The Admiral, or Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet to give it it’s full title, tells the story of Japan’s chief naval officer during the second world war. Admiral Yamamoto’s has appeared in several films before – often played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune – but few films have shown the man beyond the uniform and the procedure of going to war. This is the man who gave the orders for the bombing of Pearl Harbour, sent squadrons of kamikaze pilots to their deaths and was a key player in The Battle of Midway. A sprawling two hour plus narrative should have ample time to show these events and the agonising decisions made to send men to their deaths.
This truly is a film of two halfs. Well a quarter and three quarters. One quarter of the time we are watching aerial dog fights, suicide attacks and bombings. The other three quarters involve people sat around tables discussing things. In one regard this highlights that a large part of the war machine does involved old men deciding the fate of the soldiers and officers in the thick of it. For the first half hour or so these scene remain quite interesting, especially in the build up to Pearl Harbor (personally I didn’t know that the Japanese declaration of war arrived an hour after they had already bombed) but afterwards there seems to be no end to scenes sat around tables with Admiral Yamamoto (a stoic Koji Yakusho) sat patiently listen as over marshals scream frantically. The rest of the time we see a journalist sat around a table writing, or discussing stories with his colleagues. Then there’s the journalists friends who he meets in a bar to discuss the events of the war with who cheer and over act like characters from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Yamaguchi Tamon, the journalist (Hiroshi Abe) acts as our opening and closing narrator added some back story and epilogue to the tale but other than that his character seems merely present to pad out the story. His plot thread does show the workings of a Japanese newspaper in war time but it feels like another movie in itself. Here in this story of Yamamoto it comes across as misplaced and frankly dull.
There also seems to a third movie in the scene involving the kamikaze pilots. In classic Star Wars mode it’s hard to tell the pilots apart and with little to know time to get to know them their deaths do not feel nearly as shocking as they should do. Indeed most of the pilots who plow into battleships and air craft carriers do so with a defiant smile. Perhaps more emotion would have been garnered by showing the torment and anguish some of these young men went through, bing forced into giving their lives. It made me think that I would rather be watching a film about that rather than The Admiral.
The aerial scenes are certainly beautiful to watch, albeit for slightly ropey CGI at times. Vast shots of aircraft engaged in dogfights are well photographed but fail to engage on a visceral level. Maybe the filmmakers thought an action packed plane battle would be too much of a shock after having sat watching a meeting of admirals for the past twenty minutes. Despite the poster promising action packed aerial gun fights, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour does win for the more balls-to-the-wall action approach – depending on your moral stand point this good be good or bad.
Central to these moments of action, scenes of people talking at tables and people talking for what seems like no reason is Yakusho’s performance as Yamamoto. The Admiral is portrayed as a man of intense honour and fairness. His decision to bomb Pearl Harbor is shown to be gut wrenchingly difficult to decide, almost to the point where it looks like he’s talked into it by his officers. He’s also shown to be a man who feels life is precious but still waves off dozens of pilots to their certain fate. When in uniform the performance is so stiff it is hard to find the humanity or even interest to watch him. The real moments where Yakusho comes alive as performer and Yamamoto as a man is in flash backs showing him interacting with a small girl who is spooked by his missing digits. This scenes are brief which is a shame because it would have made the later years and decisions that more intense to have seen more of his mild mannered side.
The Admiral is ultimately a disappointment all round. Scenes showing the politics and committees of warfare are tiresome. I mean, there really is a lot of men sat down talking at each other. The aerial scenes are stunning to look at but flat emotionally and it is littered with unnecessary characters. Surely a man as important as Admiral Yamamoto deserves a fuller telling of his story.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go to a boardroom and discuss things with some men for seven hours. Might be a bit more interesting.