The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942)

Author: Miles Imhoff
July 4, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

I. Recommend. This. Film.

I'll give you a few seconds to do a double take and recheck the star count...

... and now you've probably returned for a much needed explanation. This is a propaganda movie, plain and simple. You even get a decidedly Orwellian disclaimer to boot at the very start: "passed by Navy Department censors". Watching a propaganda film usually has one of two effects on people, it either brings to the surface a rush of nationalistic pride or a deluge of disgust. Of course, that only seems to happen when such a film is produced in one's own country and only if it's contemporary enough to pack some oomph. Watching a foreign one from a bygone era is an entirely different story, as it helps you to gain some perspective and recognise surreptitious and not-so-surreptitious propaganda in your own nation and time.

The plot is fairly straightforward, even for non-iconoclastic war cinema. Giichi Tomoda wants to join the Naval Youth Air Corps, but his cousin Tadaaki warns him that it isn't an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, Tomoda is adamant and eventually joins up. He endures the trials of basic and the rigors of flight school until he becomes thoroughly proficient as a pilot.

Meanwhile, war between Japan and the Allies is practically imminent, and the plans for a near-simultaneous attack against Pearl Harbor and British Malaya are in the works. Tomoda would be among those chosen to fly into battle and launch a barrage of torpedoes against enemy vessels in Hawaii. But would this air raid of unprecedented magnitude succeed?

Well, that's pretty much a foregone conclusion. Torpedoes are dropped, targets are hit, and the attack on Pearl Harbor marks the United States' entry into the war, although the film doesn't touch on this last part. What makes this movie so fascinating is the delirious conclusion that this daring move, coupled with the invasion of British Malaya, is essentially a death blow to the Allies' presence in the Pacific. It's rather like posting a mission accomplished banner, if you catch my drift. There's none of the gravitas that one would expect from extrapolating such a simple causal formula: a nation is attacked that has been deemed both "violent and disrespectful" in the dialogue, yet no degree of response is expected? They say hindsight is 20/20, but yikes! One might claim that that it wasn't the fault of the movie, but of the zeitgeist and/or the censors, but here's the thing. If the zeitgeist has a strong enough influence on the script, it becomes a de facto filmmaker in its own right, albeit it an abstract and disembodied one. If the censors get involved, they become something of filmmakers themselves. Their will is imposed on the plot, and if it suffers as a result, wouldn't it seem better to rate the film based on the final product rather than taking into account the pressures of the time period?

If you'll allow me to digress for a second, I'd like to draw an unusual connection. Please indulge me, if you will. Hypothetically, what if we were to rate a cable news channel as we would a movie? When Phil Donahue was fired from MSNBC prior to the 2003 Iraq Invasion, ostensibly because his political views weren't in line with the zeitgeist, we probably wouldn't look at the network's then lineup and say "oh, the resultant lack of ideological diversity in their programming was just a byproduct of the time". Instead, we place our focus on the dramatic shift in programming against anti-war sentiment, which effectively distorted the flow of news. As a result, we almost certainly would have offered the network's programming a low score due to its onesidedness. In the same way we would perhaps rate a movie poorly for a cinematic no-no of epic proportions, we would similarly be quite tempted to rate a news network poorly for such a journalistic no-no. MSNBC circa 2003 might very well earn 1.5/5 stars as a result. As the belligerence of 2003 wore on and a similar situation occurred in regard to the short-lived series Jesse Ventura's America, it would make sense that our low rating would only end up being vindicated.

This may sound like a pretty huge digression that attempts to draw an almost infinitesimally tenuous connection, but it really isn't that farfetched to say a film like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya was a bit like the cable news network of its day. It was a reflection of current events with a sensationalistic element. The actors were like the anchors, the filmmakers were like the researchers, and the censors were like the editors and... well... like the censors. Demagoguery, which has long plagued cable news, is at full play in this movie, and it's a bit reminiscent of the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell's 1984. The audience is meant to cheer when the ships are destroyed, they're meant to blindly agree when trumped-up charges are spouted, and they're meant to rally behind the government at all costs (including literal self-sacrifice)...

... but wait, don't we do that with our own propaganda? Hmm. This is why I recommend The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, because it helps you to draw a connection to just how silly our own domestic propaganda is when we see the foreign stuff. Remember what Winston Churchill (may or may not have) said, "History is written by the victors". Had Japan won the war, would American films from that time period with a hopeful outlook toward complete and utter victory look rather goofy too? This is even an issue that springs up in conflicts with null or inconclusive results. Just watching those theatrical propaganda music videos from a few years back, like Kid Rock's Warrior, is enough to cause a mixture of groans, nervous laughter, and overall discontent with the fact that we as a planet still haven't grown out of our ideological territorialism. People were browbeaten into conforming with the goals of my nation (the US) not so long ago when the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts were in their nascence, and if this Dinosaurs parody from the first Gulf War is any indication, there were hints of a similar sentiment back in the early '90s, as well (although admittedly, I was too young to remember very much about that conflict).

This isn't the only wartime propaganda film I've seen from the Land of the Rising Sun. The other is Akira Kurosawa's infamous The Most Beautiful (1944), which was still a couple years away at this point. Kurosawa's picture fortunately has the advantage of developing its characters and making them likeable, even if their goals are so self-sacrificial that it looks like a recruitment video for a beehive. In this regard, let us draw a stark contrast between Kurosawa's film and The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya. The fact that we can't really get close to any of the characters dooms it to fumble a substantial number of stars. We lose far too much individuality far too quickly and it essentially becomes a fictional newsreel by the second half. There are no real breakaway performances, although there is a little bit of dark humour here and there that at least reminds us that no matter where you are and no matter what's going on, people are people. We forget that too much in times of warfare; these are people with families and friends and love ones. Even if the characterisation is decidedly lacking, we're fortunately reminded of this grounding fact.

Speaking of the newsreel-esque quality of the film, there is a very heavy concentration on action near the climax (as one would expect from a war movie). Eiji Tsuburaya, who would later go on to make kaiju the living, breathing, awe-inspiring phenomena that we've grown to adore, was apparently responsible for the effects in this movie. There appears to be a mix of stock war footage and miniatures at play here, and I'm not too ashamed to admit that it's actually rather difficult to tell the difference at times. I have only one real complaint, and that's Hayashi's crash into the carrier. For such a powerful scene, the final product is decidedly lackluster and takes you out of the movie for a few moments.

There is one final aspect I'd like to touch upon, and that's music. Seiichi Suzuki's score ranges from sentimental military movie fare to Sousa-esque marches, and there really isn't too much to write home about. What's interesting is that the prevailing styles from 30s' Toho films seem to have diminished by this point. The lack of traditional Japanese music or even the hybrid of Eastern scales with Western instruments perhaps suggest a significant turning point in the musical tastes of filmmakers around this period. Maybe movies like these are where we see the decline of Japanese folk influences in favour of the Western aesthetic that drove the likes of Akira Ifukube and Masaru Sato.

What we really have here is a reflection of ourselves. The mirror's frame might look a bit antiquated and foreign, but the glass still reflects. We as a planet still have a lot of growing to do, even now. Our proclivity toward ideological territorialism and blind nationalism still peeks its head out of the den every once in a while. You might scoff at such a notion in the present, but those of us old enough to remember the pre-2001 era will recall a similar mindset. All it really takes is one crisis to spook everyone into the warm, comforting arms of propaganda media. Be it the threat of an enemy military or a terrorist group or even the "threat" of a journalistic organisation that isn't afraid to breach the air gap, the power of propaganda is always right there to recruit us into an intellectual war against not only the enemy of the week, but also against ourselves. And as always, a monumental power differential is at play. How often do we hear the other side of these conflicts when those who want to preserve the status quo have enough power to force radio silence?

Japan may not have been a democracy prior to or during the war, but my home country, the United States, has claimed that ideology since its very beginnings. The only difference between democracy and totalitarianism is just how willing people are to sacrifice their liberties for the goals of the state. It's a film like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya that gives us some modern perspective by allowing us to view an old enemy at play, propaganda. That enemy of intellectual freedom; it was alive then and it's alive now. That's why, despite the abysmal score I chose to bestow upon this obscure film, I urge you to give it a watch.