Being the first in a series of four films in which Toshiro Mifune would portray the admirable Isoroku Yamamoto, this film had a budget of 100 million yen and is a very enjoyable biopic, with only a minor flaw being the sheer amount of characters.
As Tatsuya Nakadai's narration lays out, the world was in chaos in 1940-1941. Japan desperately wanted a military alliance with Germany and Italy. There were still some who opposed the war, chief among those Admiral Yamamoto, a highly cultured admiral eventually chosen to coordinate the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fearing an attack on America would have dire consequences for Japan eventually, Yamamoto eventually is pressured into becoming the chief admiral of the Imperial Fleet and coordinating the entire operation of the fleet. After the loss at Midway however, Yamamoto realizes he is probably doomed…Will he survive?
The plot is a biopic and historic retelling of the events leading to Japan's larger involvement in World War 2. It's an almost ensemble picture outside of the focus on the Admiral, featuring a number of background characters to support the story. However, they really don’t play that much of a pivotal role with the exception of First Lieutenant Kimura, played by Toho veteran Toshio Kurosawa, who follows Yamamoto all the way to the end. He shows extreme loyalty to his cause and a range of emotions about his situation. Most of the staff officers on Yamamoto's side totally agree with him, although there are a few dissenters, and by the end, he learns to accept his position in the war. Sadly there are so many characters in the film, many of them played by brilliant Toho vets such as Yoshifumi Tajima, who act very well, but are so sadly underused they are more accessory to the plot. The staff officers, especially Akihiko Hirata's character, show up throughout the film to provide Yamamoto with support and little more.
Let's talk about the main role, though. Toshiro Mifune does an outstanding job as Isoroku Yamamoto, displaying emotions ranging from sadness and fear to joy at the events transpiring around him. Even to American audiences his role here may be familiar, as footage from it was used as well as some remade in the 1976 US-Japan coproduction Midway. Especially poignant is the ending scene. I won’t spoil it, but Mifune shows grace even in terrifying events. His best actor award for the film was well deserved.
Eiji Tsuburaya's effects work is all done very well, as usual in his war films. Miniatures are all done nice and detailed with great accuracy (however a glaring flaw in accuracy is the fact that the Zero fighters are painted green in 1941 when Mitsubishi didn’t start doing this practice until 1944. They were all white before then.), and the battle sequences are done with great care to wirework by Fumio Nakadai. Many of the battle sequences in the film are culled from The Storm of the Pacific (1960) and Attack Squadron (1963), which is understandable, since Tsuburaya considered the former film to be some of his best work. The pyrotechnics seen in the film have great care shown in them such as when Pearl Harbor is annihilated. Most of the effects are flawless.
Masaru Sato provides a rather subdued, quiet score compared to many other war film scores he did such as Zero Fighter (1965) and Battle of the Japan Sea (1969). There are a few marches here and there, such as what seems to be a precursor to the kamikaze theme from Battle of Okinawa (1971). He composes a very quiet, sad theme for Yamamoto himself. While not his most memorable score, it fits the film well.
Bottom line, I feel the film is very good. Only suffering from having too many characters, the movie is overall very tightly done, with great acting from Mifune being the highlight. This is probably another Toho war film I feel would be suitable for audiences with lighter stomachs. I very much recommend the film.