The Dark Herald Recommends – The Great War of Archimedes
This one is a little different from the usual pop culture stuff I review.
The Great War of Archimedes is of all things a drama about the building of the Yamato. I found the film intriguing because it’s an excellent example of the Japanese school of storytelling, following as it does the structure of Kishōtenketsu.
The producers clearly spent a big chunk of their period piece money on the first scene. Which was a pretty decent rendering of the destruction of the Yamato in April of 1945, just a few months before the surrender.
From a Western perspective, operation Ten-Go was a pointless waste of materials and men. Yamato was being held in reserve by the IJN to defend the home waters when the inevitable invasion of Japan started.
If it hadn’t been for an off-hand remark by Hirohito, Yamato would have ended her days in the Nuclear Target Fleet off of Bikini atoll. And her crew would have died of old age at home.
But when the Emperor was being briefed about the Imperial Army’s suicidal plans for the defense of Okinawa, he asked, “what about the Navy? Do we have no ships left?”
That remark sealed Yamato’s fate as well as that of her crew. In order to save face, the navy launched, Ten-Go, an oversized Kamikaze mission and the crew knew when they left port that even if the operation was successful they would end up on beached on the Okinawan shore being pounded into scrap metal.
Yamato never got that far. She was attacked by 400 American aircraft enroute and sunk. Shortly after she keeled over there was a titanic explosion, as the main magazines ignited.* Breaking the ship and killing the remainder of her 3,000-man crew.
Japan didn’t know about it at the time. The families of her crewmen figured it out, but it was not something that was going to be publicized by the military government.
Yamato didn’t really mean all that much to Japanese culture until the early 1950s when one of her surviving officers, Yoshida Mitsuru, started publishing books and articles on the ship and her end. It quickly became something that touched the soul of the Japanese. Her memory turned into something much more culturally significant in her death than she ever was when she was afloat. She turned into a symbol of Japan in World War II to the post-war Japanese.
From The Diplomat.com:
“Shunichi Takekawa argues that the stylized memory of Yamato provides a space for working out contradictory messages about Japanese nationalism, and about the historical experience of World War II. This goes well beyond a straightforward right-wing interpretation of Japanese nationalism, as the Yamato narrative evokes complex and contradictory understandings of the war, some of which even verge into left-wing pacifism.
It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the colossal Yamato has become symbolic of multiple interpretations of Japan’s colonial period. Her construction represented a doomed effort to match and exceed the capabilities of the Western powers, and yet her entire career was characterized by dysfunction within the Japanese war machine. The final destruction of Yamato evokes a vision of heroic, but also pointless and futile, sacrifice.”
The Great War of Archimedes, for the most part, tends to paint over the literal history of the Yamato in order to tell its own story. As well as its own interpretation of what the Yamato means in Japanese culture.
The story is one of conflicting visions for Japan’s place in the world during the pre-war Japanese colonial period. I’m not doing any spoiler alerts here. You are going to get the whole thing.
After watching the sinking of Yamato, we jump back in time 12 years and there is a major argument going on in Kaigun Admiralty over a replacement for the pre-WWI battleship Kongo.
Admiral Yamamoto, who is being portrayed as the visionary good guy, wants a huge carrier. The old Gun Club, thought to be represented by Admiral Hirayama, wants a gigantic ultra-dreadnaught. To inspire pride in the Japanese people and encourage them to stride forward and take their place in the world.
Yamamoto is against the huge ship because he is convinced it will inspire Japan into a disastrous war with the United States. He is also convinced that Hirayama is cooking the books.
Later, he meets a young “once-in-a-century mathematical genius,” Kai. He is a pacifist and a bit of a globalist. He is extremely anti-military. In short, he is a modern Japanese insert. Kai is also clearly on the Spectrum. After a lot of screen time is burned up, Kai agrees to come on board with Yamamoto to try and stop the construction of the new super battleship.
He accepts a navy commission as a Lt. Cmdr. (equivalent) and gets to work. As part of his process, he back-engineers a battleship design similar to but superior to the one that Admiral Hirayama has proposed. And it much more closely resembles the final form of the Yamato class.
In horror, he tears up the design. He both wants to see it built and is frightened of himself for wanting to build it.
There is a big showdown at the Kaigun Admiralty. Kai proves that Hirayama drastically underestimated the cost of construction. Hirayama, admits it but then says, so what? We need this thing.
But then Kai proves mathematically that the new super battleship will founder in a typhoon, and those hit Japan about three times a year. Hirayama withdraws his proposal and despite what history says, it looks like Yamamoto is going to get his version of an Essex class carrier. The last shot of him is discussing his tentative war plans for an air attack on Pearl Harbor. In his deepest heart, Yamamoto thinks there is a chance of victory against the USA.
But then comes the all-important twist (ten) in a Ketsutenkeshu structured story. Hirayama tells Kai the real reason he needs this ultra-battleship built.
He says that Admiral Yamamoto is indeed correct. Carriers are clearly and obviously the way of the future. Battleships will be sitting ducks in the next war. Worse, there is no avoiding a war with the United States. The collision course is set and can’t be stopped now. Unlike Yamamoto, Hirayama is dead certain that not only is Japan going to lose but it’s going to be ground into nothing because the Japanese simply have no cultural mechanism for surrender. BUT if there is a giant, beautiful battleship that all of Japan puts its heart and soul into and then that ship is destroyed. Then Japan’s heart will break and they can endure the unendurable by raising a white flag.
The Yamato is to be built as a sacrifice to save Japan. And Kai is going to build it.
What has to be understood is that this film is much more about Japan’s unique and stylized memory of the Yamato as they choose to remember it. Rather than a factual accounting of what she really meant to Japan at the time of her destruction.
Currently available from Tubi, free with commercials.
The Dark Herald Recommends with Confidence. (4/5).
*Almost certainly from internal fires although there is a rebel school of thought that maintains she was scuttled.