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Sinking the Supership
Produced by Keiko Hagihara Bang
Written and directed by David Axelrod
WGBH Boston Video, 2005, 56 min., DVD

Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, represented Japan's military might even though the ship had a negligible effect on the course of the Pacific War. This excellent documentary explores Yamato's history from its top-secret design to its final suicide mission and sinking by American dive bombers and torpedo planes. This program, originally shown on PBS in October 2005, also follows the 1999 exploration of Yamato's remains on the sea floor 1,200 feet below the surface. However, the film misleads viewers by never mentioning that the exploration took place six years earlier. When the narrator describes the underwater exploration, he states, "60 years ago these waters were the site of many sinkings," but in actuality it was 54 years prior to the expedition. The documentary narrator also deceives viewers by making it seem like the film's underwater exploration found for the first time the two-meter wide chrysanthemum imperial seal at the front of the giant battleship, but in actuality this had been discovered in a 1985 underwater expedition that had found and surveyed the Yamato wreck at the bottom of the sea [1]. Despite these lapses and a few other shortcomings, this documentary's balanced tone between Japanese and American sides, interesting remarks by Yamato survivors and other veterans, helpful computer graphics, and focused script make this an outstanding work about the most famous of Japan's wartime suicide attacks.

Sinking the Supership features fascinating and extended comments from two crewmembers who survived Yamato's sinking and another crewmember who served aboard the battleship earlier in the war. The two survivors, Naoyoshi Ishida and Kazuhiro Fukumoto, emotionally describe how they escaped the whirlpool caused by the battleship's sinking. Two other Pacific War veterans also provide interesting details regarding Yamato. Sakutaro Nishihata, who worked on the design, explains the battleship's characteristics and the extreme secrecy involved with its design and construction. Ed Sieber, a former Navy pilot of one of the 400 American planes that attacked the battleship Yamato, tells how he dropped a bomb and strafed the deck.

The battleship Yamato's planned attack on the American fleet off Okinawa is often referred to as a kamikaze mission and was designated by the Japanese Navy as a special attack (tokko in Japanese), since no one aboard the battleship expected to survive against overwhelming numbers of American warships and planes. Only 260 of Yamato's crew of 3,000 survived the ship's sinking when rescued from the water by escort destroyers that had survived the American attacks. The documentary gives brief background on aerial kamikaze attacks, which put pressure on Navy leaders to commit Yamato to make an attack even though the crew certainly would not survive. The film explains that the Japanese military had a strong tradition of being willing to die for honor and to give everything until the very end even when losing.

Although the giant battleship was a well-known symbol of Japan's military strength, it quickly turned into a white elephant spending most of its time during the war just sitting at port in mainland Japan. The ship's impressive capabilities included main guns that could shoot 18-inch shells to targets 25 miles away. However, warplanes launched from enemy aircraft carriers made huge battleships obsolete by the beginning of the Pacific War. Therefore, during the war Navy leaders were reluctant to commit Yamato to battle.

A few changes would have made this documentary even better. First, the film lacks maps, such as the path of Yamato's final mission from Kure Harbor to the place where it sank in the East China Sea. Next, the narrator at times seems to overstate the controversy and mystery surrounding the Yamato's sinking in order to promote the importance of the "discovery" of the giant battleship's remains on the sea floor by the underwater expedition shown in the film. There is no mention of the 1985 underwater expedition that first discovered and surveyed the battleship on the seabed. Finally, the film lacks details regarding the suicide mission led by Yamato toward Okinawa, such as the fact that the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers escorted Yamato.

A well-designed website makes available much valuable supplementary material such as complete transcripts of interviews with the two Yamato survivors. Keiko Hagihara Bang, producer of this documentary, explains in an article her motivations for making this film. The site also has interactive drawings with explanations of the entire ship and 12 key parts such as its bulbous bow, tower bridge, and anti-aircraft guns. A teacher's guide provides student questions and suggested answers.

This history of the battleship Yamato ranks high among documentaries about Japan's special (suicide) attacks. The interviews with Yamato veterans provide a unique and invaluable perspective to understand the battleship's significance and the final suicide mission. Visit Sinking the Supership website for more information.

Notes

1. Taiheiyou sensou kenkyuu kai 2009, 244.

Source Cited

Taiheiyou sensou kenkyuu kai (Pacific War Research Society). 2009. Senkan Yamato no 100 nazo (100 mysteries of Battleship Yamato). Tokyo: Sekai Bunka Publishing.