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The original title of Japanese director Masa Sawada‘s French-backed documentary- which translates to “speech of a kamikaze” – is probably more precise about what’s actually in the can. Throughout its 75-minute running time, the film rarely veers away from the talking head of its subject Hayashi Fujio, a leader of a Japanese fighter-jet squadron dedicated to crashing into enemy warships during the second world war.
The lack of visual variety is tempered somewhat, however, by the man’s articulate and often anguished comments on a wide variety of topics – ranging from an explanation of the technical aspects of these suicide attacks to remarks about spiritual and political dimensions of life in Japan during and after the war.
It’s a riveting piece which forces the viewer to try and contemplate a Japanese historical episode as engaging – if not more so – than the material on offer in many a sentimental wartime melodrama or gung-ho militarist fantasy. Making its bow at the Vienna International Film Festival after earning critical plaudits at Locarno over the summer, the trajectory of I, Kamikaze could very well continue at arthouse or documentary fests, especially during the run-up to next year’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
With his subject, Sawada could have gone the easy route by interweaving segments from the interview with archive footage of diving planes or graphic images of the brutality and catastrophe generated by Japan’s failed Asian conquests.
I, Kamikaze is certainly aesthetically bold: working with Bertrand Bonello – the French auteur, who was present at the interviews and was originally slated as co-director, later dropped out because of schedule clashes with his own film, Saint Laurent – the Japanese producer-turned-director relies entirely on the power of Fujio’s spoken testimony, give or take a few model planes used to demonstrate the usual strategy for those suicidal aerial missions.
According to the testimony Sawada collected here, Fujio was already doubtful about having to “send kids off” to their deaths as a commander of a kamikaze unit. Whether or not because of hindsight, Fujio says that he was seeing planes as “my coffin” from day one, and that he did not reprimand his lieutenant for open criticism of the Japanese emperor’s position on the war.
Sawada’s achievement is his mix of empathy (with Fujio) and audacity (in allowing a veteran’s deposition to stand unadorned). Just from the film, the viewer doesn’t get to understand fully the mental state of these pilots during the war; but that’s probably the way it should be.
Production company: Comme des Cinemas
Director: Masa Sawada
Producers: Laurent Harjani, Hiroto Ogi
Director of photography:Josee Deshaies
Editors:Hiroto Ogi, Junko Watanabe
No rating; 75 minutes
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