A powerful, poignant and excellent war film comes to DVD with a warning for people new to WWII…
The Admiral comes to us from director Izuru Narushima (Fly, Daddy, Fly, Midnight Eagle) and stars well known actor Koji Yakusho (The Woodsman and the Rain, 13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Shall We Dance?, Tampopo) in the title role. For those who don’t know, the movie chronicles the life and career of Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval admiral who planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway amongst others, and for the bulk of the film follows the events leading up to and after the start of the Pacific theatre of World War II. A well thought out biography, it is the first modern look at the man and his life to make it to English speaking shores.
Dealing with how Yamamoto was forced into serving as the Japanese Navy’s leading strategist despite not wanting to go to war with the United States, the film strikes an effective balance showing the differences between Yamamoto the Naval officer and Yamamoto the man. Not that there is much difference. And don’t get me wrong, the fact that Narushima directs Yakusho to play the character in this way isn’t bad. Whether he talks with reporters, his superiors, people on the street or his own family, Yamamoto tries to treat everyone with dignity and respect. He can’t help but respect people even the warmongers who crave the glory of war. One poignant moment comes in the middle of the film when Admiral Nagumo (Takeo Nakahara, Death Note, Blue Swallow), a man who has caused some pain for one of Yamamoto’s naval friends, is sitting in front of him trying to not come apart after losing what should have been an easy victory. When Yamamoto reminds him to eat the meal the staff have prepared for Nagumo, the man finally loses his composure. But Yamamoto doesn’t say a thing, doesn’t chastise him for his failure or his loss of face, he just patiently waits for Nagumo for compose himself and resume eating. The performances from Yakusho and Nakahara are pitch perfect.
Counterpointing Yamamoto’s life are the lives of the three Japanese aviators Saeki, Arima and Makino (Masahiro Usui, Kenji Kawahara and Shunji Igarashi) and of the life of Shindo, a reporter working for a Tokyo newspaper who had interviewed Yamamoto during his career. The three pilots all start life in the war off as cheerfully as they can but as they each fall victim to the war machine, we see them getting strength from Yamamoto. What makes their situation sadder is the revelation that Yamamoto was deriving a lot of his strength from them too. Shindo is in many ways the moral conscience of the film as Yamamoto already is a moral character. As the war begins, he initially sees the war through neutral eyes with his editor (Teruyuki Kagawa, 20th Century Boys, Tokyo Sonata, Sukiyaki Western Django) and Yamamoto fighting for his soul. But as the war drags on, he sees his fellow citizens cheer for a war that he knows is going from bad to worse. The final insult for Shindo is him being drafted into an army that he knows can’t possibly win.
Reading reviews online for this film made my head ache. The internet (as opposed to rational people) seems to be convinced that bad CG and the film depicting the Japanese of the time as being gleeful in embracing the war as proof that the director is trying to whitewash the barbaric acts of the Japanese military. Far from it, the film constantly shows either Yamamoto trying to avoid the bonfire that others like Prime Minister Tojo (who needs his own movie to fully understand just how the man seemed to think what he was doing was right) seem happy to light or Shindo observing the hypocrisy of his boss and his fellow citizens in how blind they are to how the war is going and in him knowing what the public hears and what the public needs to know being two different things. The film is about Admiral Yamamoto, not the Pacific part of World War II. And as to an accusation that I read on Amazon that the film looked bland I would counter that with that in a world where everyone seems to think Michael Bay’s way of doing action epics is somehow the way to go, The Admiral is a welcome change of pace.
One thing that will put off some viewers is that most of the major players in the naval and army scenes are not referenced adequately. What I mean by that is, in one scene Yamamoto will talk to a person. He’ll address them by name and then proceed to converse with them. I’m pretty well versed in the Pacific era of the war, indeed the whole of WWII, having been reading about it since childhood. I didn’t know who half the people were in the scenes I’ve described. Who are these people, what are their roles? I mostly figured out that such a person was Yamamoto’s superior officer and such a person was his junior officer. Nagumo is an admiral and he’s in charge of a fleet, but which fleet? And if Yamamoto is an admiral, what kind of Admiral in rank is he, to outrank Nagumo? I know the answers but the average person coming into this would not. Cine-Asia might have provided a booklet or a couple of pages on the DVD to explain where everyone sits in rank and title.
Eschewing the usual “Isn’t War a grand affair?” that mires some warfare films, The Admiral shows how sometimes the only thing stopping warmongers with no idea of the consequences of their actions from causing our destruction are the actions of more moderate men and women. Time and again, as the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) move toward war, Yamamoto is seen as a moderate within the armed services. People, stoked up by war hungry politicians and news people, cry out for Yamamoto to either withdraw his objections or step aside. He does neither but still they go over his head. And when the war does start he tries to stop the war by getting Japan it’s best position but events conspire against him. He can only witness the horror of the runaway train get faster and faster. It’s no secret that Yamamoto dies before the end of the film so the story’s denouement is handled with a quiet finality by Shindo. It ends with a warning as much a hope that things will be better.
The film’s direction and cinematography are far above the usual fare that sadly some Japanese films of late have been using. While the battleships and carriers are all CG (and somewhat ropey CG at that) when viewed from afar, close up shots of the ships and the mockup Zero planes are quite good. While there is grain present in the film, I can’t tell if this was shot digitally and the grain was added in later or if it was actually shot on film, a rarity in Japan these days. I love the way the film looks and how Narushima handles his shots and his actors. There’s a gentle pacing to it and even in times of crisis and action (which does happen) as people are using their heads, Narushima uses Yamamoto as his anchor for the other characters and uses Yakusho as his centre point for the other performances. His use of angles and camera setups makes him a director I want to keep an eye on in the future.
In short, The Admiral is an excellent introduction to Isoroku Yamamoto and his life. It’s not the end all and be all (the aspects of Yamamoto’s death have been glossed over slightly) of biographies. But it is a worthwhile look at the Japanese side of the Second World War which is a side that we don’t a look at very often. Rather than gloss over it, we should examine it so that we don’t forget its lessons.
The Admiral is available on UK Blu-Ray and DVD from Cine-Asia.
Distributor: Cine-Asia UK
Edition: DVD (2012)
As I said before, the amount of grain present in the film is making it hard for me to ascertain if it was shot digitally or not. Whatever the case, the film looks good if a little spartan in its colour palette. Sound-wise, we get Japanese 5.1 and 2.0 tracks and they function pretty well. For the most part, the audio is front heavy toward the centre channels but when ships open fire with their guns or planes attack carriers, we get a lot of bass in the sub-woofer. Extras, I am disappointed. Only trailers for Cine-Asia’s current releases. I would really have appreciated some behind the scenes footage or some interviews with the director or the actors.
The film is available on blu ray and there isn’t much difference in pricing. With that in mind, I would recommend the blu ray over the DVD. Maybe you can tell me if that film grain is more visible in the blu ray, hey?