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Kamikaze: Mission of Death
Produced by Arthur Holch
Written by Lisa Totten
HBO Video, 1980, 25 min., Video

Many documentaries on Japan's kamikaze pilots focus on military operations and battle footage, but viewers acquire very little understanding of the motivations and feelings of the soldiers who went on missions of death. In contrast, this superb film includes excerpts of letters written by kamikaze pilots, interviews with two former members of kamikaze units, and quotations from kamikaze military leaders. Hal Holbrook, prominent American actor, skillfully narrates the documentary. Roger Pineau, coauthor of the most influential book on kamikaze history (The Divine Wind), served as consultant for the film. The program lasts less than a half hour, but it includes numerous relevant film clips and historical details.

The video's beginning part explains that Japan's military leaders called on the country's tradition of self-sacrifice in order to try to do something to stop the enemy advance. Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, who formed the first kamikaze corps in the Philippines in October 1944, knew Japan had a critical shortage of planes and trained pilots, and he observed that conventional air attacks led to huge Japanese losses with little damage inflicted on the enemy. The narrator states Ohnishi's idea, "Each of our planes must knock out an American aircraft carrier. This is possible only by crash diving." The video shows several Japanese news clips of the farewell given to the first kamikaze corps.

This documentary presents several personal stories that allow viewers to glimpse the emotions and thoughts of a few kamikaze pilots. Nobuya Kinase, whose kamikaze unit consisted of nine former university students drafted into the Navy, was the only survivor of his unit. He still sheds tears for his departed comrades more than thirty years after their deaths. On the eve of Masafumi Yasuhara's departure for a kamikaze attack near Okinawa in March 1945, he returned a doll given to him by a girl, and he wrote a message to her saying how much the doll had comforted him during the time before his final flight. Sanehisa Uemura, who died in a kamikaze attack in the Philippines in October 1944, wrote a letter to his four-year-old daughter saying to grow up to be a healthy and big girl. In regards to the Japanese public's opinion, the narrator explains, "But to this day the kamikaze pilots are looked on as heroes, young men who died willingly for Japan."

Although Kamikaze: Mission of Death presents a historically accurate account, a few statements seem somewhat exaggerated. For example, the kamikaze pilots' "rare surviving letters" mentioned in the video actually number several hundred. The following explanation of the kamikaze pilots' feelings prior to their final mission also seems overstated:

Such was the power of the kamikaze emotion. The suicide pilots experienced a kind of hypnotic trance. As their hour to die came closer, their spirit soared. They felt a sense of ecstasy.

Although a few pilots may have felt such emotions, the letters left behind by many pilots make clear that most were not in some type of hypnotic trance. However, many do write of the honor they felt in being able to make an attack to defend their country.

This documentary excels with respect to production quality, historical accuracy, and personal insights.