After attending their grandmother’s funeral, two young adults discover that she was remarried following the death of her first husband, the biological father of their mother. The two set out, with the blessing of their step-grandfather, to find out the truth about their grandfather Miyabe (Junichi Okada). He had been a pilot in the war, flying one of the famed Zero fighter planes. Many of his contemporaries from that time describe him as a coward who was quick to run from battle. However, his grandson Kentaro (Haruma Miura) perseveres with the investigation that soon reveals a very different story. Far from being weak, Miyabe was one of the top pilots, but his belief in the sanctity of life and determination to save others put him at odds with his fellow pilots.
“The Eternal Zero” is based on the book by Naoki Hyakuta and directed by Takashi Yamazaki from a screenplay by Yamazaki and Tamio Hayashi. The story flits back and forth between the ‘present’ of 2004 and the war years. It is a structure that allows for much needed breaks in the narrative of Miyabe’s wartime experiences as well as giving the filmmakers a way of showing the impact of his actions two generations later. The wartimes segments are enlivened by some great aerial sequences, with Zeros and American fighters being recreated through CGI, that capture the ferocity and deadliness of the fighting. We see some of the most pivotal battles of the war, Midway and Guadal Canal, recreated, though the characters are fictional. There are only a couple of brief glimpses of bloody or violent scenes, but it is enough for the audience to understand the seriousness of what is at stake. Junichi Okada plays Miyabe with a calm air that shifts alarmingly in a later scene when he comes to understand the true horror of war. There are some great supporting performances from Mao Inoue as his young wife, Hirofumi Arai as his fellow pilot Kageura, an aggressive, gung-ho counterpoint to Miyabe, and Min Tanaka who plays his sombre older self. Shota Sometani also stars as a likeable young recruit who is helped by Miyabe. The film is rather longer than it needs to be at over two hours, and the acting at times overly dramatic. It suffers most when it attempts to steer the audience to a conclusion rather than allowing the story to stand for itself, though for the most part it is an engaging and emotional tale.
“The Eternal Zero” looks back at the war from the Japanese perspective with a mature eye, acknowledging the rampant nationalism and idolatry that led many to their deaths, and admitting that mistakes were made. A number of the characters comment on the fact that their way of thinking has changed with the passage of time. Some may dismiss this as a sly attempt to avoid taking responsibility for some of the atrocities committed during wartime, a way of distancing those who were there from these very different times and circumstances. However, the men who fought were young at the time, and fed imperial propaganda that indoctrinated a sense of superiority, and a do or die mentality into its military. The film’s central message is one of the value of life, not to throw it away needlessly, but to preserve it as our greatest asset. In contrast to his fellow pilots, Miyabe believes each life he can save, including his own, will be more valuable than those lost in pursuit of victory. It is a belief that is vindicated by many in later life who praise him for his stance, one that was difficult at the time. This is a powerful and important message to try to do the right thing even when those around you are pressuring you to conform to their own ideals.