Book: The Eternal Zero


The Eternal Zero

English Book Title

The Eternal Zero


Naoki Hyakuta (translated by Paul J. Rubin)







By: Nicholas Driscoll

With the huge success of Godzilla Minus One (2023) having graced the world with impressive pathos and punchy action powerful enough to win over vast swathes of fans and critics (not to mention earning an unheard of Oscar win for best visual effects), I have been poking around at the movie’s roots, wondering from whence many of its most trenchant themes emerged. Given that the director, Takahashi Yamazaki, previously featured Godzilla in his hyper-nostalgic Always: Sunset on Third Street 2 (2007), and further capitalized on that Showa-era retro feel in the excellent Godzilla the Ride, at first I was thinking of Godzilla Minus One as a spiritual prequel to the adventures of the Suzuki family and Co from the Always trilogy. However, when considering the movie in terms of the wider Yamazaki canon, a better way to situate the film would be to call it an extension of The Eternal Zero, albeit with lovable character notes plucked from the Always films or perhaps his Destiny movie. Yamazaki directed a film adaptation of The Eternal Zero back in 2013, which garnered lush box office returns—and considerable controversy. In many ways, Minus One feels like a retrofitted Eternal Zero with Godzilla wedged in the middle (wasn’t Yamazaki’s Godzilla film long rumored to be titled Godzilla Zero before a dramatic reveal of the “Minus One” moniker?).

It may seem strange to chatter on about Minus One at the beginning of a review of the novel of The Eternal Zero, but without Minus One, I probably never would have read this book. The novel was written by one Naoki Hyakuta, a former scriptwriter for variety shows, a politician, and a novelist—his book-writing career started late in life but has been extremely successful. Still, the dude has become famous for less flattering reasons too—he has some pretty unpleasant views about Japan’s war history, having famously stated in 2014, “In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek tried to publicize Japan’s responsibility for the Nanking Massacre, but the nations of the world ignored him. Why? Because it never happened.” For those not in the know, the Nanking Massacre is a well-documented and truly horrific human disaster in which Japanese soldiers descended on the former Chinese capital and slaughtered and/or raped thousands and thousands of innocent Chinese civilians. Hyakuta denies the event having ever taken place, and further insists that the Japan war crimes trials were fallacious. This is also the kind of guy who, in 2023, declared that should a bill pass that granted LGBT groups further rights in Japan, he would start his own conservative party because he is worried that further acceptance of sexual minorities could destroy Japan completely. When a watered-down version of the aforementioned bill passed, Hyakuta was true to his word and founded the Conservative Party of Japan, specifically to fight against gay rights.

These, err, aspects of Hyakuta’s character stuck in my mind as I read his book. For me, it was troubling that Yamazaki would film Hyakuta’s novel, but at least I could console myself that Yamazaki’s film version was released in 2013—a year before Hyakuta’s absurd denials of the Nanking Massacre became more widely known. Unfortunately, Yamazaki went on to direct another adaptation of a Hyakuta novel, Fueled: The Man They Called Pirate, in 2016—a movie hagiography of a Japanese oil magnate struggling to build up his black gold empire in the smoldering aftermath of WWII. I mean, Yamazaki was the one to adapt Hyakuta’s novel down to the nitty gritty, writing the screenplay himself. Yamazaki didn’t seem shy of the controversy at all. As the years have passed, the controversies surrounding Hyakuta have only multiplied, as he is also well-known for his seething hatred of Chinese and Korean people, and for plagiarizing large portions of a recent non-fiction history book he published. In November of 2023, he was interviewed live on TV defending Japan’s invasion of Asia, claiming that without Japan, the world would be an awful place—that somehow had Japan not been around and had Japan not fought in WWII, Asian and African countries would have remained as western colonies for an extra hundred to two hundred years, and that China would exist as a colony of the west, split in bits and bobs as colonies for Western countries perhaps even today. The video is on YouTube, and the comments on it seem largely in favor of Hyakuta’s conclusions.

And I know, I am going on too long about the background of this author, going on too long about Takahashi Yamazaki and the Godzilla legacy—but it’s hard for me to forget these things as I peer down into the seeds of one of the finest Godzilla films in decades. And, oh, brother is The Eternal Zero ever a bubbling pot of source material for Minus One. Please note that I will be covering the novel full of spoilers here on out, so if you prefer not to be spoiled, bail, bail, bail!

The story of the novel basically goes like this. Kentaro Saeki is a young man not long graduated from college with wilting dreams to become a lawyer—but he can’t pass the bar. In the midst of his travails, his grandmother dies, and at the funeral, an unexpected truth is revealed: the grandfather he grew up with, Kenichiro Oishi, was not his biological relation. His biological grandfather, one Kyuzo Miyabe, was a military man of mystery—and a kamikaze pilot. Kentaro’s sister, Keiko, is a journalist, and she gets a wild hair to investigate the true story behind Miyabe. Together, Kentaro and Keiko begin interviewing surviving pilots and military men who served with Miyabe… and they are shocked when the reports begin to come back that their gramps by DNA was a coward. When flying, Miyabe would be extremely cautious, even flipping his plane upside down to check below lest enemy fighters might be sneaking from the depths or checking and rechecking his airplane’s systems to the point of the exasperation of the mechanical crew. His former wingmen thought he was a wimp and a disgrace for openly declaring that he wanted to survive, that he would do anything to get back to his family. He was also known to be a dirty fighter in the air, having been spotted shooting down an American plane—and then shooting the parachuting pilot out of the air. When the kamikaze strategy was instigated as a last ditch attempt by the Japanese military, Miyabe was put to work as a pilot trainer—and to his shame (according to some) he seemed unwilling to allow his students to pass muster and be martialed out to suicide.

Bad story after bad story. And yet… despite his crazed insistence to live, to persevere, to do anything in his power to survive… Miyabe also volunteered to become a kamikaze pilot, and died in a suicide mission, throwing his life away.


Much of the intrigue of The Eternal Zero comes from the mysterious figure of Miyabe. Not just why he eventually killed himself despite his steel resolve to live, but also because despite the frequent disparaging remarks against him coming from his former colleagues, he was apparently an ace pilot, amazing in the air, a natural, brilliant at protecting his team, a fantastic dogfighter, and more. As the story progresses, we find Miyabe emerging as a superhuman figure, and while the paradoxical reports cast Miyabe in chiaroscuro, the person who emerges is a man of perfection.

If anything, Miyabe is too good, a veritable Japanese Gary Stu. He masters landing on a carrier first try, he is impeccably kind and polite to a fault (even to his underlings, to the point they become uncomfortable). He loves his family and will do anything for them, and he is so tireless that he performs superhuman exercises through the night instead of sleeping. Miyabe is a godlike fighter pilot, effortlessly defeating even the strongest foes—who end up admiring him and praising him. He is crazy smart, a genius player at the game of go, who just so happens to play at a professional level. After a while, his flawless traits can begin to rankle me as he is such a figure of speckless wonder.

This sort of breathless praise can also characterize how Hyakuta portrays some of Japan’s feats in the war—especially the construction of the Zero, and the pilots who flew the plane. Again and again Hyakuta praises the Zero as this miraculous device, a “magical plane” that “set a new world standard”, that their “might was overwhelming,” that enemy fighters were allowed to abort a mission only under one of two circumstances: when they met with a thunderstorm, and when they met with a Zero. Even when newer, superior planes come along that can easily best Zeros, the way Hyakuta describes it, it sounds like the newer planes, too, only won through crooked tactics. He even puts open praise and bald admiration for Zeros and Zero pilots in the mouths of enemy fighters (the parachuting pilot who Miyabe shot down survived and, when encountered later, is overflowing with awe for Miyabe’s prowess to the point he weeps when he hears Miyabe died). It gets tiresome fast—even though there are germs of truth in Hyakuta’s text. The Zero was a formidable plane. As I read the frequent peans to its greatness, I started checking facts via Google’s dear wisdom, and it’s true that especially early in the war, the Zero was one of the best fighters—though when investigating lists of the best fighters of WWII, I couldn’t find one with the Zero on top. There were many fine planes crafted during the war, and the level of aggrandizement here for the machine frankly disgusted me.

Yet the military detail, the historical commentary, the anecdotes and technical flourishes brought out by Hyakuta—even if I don’t like his whitewashing of Japan’s war past, nevertheless the depth of commentary on the war in this book is impressive and often quite interesting. As Keiko and Kentaro interview more and more individuals, each tends to expound with fantastic detail about war strategy or tech or figures and details. You can learn about some amazing individuals, such as Kanichi Kashimura—a Japanese pilot famous for having flown his plane with one wing after a midair collision. The story is a slight exaggeration, but it’s a true tale—Kashimura was a real pilot who lost nearly half of one of his wings while fighting and still managed to fly to safety. These details that come out about real fighters, about the real events, about the strategies used and the fights that happen, are often moving and just fascinating, even if it can be hard to believe that the veterans remember such detail and can wax eloquent at the drop of a hat like they do here. Of course, how much of Hyakuta’s facts and interpretations hold water remains to be seen, and a book like this from an authority like him feels utterly untrustworthy.

Still, Hyakuta does criticize Japan in this book. I was expecting something of a unvarnished defense of Japan as an innocent party in the war given Hyakuta’s eventual controversial statements about his nation’s war crimes. However, there are several passages in the book which paint the Japanese military in very unflattering terms… at least in how the military complex treated Japanese soldiers. There are passages describing how physically abusive various branches of the Japanese military were towards their own, with assertions that the Navy was possibly the worst, with higher ranks beating and imprisoning underlings for little reason. There are many passages in the book which take to task the military’s penchant for excusing devastating blunders committed by ranking officers, and the utter disregard for the lives of small-fry soldiers and pilots. The ferocious condemnations of the practice of throwing away lives in kamikaze attacks and the frightening recounts of the different kinds of kamikaze methods used (including humans piloting literal torpedoes!) is heartwrenching and devastating.

Despite this fiery passion, there is little hint that Hyakuta or any of the characters in the novel think Japan shouldn’t have gone to war or invaded and conquered areas of China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, etc, etc. While Hyakuta lashes out in words against American attacks wherein Japanese civilians suffered, he purposefully depicts the Zero pilots as basically white knights in the sky disgusted at the idea of dastardly conduct. Brothels and comfort women are mentioned as something unsavory, but without much further information. For me, one of the most outrageous statements of the book concerns the number of people who died in WWII, delivered in a conversation between Keiko and Kentaro about how unfair it is that their grandfather perished in the war. Kentaro says,

“It’s not like he was the only one. Three million people died in the war. Or just counting the men in uniform, two million and three hundred thousand. Grandfather was just one of millions.”

Of course, many more than three million people died in the war… but this statement includes only Japanese deaths. From the wording, it sounds like only Japanese deaths really counted. Yet the Japanese killed far more than three million people in the war—though no one knows exact numbers, in China alone, a commonly cited figure was that 20,000,000 deaths, over half civilians. Of course, China wasn’t invading Japan in WWII. They didn’t choose to go to war with Japan. Neither did Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, etc. But from reading Hyakuta’s book, it feels like the only tragedies worth considering were the travails of the Japanese. Meanwhile, characters in the novel wish they could have been there to attack Pearl Harbor, pine that they could have killed more Americans in battle, and defend kamikaze pilots from accusations of terrorism.

This is probably a good time to transition to a few words about how the novel was adapted into the movie version—and Godzilla Minus One director Takashi Yamazaki was the one adapting the novel into the screenplay, along with Tamio Hayashi. In the novel, one of the survivors that Kentaro and Keiko interview is the one to defend kamikaze pilots from charges of terrorism. In the movie, in a scene that doesn’t happen in the book, Kentaro goes on a group date with his friends and a set of young women, and he is the one who blows up when his rowdy friends begin comparing kamikaze pilots to 9/11 style suicide plane attacks. In the movie, early on when Kentaro interviews a particular former acquaintance of Miyabe’s, the interviewee balks and refuses to talk because Kentaro mentions that Miyabe was a coward. This interaction in the film sets up a tension that is later resolved when Kentaro comes to respect Miyabe, returning and finishing the interview after showing his newfound appreciation of his biological grandfather. This sequence of events never happens in the novel. In the novel, Keiko is depicted as a cold and calculating woman who is dating a journalist for career reasons and must learn her lesson so she can find true love, but the movie cuts that side story. Much of the technical information, the long discussions of strategy, the go matches, and more are also cut from the film. In the final scene of the movie, we see Miyabe flying his last mission and coming in to crash and die against the Americans—and in the novel, we see what happens after he successfully crashes his plane into the enemy ship. The movie streamlines the novel, cutting out much of the detritus to focus on the essential mystery and the search to uncover the truth—and the reason why Miyabe sacrifices himself, the way he does it, and the secret of Kentaro’s grandfather-in-law are the same on text and screen.

For fans of Godzilla Minus One (2023), the story elements that carry over from The Eternal Zero should be pretty obvious. Both stories feature a disgraced kamikaze pilot in the lead role. Both characters are determined to come back alive from the war by any means necessary, though only one succeeds. In The Eternal Zero, the biggest spoiler is that Miyabe and Kentaro’s grandfather-in-law Kenichiro flew together on that last kamikaze flight, but Miyabe asked Kenichiro to switch planes at the last minute. The plane Miyabe gives Kenichiro is faulty and forces the younger pilot to land, saving his life, and Kenichiro survives the war. After he returns to Japan, Kenichiro tracks down Miyabe’s wife Matsuno and daughter and their ensuing relationship closely mirrors Godzilla Minus One protagonist Shikishima’s relationship with Noriko and kid Akiko. Both Shikishima and Kenichiro save their eventual romantic interests from a life of poverty, both take a long time before they can openly show love and affection. Also, interestingly, while not specifically a plot point of the novel, I learned from The Eternal Zero that one of the first kamikaze strike teams was called Shikishima, and that the word Shikishima is an old name for Japan! If we think of Godzilla Minus One’s protagonist as a stand-in for Japan, well, there is some pretty strong metaphorical resonance there.

For me, I found the English version of The Eternal Zero that was translated by Paul J. Rubin to be fascinating even while I wanted to scream at the author due to his frankly reprehensible views, some of which shine through in the text. The book is filled with reams of details about the war, and while the bias is so strong as to be sickening at times, a responsible reader can learn a lot from this book (with liberal fact-checking a must) and the story does bring history alive from a Japanese perspective in utterly readable ways. The character work can be simplistic and ham-fisted, especially with Miyabe as the saint pilot of awesome, and that can really rake one’s nerves. Still, story and its central mystery are definitely intriguing, and the book has a huge influence on the eventual creation of one of the best Godzilla movies ever made. While that influence is frankly regrettable in some ways, tracing those connections is worth doing, and the book’s translation by Paul J. Rubin is very readable. Just maybe borrow the book from your library instead of purchasing a copy.