Zero Pilot (1976)
Alexander Smith
January 13, 2013
Note: review may contain spoilers

This highly elaborate film affair, based on the biography of Saburo Sakai with several bits of narration taken directly from his book, was one of the last war films produced by Toho and special effects director Koichi Kawakita's debut film, and his favorite work because it lacked stock footage. The film has great acting and is solidly produced all around.

The tide of the war is turning against Japan, and Sergeant Saburo Sakai is in command of a small group of pilots on the island base of Rabaul. He goes through many battles, shooting down 68 planes and solidifying his place as the number one ace of Japan, always showing respect for his enemy. Several of his friends die, and his superiors doubt his leadership skills. Eventually 1942 rolls around. The Battle of Guadalcanal is at hand, and it is a terrific loss for Japan, and Saburo Sakai goes to provide air support for his squad, but a perilous turn of events occurs and Sakai must fight for his life, using his gut instinct and quick reaction time.

Having read Sakai’s memoirs, I can say that the film is very accurate to Sakai’s life, and the plotting and pacing flows smoothly as Sakai watches the tide of war change before his eyes. The film never lingers on a plot point too long and about the only flaw I can see is the romance between the nurse and the youngest pilot comes way too fast and comes out of nowhere practically but otherwise I really have nothing bad to say here.

The acting is well done, with Hiroshi Fujioka as Sakai really sticking out among the great leads of war films, as Fujioka’s deep voice and commanding presence lend themselves well to the role. Especially amazing is the ending 15 minutes when Sakai struggles to stay alive after being blinded above Guadalcanal, as Fujioka reads directly from Sakai’s biography and prays aloud as he struggles to stay conscious with the threat of exsanguination from head trauma looming overhead, Fujioka’s facial expressions carry the sequence. Tetsuro Tamba as Captain Saito is the other standout, clearly showing great concern for his men and his friendship with Sakai shines. His facial expressions show deepness, and he shows genuine concern for Sakai’s wellbeing. The other actors do an excellent job as well, and I see no big faults in the acting.

Now for the part I wanted to talk about most, the effects. According to the featurette on the Region 2 DVD, Koichi Kawakita was so thrilled with this film he keeps a framed copy of the poster in his office, and has his own personal copy of the screenplay. Rather than wireheld miniatures, the planes are radio-controlled models, and this gives the film a darling, frantic look, with rapid-fire camera work, breakneck editing, and very nice matte paintings and superimpositions to cover up the inadequacies. Most of the action takes place in the skies, and there is zero stock footage in the film, a rarity for a Toho war film.

Supposedly the RC models were filmed from 100 feet above the set, and this gives the battle scenes a grand feel. Clearly it is easy to see why Kawakita considers this his magnus opum.

Musical score by Toshiaki Tsushima is noticeably somber, a stark contrast from his score for things like the Yakuza films he scored, which were filled with frantic guitar riffs and heavy brass. By contrast, the score for Zero Pilot relies on string work to carry most of it, the main theme being played extremely somberly during the ending narration Sakai reads, with the score being mostly reserved, and somber. Tsushima is an excellent composer, and the film lends itself well to the somberness of Tsushima’s score.

This is an excellent film, with no noticeable flaws, and is probably one of the more accessible Toho war films out there, as it takes place on a more limited scope, with a stronger narrative than say, Battle of Okinawa (1971). I’d recommend it highly.