This month Cinema Asian American on XFINITY On Demand presents the award-winning documentary “Wings of Defeat”, a powerful and intimate portrait of WWII Japanese kamikaze pilots. Revealing the personal stories and struggles behind the “suicide bombers” of their day, the film uses interviews with surviving kamikaze, rare battle footage and Japanese propaganda to offer a side of WWII never before shown on film. Shattering the myth of the fanatical kamikaze to reveal a generation of men forced to pay for an empire’s pride with their lives, “Wings of Defeat” is vital and timely viewing. Director Risa Moritmoto sat down to answer questions about the production of the film.
“Wings of Defeat” offers a complex and dimensional portrayal of the WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot – figures who in Western media have historically been represented as fanatic suicide bombers. Why?
RM: As a second generation Japanese American with close ties with Japan, I was shocked when I discovered at age 25 that my uncle trained to be a kamikaze. The uncle I knew and loved was a very funny, loveable man. The stereotypes of the kamikaze that I had learned about in my history classes described them as menacing, evil, suicidal fanatics. I quickly realized that if I knew very little about these men’s realities then there would be many others who would as well and it was a great chance to make a documentary about the topic. Through my research and working with my producer Linda Hoaglund, I learned that the Japanese also held one dimensional stereotypes of these men but as selfless martyrs who gave up their lives for their country. We had an opportunity to tear down these myths on both sides and hear from the men directly. Enough time has passed where they were ready to talk about their experiences truthfully and we as Americans were ready to hear their stories
Your late uncle, was a kamikaze pilot and his story helped to build the foundation of this film. Why was it important for you, as a second generation Japanese American, to bring a personal narrative to this film?
RM: To be honest, we tried different ways to tell the film when we were editing. We decided that my personal journey to discover my uncle’s past was a great tool of entry into the film and also make it accessible to westerners. We wanted to make the strongest film possible that would resonate with audiences. If viewers had questions at the end of the film and wanted to discuss more about what happened, then I knew we had succeeded. Of course, it was great to have my family as a part of the film as a document of this time when I was asking real questions about my uncle’s past. A few of them have passed on since we made the film so it holds even greater value to me personally.
To research the film, you combed exhaustively through photo and film archives both in the US and Japan. Can you describe what kind of materials you discovered?
RM: The National Archives in DC is a treasure trove for all things WWII and Japan. Since Japan had lost the war, the U.S. confiscated their film and photos. In particular, we came across some really old propaganda film with horrible audio with people speaking archaic Japanese that Linda was able to translate. Most people would not have even glanced at this footage twice. We were able to dig up some real treasures that ended up in the film. We also used many personal photos that the pilots shared with us. Photos of them and their friends hugging and smiling is just something you don’t see in formal Japanese photos, especially during that time period. I was really shocked and delighted to see these men with their guard down being teenagers with their buddies. There is a vulnerability that you can’t find in official photos or footage.
How did your exploration of kamikaze pilots affect your interpretation of the contemporary politics of suicide bombers, who not only use airplanes, but cars, buses and their bodies as means of inflicting destruction that has enormous symbolic power?
RM: It saddens me deeply that suicide bombers still exist. Many of the psychological tactics they used to train the Kamikaze seem to be used with contemporary suicide bombers. It is a forceful and effective way to get them to complete their assigned missions. Though it is easy to draw comparisons, the former Kamikaze that I interviewed are adamant that they are different–mainly because the Kamikaze were a part of the military hitting military targets and not civilian targets. That said, I think 50 years from now we may discover what we thought we knew of these current suicide bombers was not true at all. Not to be a conspiracy theorist but just because our government tells us it is so, doesn’t mean it is.
What are you working on next?
RM: I am working on a couple of different projects right now. Code Red is a documentary about how the Internet is transforming Chinese society. We are almost finished with production and will be heading into the editing room shortly. The other project is called Hope Road about two women who are fighting to eradicate domestic sex trafficking. Believe it or not, almost 300,000 American girls (average age is 12) are trafficked domestically each year. We have been researching the last year or so and just started shooting this film.