Smithsonian Channel // 2008 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // March 6th, 2009
"There's nothing like somebody coming at you that you know is not going to stop." -- a World War II Veteran on Kamikaze pilots
Even though it clocks in at 75 minutes, is full of fascinating interviews and wartime footage, and tells some revealing and astonishing stories, Day of the Kamikaze still feels incomplete. There is a lot to admire about the meticulous care that went into researching this story and the equal care the show takes to tell it, but there is a gaping hole that it fails to address: How exactly did the Japanese decide to use suicide bombers? What combination of desperation and fanaticism led Japanese military commanders to literally send young men off to die on missions to inflict maximum damage by deliberately crashing their planes into enemy ships? The show doesn't explain this, even though it explains virtually everything else about the kamikaze attacks of the final days of World War II in the summer of 1945.
It's a shame that the show glosses over how the Japanese government came up with the kamikaze program because in every other respect it's remarkably well presented. There are some extraordinary photos and film footage of kamikaze pilots training for their missions, as well as rare surviving footage of actual attacks. American and British survivors recall how horrified and demoralized they were to see enemy planes literally flying to their deaths. Even though the actual physical damage committed by the kamikazes was often minimal (it's estimated that over eighty percent of kamikaze pilots were shot down or crashed into the ocean before they could actually hit their targets), the psychological impact of these suicide attacks was severe enough to help grind the Allies down to a halt. There are even a handful of interviews with surviving kamikaze pilots, which of course sounds like a contradiction in terms since they were supposed to die when their planes crashed on impact. However, a handful did manage to survive, either when their missions were canceled, they were promoted to non-flying officers, or they were forced to return to their bases before they could complete their missions. Their recollections about how the pilots were trained, brainwashed, and often deliberately left in the dark are stunning.
In covering the kamikaze story, Day of the Kamikaze tells how it happened and what its effects were thoroughly. Where it falters is in explaining why. The show begins by describing how the key to kamikaze program lies in understanding its administrator and theoretician, Japanese Air Force Commander Matomei Ugaki. The problem is that the show doesn't explain him at all. Who was he? How did he arrive at his philosophy? There is some brief talk of Japan's samurai ethic and the desperate shape the Japanese war effort was in by May 1945, but the entire decision and philosophical underpinnings of suicide attacks isn't explained or even really mentioned. Moreover, even though the show quotes frequently from Ugaki's personal diary, it still doesn't really give a full portrait of the man himself. Without explaining how the Japanese arrived at the conclusion to sacrifice their best pilots for a strategy that could, at best, have only resulted in a stalemate, it just feels incomplete.
The only extra on the DVD doesn't fill in this gap, although it is a worthy companion piece. Eyewitness Kamikaze is a 22-minute show containing interviews with American and British sailors recalling how they survived Kamikaze attacks. Some of the interview footage is recycled from the main feature, but there are enough good stories to make this a fascinating show to watch. Both shows are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks that look and sound good, as befits the HD Smithsonian Channel. However, the copy provided for review contained many sound dropouts that made it sometimes hard to understand. Viewers who decide to buy this disc should check their copies to ensure they're not defective as well.
Ultimately, Day of the Kamikaze is difficult to recommend wholeheartedly. It's worth at least a look for history buffs, because it contains some remarkable stories and footage. Because it fails to tell the whole story, however, it falls short as a definitive look at one of the most horrific and destructive chapters in WWII. Day of the Kamikaze is reluctantly found guilty, and hopefully Smithsonian Channel will make another program that completes the job this one only began.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated