Toshio Masuda has always been one of my favorite directors, and he is perfect for this kind of film, being kicked out of the kamikaze in 1944 for being excessively liberal and pacifistic. Based on a serialized story by Kunio Yanagida, this is the story of the Mitsubishi Zero through the eyes of the engineers who designed the plane and the pilots who flew it.
Shoichi Hamada is a pilot flying the Imperial Navy's “ace in the hole”, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, during the first years of the war the Zero is seemingly unstoppable, shooting down almost every type of plane the allies send at them. Hamada’s best friend is Kunio Mizushima, assigned to ground crew, they are both in love with one girl…but will the ravages of war tear them apart? Along the way, the film explores the various other people involved in the Zero's stories, such as Teruo Tojo (Shin Takuma), Hideki Tojo’s second oldest son and president of Mitsubishi Motors, who has a hand in the design of the Zero, and Jiro Horikoshi (Kinya Kitaoji), the Zero's primary engineer and main innovator. Isoroku Yamamoto (Tetsuro Tamba) is escorted by Shoichi briefly, and the second half of the war proves to be too much for the Zero as the Americans get their hands on a fully intact one and learn it's secrets…
The plotting is well done, keeping the story of the Zero first and foremost while framing the story of the young pilot around it. Masuda seemingly backhands the naval authorities for using the pilots as expendable property. In general, like Masuda's other war epics, the film has no respect for higher authorities, portraying most of them as simply using their soldiers, not caring about their lives. The story is told in reverse, starting from 1944 and going in reverse to 1937. The pacing is well done, keeping everything at about the same level.
The acting is great on most parts, even the gaijin actors seem to be doing well, which is a rarity. Just look at the American commander at the beginning of the film, delivering the memorable line “The Japs couldn’t even build what we call a good automobile!” Oh how times have changed. As for the main characters, they are directed with an enthusiasm that goes with their youthfulness. The love triangle is directed well but ends on a subversion of the usual “war romance” that films like Pearl Harbor show. Daijiro Tsutsumi as Hamada brings all sorts of emotions to the table, and by the end, it is clear the Japanese war machine has become him. It is clear Masuda had no love for war, especially from this character. Kunio Mizushima, played by Jun Hashizume, shows clear concern for his friend as well as great love for the female love interest, Shizuko Yoshikawa. Shizuko Yoshikawa herself is a very well done love interest, played by a beautiful actress. She clearly has a mixed bag of emotions for the two leads, and loves them both on different levels. As for the secondary characters, Tetsuro Tamba's brief appearance as Isoroku Yamamoto casts him as a very sympathetic man, clearly concerned for the lives of his young pilots despite only appearing for about 5 minutes. Shin Takuma does well as Teruo Tojo, the Zero's financier and Mitsubishi Motors president, showing quite a youthful energy and enthusiasm for his character.
Special effects by Koichi Kawakita are very well done, and it’s a tragedy his effects skill went down so much after the box office failure of Godzilla vs. Biollante in 1989, as clearly he is skilled, showing off just as much enthusiasm for pyrotechnic effects as his teacher Teruyoshi Nakano. The miniatures look great, and it’s nice to see a few Zero miniatures portrayed accurately as white in the opening 30 minutes. The camera angles during the air battle scenes are daring, and Kawakita makes use of frenetic camera movements during the battle scenes to enhance the combat. There is quite a bit of stock footage in the film, all the way from Storm of the Pacific (1960) to The Imperial Navy (1981), but the original effects all look fantastic.
Music by Harumi Ibe has a dated late 70s-early 80s quality that actually works for the film, and the score uses a lot of horns as well as 70s style guitar work that make it clear the composer was primarily used during the 70s. The film's theme song, Dawn, is sung beautifully by Yujiro Ishihara, and suits the films histronic ending scene well.
Overall, I can't recommend this film enough! Toshio Masuda is a master director and was perfect to tackle the subject, I myself watched the film in Japanese with subs, but there are quite a few dubbed copies floating around, so I suggest if you have an interest in aviation or World War II you pick it up.