by: Tim Reynaga [ ]
Originally published on:
In September, 1970 I’d just turned seven. One night my dad decided to take me to see a movie which, strangely, my mom had no interest in seeing. But hey, it was time with my dad, so I was into it. We got some popcorn and drinks, and as we sat down in the theater together life was good. And then the movie started… there were a few airplanes and ships, which was cool, but it quickly turned into mostly old guys in uniforms talking. And talking. And talking. Plus, a lot of the talking was in Japanese with little words I couldn’t really read or understand. And they all just kept on talking. I held on as long as I could, but the combination of comfy seat, a bellyful of popcorn and sheer boredom soon had me fast asleep. After the intermission (remember those?) dad woke me up and told me it was about to get better. I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t want to disappoint him by falling asleep again so I tried my best… and it did get better. A lot better! After a slowish start, the action really picked up and there were planes and ships blowing up everywhere. Very cool! By the time the battle was over I was really jazzed about the action I’d seen… except it didn’t seem quite right somehow. Some of the bad guys (I knew they were bad because I couldn’t understand them) got knocked off, which I liked, but our guys really got the crap beat out of them too. And in the end after the battle things were a real mess, and all of the old guys were sad. And talking again.
In the years since then I’ve seen Tora! Tora! Tora! many times, and as a ship modeler and history nut it has become one of my all time favorite movies… but my reaction as a seven year old was probably more in step with most people who saw the movie during its general release. It was a superbly crafted and historically balanced film, but the story of an American defeat foreshadowing the Japanese defeat just didn’t have the feel good feeling of most other war movies where the good guys had their act together and the bad guys got the smackdown they deserved. Box office receipts reflected this, and whatever documentary historical excellence the film represented, Tora! Tora! Tora! was not a financial or critical success.
Could it have been different? The original concept involved the famous Japanese director Akira (“the Emperor”) Kurosawa writing and directing the Japanese sequences with Hollywood talent producing the American scenes, as had been done with great success with the American, British, and German filmmaker collaboration on The Longest Day. The producers felt that the legendary Japanese director would help overcome the difficult Pearl Harbor attack theme by applying the “Kurosawa magic” to the project.
This book is about that collaboration and how it fell apart. Without giving away too much, here are some tidbits:
• Kurosawa saw Tora! Tora! Tora! as, “…neither documentary nor spectacle,” but envisioned the film as a sort of Greek tragedy with Admiral Yamamoto as the central character. “I want to look into what it might mean to be a human being at a time of war...”
• Kurosawa’s original screenplay would have made the movie over seven hours long.
• When he was fired from the project after only three weeks of shooting, Kurosawa threatened to commit suicide.
• Kurosawa spent $500,000 – without the knowledge or permission of the studio producers - to build full sized mockups of the battleship Nagato and carrier Akagi.
• Kurosawa planned a much more lengthy and elaborate “manning-the-rails” change of command ceremony aboard the Nagato than was actually used in the opening sequence of the film.
• Kurosawa cast many non-actors, including many Japanese Naval Academy graduates, in roles as senior IJN officers.
• There was to be a comical scene involving cooks aboard the carrier Akagi.
• There was to be a scene of an elderly fisherman terrorized by the sight of the new battleship Yamato: “ just like a horrible nightmare symbolizing disastrous war…slowly the ‘monster’ steals through the dawn mists and vanishes.”
• There was to be a grand scene showing the entire 32-ship task force departing Hitokappu Bay for the attack.
• Kurosawa became so erratic during shooting that he wore a crash helmet on set and insisted on 24 hour bodyguard protection because he was convinced that Japanese Yakuza gangsters were trying to assassinate him.
• The book also includes storyboards prepared by Kurosawa for the film.
The Tora! Tora! Tora! eventually completed without Kurosawa reflected the American producers’ vision of a Pacific version of The Longest Day, a factual epic told from both sides which focused on events and spectacle rather than on individuals. For many of us history buffs and modelers, that was just fine – but film critics have been less kind. The New York Times said, “From the moment you read the ads for this film (‘The Most Spectacular Film Ever Made’) you are aware that you are in the presence of a film possessed by a lack of imagination so singular that it amounts to a death wish”, and Time magazine said, “…master director Akira Kurosawa might have revealed the complex psychologies that led to the abyss and beyond. Without him, the film is a series of episodes, a day in the death. As for real men and causes, they are victims missing in action.” My favorite quote is from the Mainichi Shinbun: “This is an impressive spectacle movie. But it conveys nothing about the misery of a war… we don’t want the kind of movie that has no philosophy and attracts plastic-model fans alone.”
Even if you are a fan of the movie (as I am), it is interesting to ponder what Tora! Tora! Tora! might have been had Kurosawa been able to realize his vision of it as something “…neither documentary nor spectacle” but “the tale of one human being [Admiral Yamamoto] who, in his brief moment in the spotlight of history, acted contrary to his own aspirations and ideals brought about a fatal collision between two countries, one that brought his own country to the brink of ruin and resulted in his own death.” It would definitely have been a different movie. Being Kurosawa, it would also have been something special.