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Wings of Defeat

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Reviewed by Alejandro Echevarria

Wings of Defeat is a documentary that contains rare interviews with surviving kamikaze pilots, also known as the tokko or Tokkotai (Special Attack Forces). However, the film deals with much more than the kamikaze. Risa Morimoto, the director of the film, had an uncle in Japan who was a surviving tokko. Although she found this out after his death, she had many questions about his life. For many Americans, the kamikaze may be considered fanatical suicide bombers who did not value human life. yet, for Morimoto, this did not describe her uncle. The film explores the human side of the kamikaze through interviews, newsreels, photos, an animated sequence, documents, and voice-overs by Morimoto, as well as Japanese and American veterans.

This film belongs in the secondary and post-secondary classroom and is especially suited for World History and American History courses. Educators in early secondary education should decide if the film is appropriate due to the subject matter and the graphic images of war. One of the difficulties a teacher will have with the film is deciding whether to allot ninety minutes to the subject of the kamikaze, in addition to discussion time. In the past, I found that I could cover the subject of the kamikaze with fifteen minutes of newsreels and discussion. However, this is not the type of film where one can show a fifteen-minute segment. The entire film needs to be seen from beginning to end, and I believe it is indeed worth spending that amount of time. As a high school history teacher, I was quite taken with this film, and I believe it belongs in the classroom.

Wings of Defeat does not dwell solely on the kamikaze. The film gives a synopsis of the Pacific War, but focuses mainly on its final eight months. The lives of the pilots do not dominate the film, but instead become a story within a story.

Perspectives of Japanese civilians during the war play a pivotal role in the film. This perspective, difficult to find in other films, takes the students to a necessary place for them to understand the complexities of war. The film moves between the pilots’ historical memory, the perspective of the civilian population, and the official policy of the Japanese government in such a complete way that the viewer understands why Japan continued to fight a war that devastated the nation.

American military survivors of the USS Drexler, a destroyer sunk by kamikaze pilots, give their account of fighting against suicide pilots in a forty-minute follow-up film to Wings of Defeat. The film, entitled Another Journey, documents the American veterans’ journey to Japan to meet and reconcile with the former kamikaze pilots featured in the film.

Many of the tokko pilots were teenagers, the same age as my students. Of the four thousand pilots, around three thousand were “boy pilots” with little understanding of the war, let alone knowledge of how to successfully pilot a plane. Due to a labor shortage, high school girls in Japan were pulled out of the classroom to manufacture planes for these pilots. This alone makes the film engaging for students.

Interesting details in Wings of Defeat show the humanity of tokko pilots. When the director visits a small Tokkotai museum and opens a journal kept by one of the pilots, she shows intriguing drawings and entries that look very similar to what my students would journal. Many of the pilots adopted families around the training centers to help them ease the constant thoughts they had of their own deaths. Members of these families made dolls that represented themselves for the pilots to carry in their planes so that they would not be alone when they died. In a picture kept by one of the pilots, he points out the doll attached to his waist.

Wings of Defeat will help students think more deeply about the nature of warfare. This film is about how ideology and belief guided the Japanese to use the Tokkotai as a last resort. In an interview with one of the director’s elderly family members, she said she had believed Japan would win the war once the government began to use the kamikaze. She believed the pilots were “deities” (kami-sama), and that now the gods were on the side of Japan. Even in the spring of 1945, when the war was at its worst for Japan, the kamikaze became a tool of propaganda. The population was urged to die for their nation, and the film shows a propaganda poster with the caption “Every citizen is now kamikaze.”

This film has relevance today, as students are confronted almost daily with news about terrorists, fanatics, and suicide bombers. Perhaps this film will give them an anchor to ask the questions that should be asked. This is why Edgewood Pictures markets Wings of Defeat not just for History classes, but also for courses in Peace and Justice, Human Rights, Political Science, International Relations, and Media and Culture.

Teachers who purchase the film also receive a teacher’s guide created by SPICE with “Letters to Educators” from Professor John Dower, Professor Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Linda Hoaglund, and Risa Morimoto.

After viewing this film, I know I will devote more than fifteen minutes to the kamikaze. Wings of Defeat is an ideal film for concluding a unit on the Pacific War, and it will generate a classroom discussion questioning the nature of war.