As Germany was set to try and dominate Europe, just prior to World War 2, Naval Fleet Admiral Yamamoto was being criticised within the Japanese military for being a leading voice against Japan joining forces with Germany, foreseeing his nation’s inevitable destruction. His warnings are not heard, so Yamamoto must command a navy into combat against his own personal convictions.
A war film coming from Asia is now about as common as a blockbuster coming from The States, so why the hell should we care about The Admiral? What makes it different from the rest? Well, there we’re in luck because it isn’t in actual fact a war film at all, but a fact based biopic/political drama set against a WWII backdrop, and one with quite a few tricks up its sleeve at that.
Fans of Japanese cinema, anime especially, may already have seen films that dispel the ‘demonic nip invaders’ perspective that, sadly, some people still hold for the entirety of the Japanese race from the times of WWII. Such films as Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies humanise the civilian population of Japan and intimately illustrate and how tragic their lives became during the city firebombings, to heartbreaking effect.
The Admiral takes it one step further by humanising the military personnel heading up the war, further, the man who ordered the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbour… There’s no defending that, right? Well, what if it turned out THAT man was vocally against an alliance with Germany until the bitter end? What if the only plan he could see that would bring Japan out of this aggression in one piece was to send America a message of intent, followed by a show military aggression against a naval post, followed by a sue for piece? What if his own government withheld the letter of intent, without his knowledge, dooming his nation to all out war?… Kind of puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? Learning the kind of facts and pieces of history that we in the west are not usually privy to are worth watching the film for alone, the fact that it’s a touching and entertaining film is almost just a bonus.
While it’s true that some of the characters are a little broad, the title role of Isoroku Yamamoto is what’s really important and it is embodied masterfully by Koji Yakusho. The humanity of the character is shown simply by his subtle delight of family and food, traits of which ever so slightly shine through in scenes of military command, which he always handles with calm authority and strategically timed vocalised gems of wisdom, and coupled with a knowing yet winning smile makes the character impossible not to like. In all likeliness it’s a rose tinted view of the man, but as a character in a film, Yakusho sure as hell has you on Yamamoto’s side.
The narrative is smartly constructed, giving a good portion of screen time to a cub politics reporter following Yamamoto’s progress, who as well as narrating and filling in chronological gaps, also fills us in on Japan’s war history, so as not to leave any viewer hanging, context wise.
It looks quite nice too. The general period aesthetic rings true, ditto the costumes and uniforms, and if the digital FX don’t have that certain finish that makes them photo realistic, they’re still pretty impressive nonetheless.
The Admiral (or Admiral Yamamoto… or to use the full Japanese title, Isoroku Yamamoto, The Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet) may not be a classic in the making, but it is an eye-opening, entertaining and sometimes touching film that can be counted as one of the year’s better period dramas.
B grade – for originality
A- grade – for storytelling
B+ grade – for acting
B grade – for visuals
Overall grade – B+
The Admiral is available on region 2 Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Cine Asia from September 24th, 2012.
Watch the trailer.