Saw a raw copy, here’s what I wrote on Letterboxd:
Doing a rewatch of the films of Kurosawa, and tracked this one down because it’s an early work on which he was a co-writer.
Take the rating and review with a grain of salt as the only version I was able to find was a significantly compromised copy. It was a faded and muddy print. And it had been uploaded to the internet in an extremely lo-res copy. AND it was completely lacking in subtitles. Thankfully, there was a full synopsis on the Japanese wiki page so, with an assist from Google Translate, I was able to get a solid gist of what’s going on. But given all the long dialogue scenes, I’m sure there’s aspects of nuance which were brushing right past me.
The story opens with two boys losing their fathers in a plane crash. Yukichi was the son of the pilot, Takashi the son of the engineer/co-pilot. After clashing, the two become friends, and Yukichi’s mother takes in the orphaned Takashi, leading the two to grow up as brothers, even after the mother dies and they’re taken in by an uncle. Years later in 1942, the two are now grown men, with Yukichi a decorated ace fighter pilot in the midst of WWII, and Takashi a pilot in the private sector testing out new fighter planes. I think the uncle is involved in the company that makes the planes as he’s often on the sidelines.
This being a propaganda film, it’s all about the planes and celebrating the design and maneuverability of the Zero fighters, leading to long sequences of real aerial footage which is still impressive even though the rough print, though it starts getting uncomfortable when it incorporates real footage of them shooting down enemy planes, especially the prolonged finale of them gunning a B2-bomber out of the sky. While skilled in construction and how it shows the tactics, it’s still chilling because you’re watching real people kill each other in an active war which this was made as a propaganda piece for.
Kurosawa being Kurosawa, he wasn’t a fan of the militarist regime and slipped subversive commentary into his own propaganda films, Uma and The Most Beautiful. I think something similar is going on here as what briefly divides the brothers is Takashi going on a test flight that goes bad and crashes the prototype, with the military quickly blaming it on human error and his brash piloting. Ultimately, Yukichi runs his own test flight, and when this decorated ace fighter shows that no, it really is a structural issue in the design, then everyone listens and Takashi is vindicated. It’s supposed to be a celebration of Yukichi as a pilot, but it also shows a military system that’s quick to blame others to deflect from mistakes, and ruin lives as a result, especially of those who aren’t enlisted.
Some of this is speculation on my part, again due to the lack of a proper translation. Overall, it was a so-so movie. The aerial sequences were again great, and also include a few effects shots by a young Eiji Tsuburaya. The actors were fine, and you can tell the two leads spent some actual time in the cockpits from how it was filmed, but a lot of the scenes felt clunkily staged. I’m glad I saw it, but outside of a subtitled release magically appearing, I don’t see much need to recommend it.
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