critiques or pointed questioning. And unlike certain other war films, the dissenting opinions do not emerge from the characters marked as "cowards," and are thus treated on equal, if not elevated terms.

Yamato achieves another rare feat in that it is a war movie with no villains. True, the Americans are the de facto opposition, but they are faceless enemies devoid of any substantial negative connotations. Japan's involvement in World War II comes across almost as if it is a fact of life, not as if it emerged from any sort of actions taken by the Japanese government. On one hand, Sato can be complimented for not churning out a propaganda film, but on the other, audience members may feel that his apolitical treatment of the Yamato tragedy is a blown opportunity to criticize the Japanese war effort.

Of course, it would be out of the bounds of the storyline to bring up Japan's wartime atrocities, but even within the constraints of the film's subject matter, there's ample room to critique Japan's war policies. Namely, how and why could the Japanese government condemn so many young men to die for no reason whatsoever? The film touches on this, but it really only goes so far as to give a somewhat convenient "after the fact" justification for the question: "What does it mean to die for a nation, especially if that death seems pointless?"

Saving Private Ryan is, of course, the benchmark for depictions of war, and the gory, sudden, and altogether inglorious demises of many of the sailors in Yamato is almost as brutal and chaotic as it is in Spielberg's classic war film. Strangely though, there's an unreal glossiness to much of the movie that immediately disappears when the war scenes commence, which then proceeds to reappear once more the gunfire subsides. In that sense, Yamato sometimes feels like a live action video game, as things return to status quo once the fighting's over.

Yamato's debt to Titanic isn't just in its frame story. Like its predecessor, this film is a melodrama, and in Yamato's case, it is too often a clichéd one. And worst of all, the "emotional" moments are poorly staged. To wit, there is a scene in which an officer tells his young recruits - most of them still in their teens - how to prepare themselves for death. He then proceeds to tell them to express their sorrow and call out to their loved ones. Consequently, the young men run to the railings of their ship and essentially "cry home to Mommy." I don't mean to be flippant about the concept itself (it actually could have made for some effective drama), but the terrible acting on display here makes the whole scene feel phony, incompetently manipulative, and very much out of place.

And really, how many scenes must we get of the elder Kamio's eyes tearing up when he learns more about Makiko, Uchida, or the Yamato? This repeated focus on Kamio's unseen reaction robs the film of the emotional impact that the story so clearly deserves and the filmmakers seemingly hope to foster. And let's not forget the repeated scene in which two different soldiers' loved ones reveals that they're headed for Hiroshima. One scene like this makes for sad cosmic irony; two equals unintentional comedy.

Thankfully, the inclusion of Takashi Sorimachi and Shido Nakamura does much to enliven the film. Last seen in films like Fearless and Be With You, Nakamura transforms himself into an unpredictable, yet honorable wild man of sorts for Yamato, and although his performance can be over-the-top at times, the energy his character projects is a welcome sight. Furthermore, the chemistry he has with Sorimachi is palpable, so much so that it makes you wish the filmmakers would have focused on drawing that relationship out a bit more. It certainly would have helped ramp up the emotion of the film's already action-packed climax.

And if the core of this film is the depiction of the friendship among the Japanese sailors, then Yamato spreads itself a bit too thin. It's not just about how Moriwaki, Uchida, and Kamio became pals, it's about any number of different friendships. In this respect, Yamato seems to be a film that wants to be about the individual costs of war, yet somehow speak for every single soldier on the boat. It thus casts a very large net, incorporating various smaller storylines into the larger narrative. As a result, the "bond" that forms between the main characters is downplayed or ignored in favor of certain narrative detours, all of which take away from the main plot. It also doesn't help that many of the young recruits are rather wooden and interchangeable. And if you really want to be a stickler: if this is Kamio's flashback, how does he know about everyone's individual war experience?

But even with these many faults - and an overlong running time to boot - Yamato isn't a failure. The film's pointed interest in the experience of the common soldier is pretty much its saving grace. Although the approach has its drawbacks, the ability to glorify the soldiers without resorting to petty jingoism is a welcome deviation from the war movie formula. Sure, its attempts to elicit tears from its audience seem ham-fisted and unnecessary. But ignoring that, Yamato, thanks to its strong acting performances and a purely apolitical message makes for an intriguing, if not wholly satisfying experience. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)


2006 Blue Ribbon Awards
• Winner - Best Director (Junya Sato)

Availability: Region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong)
Universe Laser
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Deleted Scenes (w/English subs), Trailers (w/English subs), Photo Gallery
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