Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tora! Tora! Tora! [dirs. Richard Fleischer - Toshio Masuda - Kinji Fukasaku]

Over the weekend I watched in its extended Japanese cut the 1970 war movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (TTT), which covers the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military and documents the events leading up to this audacious attack which roused the US into becoming a major participant in the Second World War.

The key element powering all the decisions about the making of TTT was its meticulous attention to historical detail and authenticity. Thus we are privy to the backroom discussions among the military and the politicians, the cat and mouse game played between the US and Japan. While the US (or at least Congress) was still undecided about taking an active role in WW2, the major bone of contention for Japan was the US opposition to its invasion of China, which led to trade sanctions blocking their access to war resources. While ostensibly continuing negotiations Japan surreptitiously organized a full scale guerilla air attack (planned by Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto) on the US military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Although American military had vague rumblings about Japan's plans, a combination of indefinite knowledge and their own complacency led to their being wholly unprepared on that fateful Sunday of December 7, 1941, when Japanese fighters launched off carrier ships positioned nearby, and in two waves managed to damage several US carrier ships and destroy a large portion of parked military planes. More than 2000 men were killed and a thousand more seriously injured in the attack which was made before Japan had formally declared war with the US.

The film was a prestige project for 20th Century Fox, who were looking to replicate the enormous success of their Normandy invasion film The Longest Day. It was planned as a US-Japanese collaboration with film-makers from each nation telling the story from their viewpoint. Versatile journeyman Richard Fleischer directed the American portion of the story making use of a respected American ensemble cast including Martin Balsam, EG Marshall, and Joseph Cotten. Akira Kurosawa's name was attached to the Japanese side of the project and he worked the script with his regular screenwriter team, but a couple of weeks into filming he either quit or was let off because of his disinclination to work in tandem with the American studio. Then Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku were brought in to complete the work. The Japanese cast included Kurosawa regulars Eijiro Tono and Susumu Fujita.

The film is excellent as a visual classroom lesson telling us about the event and what led up to it, but it is dramatically quite flat, mainly because the people we see till the events of the actual attack are not caught up in it, and so there is no dramatic tension. There are lots of facts here but very little feeling. The film seems overly cautious not to make any individual appear as a villain or a blunderer (most notably its sympathetic treatment of US Commander-in-Chief Husband Kimmel, who was demoted after the debacle). Also it is quite obvious that the characters are more puppets to dole out information than 3-dimensional people (Within this limitation, the Japanese segments are better directed and carry more emotional impact, possibly because the Japanese side has a more defined purpose). The last 20 odd min are devoted to showing the actual assault, which is fairly thrilling, with some very dangerous moments captured on film. On the whole, while not as emotionally gripping as some of the classic British war films which follow a similar template, this is much preferable to the 2001 Michael Bay directed Pearl Harbor, which made a trite romance the center-piece of a deafeningly loud and pedestrian film. Probably as a function of which country regarded the attack as memorable, TTT was not well-received in America but a major success in Japan.