This film is Shuei Matsubayashi's penultimate war film, and a grand one at that, with fantastic acting and great effects by Teruyoshi Nakano. I'm watching the dubbed version, but it is faithfully uncut and fully intact. The film has a grand and epic feel, living up to the unused English name The Grand Fleet, but the pacing doesn't agree and at times feels sluggish up to the climax.
As the Russo-Japanese War drew to a halt, Japan realized it must expand its borders. Focusing on naval and air superiority, the Japanese military drew the attention of the United States who cut off oil supply with Japan as a result of the actions it took in China. War was inevitable. To plan an attack on America, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Keiju Kobayashi) was chosen to plan out the attack, as reluctant as he was. Young recruits made up most of the Navy’s task force. These brave young men sacrificed everything for war, leaving behind families and love. The attack on Pearl Harbor succeeded, and the Navy’s newest and greatest weapon, the great battleship Yamato was unveiled. However as America’s forces became more advanced and ready, the navy suffered crushing defeats and Yamamoto was killed. The other commanding officers, Admiral Toyoda (Jun Tazaki) and Vice Admiral Ozawa (Tetsuro Tamba) must decide what to do to avert defeat. The navy plans to bombard Leyte Gulf with the Yamato. A new tactic is unveiled also, the use of planes as suicide attackers (Kamikaze). Can the Imperial Navy avert certain defeat with these tactics?
The plotting of the film is well done, laying out the events as they happen with narration and newsreel. Switching to different events throughout, the film is effective at telling the story of the fatalistic defeat of the Imperial Navy. The plot’s tone is similar to Das Boot or Stalingrad, with a very grim feeling throughout. The viewer may find themselves feeling down by the end from how fatalistic the tone is, even for Shuei Matsubayashi who usually made fatalistic films such as The Last War (1961) or Attack Squadron (1963).
Pacing, ultimately, is what brings the film down severely. Although epic in the long run, the buildup to the climax feels like it takes forever. The story is well told but very talky, not enough goes on at times. I suggest if you have little patience, watch the film in increments as it will enhance your experience and make it much easier to watch.
The acting is fantastic. Keiju Kobayashi as Isoroku Yamamoto is perfect for the role, bearing a great resemblance to the man himself and emoting extremely well. Much like Toshiro Mifune did for the man some 20 years prior, Kobayashi depicts Yamamoto with great grace. Tetsuro Tamba as Vice Admiral Ozawa shows great emotion on his face as he makes hard decisions for his men. The young naval officer Masato is portrayed extremely well, with great optimism, yet a sense of doubt as he is sent on a suicide mission. His father’s actor is also really great, showing doubt and fear as he realizes what he has done to his son by raising him to be like him. Overall the acting is very well done; even with dubbing over it you can see the emotion.
The effects are some of Teruyoshi Nakano’s best especially during the closing 20 minutes, where the Yamato’s gigantic scale model graces the film frequently. With massive cannons and articulations, the Yamato model is an impressive sight. Especially impressive is the well-done destruction sequence of the Yamato, with tons of pyrotechnics and a massive explosion at the end. The miniatures besides the Yamato are also well done and realistic. The lighting is moody and dark and the sets by Yasuyuki Inoue look great, with a feeling of great mass. I’d say the effects are some of Nakano’s crowning achievements.
The music by Katsuhisa Hattori and Shinji Tanimura is very well done, filled with epic piano solos and lots of strings that leave the viewer with a grand feeling. Especially moving is the ending theme, “Gunjou”, sung by Tanimura beautifully with lots of piano and strings backing it up. The score overall has a contemporary 80s feel. While not very memorable, it fits the film well especially the sobering final 20 minutes.
Overall, this is a great movie, the pacing gets kinda in the way of the overall experience but if you watch it with the right mind-set it will grow on you. Took me a few tries to watch it all the way, but once I did I found myself absorbed from the feeling of certain doom and the great filming.