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Review: Wings of Defeat (2007)

Director: Risa Morimoto | 89 minutes | war,

“Wings of Defeat” is a personally motivated by New York director Risa Morimoto. Although born and raised in New York, she is of Japanese descent. Her parents emigrated to the US after the Second World War, but many relatives still live in Japan. Such as one of her uncles, who had never spoken about his wartime experiences until his death in the 1980s. As a result, Morimoto is only now finding out that he was trained as a kamikaze pilot; a discovery that forces her to reflect on her Japanese roots and the Japanese perspective on the war, and on the kamikaze pilots in particular.

Logically, her own relatives are her first sources of information: aunts, nephews and nieces, of which the former can also draw from their own memories. More interesting, however, is that Morimoto also gets to speak to four veterans, all of whom talk candidly about their experiences and motives. These motives are often very practical in nature: in the 1930s the Japanese government stimulated them to join the army, and that appealed to the imagination of many a teenager, especially becoming a pilot in the navy was the ultimate. While one entered the army for ambitious reasons, the other was more likely to want to break free from his family. All extremely human considerations, therefore, which makes the Japanese perspective on the war a bit more recognizable.

This also applies to the aunts’ stories about the end of the war, when Japan has lost the hopelessly, but does not want to give up yet. The ordinary Japanese hardly dares to doubt the emperor’s views, but at the same time sees fate – in the form of the Americans and their bombings – coming upon them. These are examples of loyalty conflicts, which Japanese pilots have to deal with to an even more extreme degree. At the end of the war, the pressure on every pilot is unbelievably great to sacrifice himself as a kamikaze pilot for the fatherland. In fact, it turns out that people often did not have a choice: they were simply put in the schedule, and then try to get out of it with good decency.

The frankness of the four pilots in particular makes ‘Wings of Defeat’ an impressive documentary, especially when a pilot tells about the two (!) Times he went on a kamikaze flight in vain and had already said goodbye to life. The first time he returned because his plane broke down, the second time he failed to reach the target due to technical problems and he had to perform an emergency landing, near a remote island where he spent weeks among an almost starving population. Most notably, perhaps, is the story of two other pilots, who together decide not to respond to their “holy mission” after miraculously surviving a flying fight with Americans on their kamikaze flight. They have already faced death enough, and decide to turn around. A brave and very unusual decision, given the social and cultural pressure placed on Japanese pilots by government and media.

However, apart from these stories, “Wings of Defeat” is also an interesting because it provides a lot of factual background information about this phenomenon. The kamikaze strategy was clearly a desperate offensive that the government and army used to uphold their “honor” and not to capitulate. In the meantime, the effectiveness of this strategy was in bad shape: the aircraft were in a poor condition and had no chance against the much better equipped American aircraft. Only about 10% managed to reach the target, of which only a fraction actually managed to hit the target.

The combination of Morimoto’s personal approach and the amount of ignorance about the subject makes “Wings of Defeat” a that captivates from start to finish. The personal and candid stories on the one hand and the many archive images and background information on the other make this documentary journalism interesting. And although it concerns a phenomenon of more than sixty years ago, the documentary may also be relevant today. Who knows, in a few decades, a documentary will be made about – and with – Muslim fundamentalist suicide bombers?

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