Junya Sato, director
"Yamato" opens at the in Kure City, where Makiko Uchida is visiting the Yamato Museum in an attempt to understand what her father experienced during his service aboard the Yamato during World War Two. After viewing the museum, which allows the filmmakers to use narration to bring the viewer up to speed on the importance of the Yamato itself, she heads to the Makurazaki Fishermen's Collective to find someone to take her to the spot where the Yamato sank, a journey of 15 hours. The harbormaster turns her away with a laugh so she heads to the waterfront to see if she can find someone willing to take her on the voyage. She meets with about the same amount of success there, however her request is overheard by seventy-five-year-old Katsumi Kamio, a veteran of the Yamato who served under Makiko's father. Eventually Kamio agrees to take Makiko to the spot where the Yamato sank. During their voyage Kamio remembers his time on the Yamato, beginning in 1942. From this point on scenes of Makiko's and Kamio's voyage to the Yamato's grave serve as chapter breaks in the story of Kamio the Younger and his compatriots, including Mamoru Uchida (Makiko's father), Moriwaki, and Karaki.
The emotional core of the story is built around the viewer's knowledge that the Yamato sinks with almost all hands on board after being sent on a suicide mission during the invasion of Okinawa by American forces during the waning months of World War Two. The danger with allowing the audience this sort of foreknowledge is that the character's story has to really grab the audience and force them to forget the impending doom otherwise viewing the movie really starts to feel like treading water with the hope that the money shot at the end is worth it. This is how I felt through about the first half of this movie, which is brutal when the movie weighs in at 140 minutes and change. I think the source of this disconnect between the viewer and the characters comes from the rather disjointed manner in which this movie begins. Through the first 45 minutes or so I was not certain whether this movie wanted to be a documentary, war epic, or drama. Not that these things are mutually exclusive, however they have to be blended seamlessly and while watching I felt like I was watching something filmed from an outline rather than a full-blown screenplay. Fortunately this feeling goes away about at about the half-way mark, even if the somewhat odd narration and subtitles continue to make appearances through the balance of the film.
With the recent resurgence of right-wing ultra-nationalists on the national political stage in Japan and the regrettable tendency of some Japanese to engage in a little revisionist history when dealing with Japanese involvement in World War Two I was very concerned that this movie would merely serve as a vehicle for propaganda. Fortunately this fear was unfounded. While there was in interesting faux pas where the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8th rather than the 7th there were no moments in the movie where it descended into shilling for the realm. If anything the movie tries to be a little too neutral in its viewpoint, however there are moments where a fairly clear anti-war message comes through, particularly towards the end of the movie once the ship has been assigned to Operation Ten-Go, a suicide mission during the American invasion of Okinawa. Earlier in the film there is some discussion of how bushido prepares one to die which comes up again here, however like much of the first half of the film it ends up being an unfinished thought rather than a fully explored facet of the story, which is really too bad since the idea itself is interesting and is the closest the movies gets to taking a moral stand on anything.
Unfortunately once you move beyond the story things do not improve for this movie as the SFX never rise above the low end of average with occasional forays into the laughably bad. I have seen videogame cinematics which are more realistic than the effects in this movie and from time to time the director made the decision to use WWII vintage footage as part of the effects. While this approach worked in transitions in "Pearl Harbor", here it was just jarring and served to do nothing but break the fourth wall and remind the audience that they were watching a movie. Beyond the mediocre quality of the graphics themselves the rendered sequences had no dynamism to them. When the camera was moved around the Yamato model the moves were basic at best and the director re-used the same shot several times, again breaking the forth wall. In a movie which clearly aspires to be an epic you need either an epic character or event. Handled properly the Yamato can serve as the character and her sinking is clearly the epic event, however the at best lackluster effects in this movie prevent the Yamato from ever becoming anything more than a set.
Now I have spent most of this review being negative and listing the things that this movie did wrong which might leave you with the impression that I did not like the movie and that there were no redeeming qualities to the film. This could not be further from the truth. While it took a long time to get me emotionally invested in the characters, and some of this was done with moments that are a bit over the top in the melodrama department, ultimately this movie succeeds in making me care about them and their story. In large part this can be attributed to the performances. In particular I enjoyed anytime Mamoru Uchida, played by Shido Nakamura who might be familiar to some readers as Lt. Ito in "Letters From Iwo Jima", was on the screen. Everything about his performance was right on with the character that was brash, egocentric, and a little immature at times, but still a leader of men. The elder Kamio was played with almost stoic solemnity by Tatsuya Nakadai, familiar to fans of Kurosawa as Takeda Shingen/Kagemusha from 1980's "Kagemusha", and Kenichi Matsuyama as the younger Kamio conveys the exuberance of youth on the verge of a great adventure.
As I said in the end I was able to enjoy this movie however it stands more as a collection of missed opportunities rather than a monument to the foolishness of war. If you are a war movie buff than this is worth checking out, otherwise I cannot really recommend it to you.
I do not know if this movie will ever see a release here in the States. I rented my copy through eHit.com, a Netflix-like service which specializes in movies and television series from Japan, China, and Korea. So far I am very happy with their service.
Here are the two trailers for the film, for those of you who are still interested: