Review: Risa Morimoto’s “Wings of Defeat”

Risa Morimoto’s documentary Wings of Defeat sheds valuable light on one of the most notorious yet least understood aspects of World War II, the Japanese pilots known as kamikaze (or in Japanese parlance, tokkotai), considered in the popular imagination to be fanatics who eagerly sacrificed themselves to inflict damage on US personnel, the equivalent of present-day suicide bombers. This film, with a thorough focus, counters these popular notions. While not excusing or making apologies for these soldiers’ actions, the film puts these pilots’ actions into illuminating context. Through interviews with those who survived or abandoned their missions, and by examining the way the kamikazes functioned within the propaganda prevalent in Japanese society at the time, it becomes clear that the strategy of using kamikaze pilots was in large part an act of desperation by Japan’s leadership, faced with an outmanned, losing army lacking in basic resources.
Morimoto adds a personal dimension to this story, relating her discovery that her own uncle had trained as a kamikaze pilot in his youth. Her process of uncovering her family history intersects with her exploration of Japanese wartime history, in both cases revealing stories shrouded in silence, obfuscation, and mythology. Wings of Defeat unfolds in a straightforward, linear manner, which works to its advantage as a fascinating work of journalism that is remarkably nuanced in its approach to this still-sensitive subject. Through interviews with kamikaze pilots who survived their missions (there were in fact hundreds who did so) either through failure or outright desertion, and with U.S. veterans who survived a kamikaze attack on the USS Drexler, a Navy destroyer ship, we learn that the divisions between the two sides are not as pronounced as we would believe. The U.S. veterans reveal a surprising level of understanding towards the kamikazes who attacked them. “We would have done the same thing,” one says, expressing their willingness to sacrifice their own lives if they had been told that would be necessary. The recollections of the former kamikaze are also quite revealing, and a sharp contrast to the popular notions of them as faceless, fanatical automatons. Many of these pilots were drafted unwillingly into this service, often at the last minute and with inadequate training. The kamikazes were glorified in the Japanese popular media, portrayed as noble warriors and saviors of their country, rather than what they truly were, which were unwilling pawns of a last-ditch strategy by a leadership unwilling to admit defeat. Distortions in both Japanese and western notions of these soldiers, on the one hand as self-sacrificing warriors, and on the other hand as mindless fanatics, are given a valuable corrective in this film. Archival footage and original animation also effectively evoke the frenzied propaganda campaign waged by the Japanese government, especially at the late stages of the war, when all Japanese citizens were essentially considered potential kamikaze recruits.