From the creators of Godzilla comes this epic that attempts to tell the entire history of Japan's participation in World War II from the perspective of an airplane. Not a single airplane, but rather a type of airplane. That airplane is the Japanese Zero fighter, which was a technological marvel when it first entered combat. Apparently this was a great surprise to the Americans in the film, one of whom declares, "[Japan] can't make what we would call a good car!"
In case you haven't guessed from that last line, this film is dubbed, and badly. The dubbing was done with same voice actors as those in Last Days of Planet Earth, and whoever wrote the English language script was going for laughs.
The main characters in Zero are Hamada and Mitsushima, two recruits in the Imperial Navy. Scared and disgusted at their treatment by the Navy, they plan on going AWOL until they are stopped by an officer, who realizes what they are about to do and then shows them the prototype Zero fighter. With tears practically streaming from their eyes, their hearts swell with national pride. The two men decide to continue with their training in order to have a chance to fly such a plane. This just goes to prove that men will do anything to have the latest cutting-edge toys.
"We are filled with shame because
our uniforms aren't as silly
as the British ones."
Our heroes are are sent through a training regimen that looks designed to compete with the British in terms of sheer military goofiness (see Zulu Dawn). Crotch jumping and the weird two-person somersaults that the recruits are made to do should be Olympic sports, if you ask us. After the training is done, Hamada becomes a pilot and Mitsushima becomes a mechanic, thus giving us many heart-warming scenes in which grease monkey Mistushima waves his floppy little hat in circles while Hamada bravely risks his life flying around in a tin can. Who got the better deal? We suspect that Hamada and Mitsushima would give you an answer that is very different from ours.
There is an early scene that gives you some idea of the melodramatic territory that this film will cover. The captain of Hamada's squad dies during a test flight in a production Zero, which shimmies itself to pieces when flown at top speed. It turns out that the Zero's designers didn't bother to wind tunnel-test some modifications they made to the plane. So that's where Microsoft got their ideas about beta testing in the field! One of the engineering types defends the policy by saying, "We know there are defects, but we must fly. We can't wait till it's perfect."
It goes from zero to sixty in...
well, never, because it's always a Zero!
Speaking of the planes, Zero contains lots of dog-fighting scenes, and the vast majority of them are accomplished through miniature effects. Those effects were realized by Koichi Kawakita, who would go on to do all the special effects for the Godzilla films from Godzilla vs. Biollante through Godzilla vs Destroyah. In general, the miniature effects are quite good, and they are blended with stock footage quite well. It was nice to see the planes actually flying around and shooting each other down, as opposed to the "fly towards Godzilla, now burn burn burn!" action we're used to.
Hamada soon becomes an ace, and Mitsushima is sent back to Japan to learn advanced mechanics. Once back on the mainland, Mitsushima meets Shizuko, a cute young woman whose bicycle has broken down. Mitsushima fixes her bike, and she offers him some eggs because she "has no other way to thank" him. He's been in the Imperial Navy for the last two years; we bet he can think of other ways she can thank him. After their little exchange of kindnesses, the two become friends and eventually fall in love.
No fertility symbolism here.
Shizuko is a welcome addition to the movie, because her dubbed dialogue is so hilarious. During one example, she announces that being a woman during a war is frustrating because "We never get to test our protection first hand!" No really, she's talking about airplanes. Shizuko is this film's answer to Dr. Hibbert from The Simpsons, because she giggles at the most inappropiate times:
"I never thought we'd meet again -- the war kills everybody [giggle]!"
"How can I [get married], when all the young men are being sent to die? I can't find a bridegroom [giggle]!"
Although the film shows some early promise, it drags on for about forty minutes too long as Japan slowly, agonizingly loses the war, covering nearly every defeat the Japanese suffered. (The use of the atomic bomb by the U.S. forces was strangely omitted.) We see Midway, and Hamada is part of the escort that was with Yamamoto when he was shot down. If this movie is to believed, Yamamato's escort was led by a captain who's name sounds like "More Sake." Who were his wingmen? Jose Cuervo and Jack Daniels?
Because the American planes eventually overtake the dated technology of the Zero, Japanese pilots begin to die and become injured at a prodigious rate. After nearly dying in combat,* Hamada's only thoughts are of returning to the cockpit of his Zero. ("I kill Americans! That's all I know how to do!") Mitsushima, realizing that Hamada has lost his will to live, tries to "give" Shizuko to Hamada, theorizing that Hamada will have something to live for if a girl shows interest in him. Neither party is stupid enough to fall for it, however, and Shizuko's affections remain with Mitsushima.
No fertility symbolism here either.
The remainder of the film is filled with rather maudlin ruminations on the nature of war, the deaths of various cast members, and the wanton destruction of a Zero by the defeated, mourning ground crew. We think this last bit was supposed to be a tribute to the nobility of a plane with a skin so insubstantial that it might as well have been aluminum foil, but we're not really sure. There was an awful lot of screaming and crying going on.
Films made by the Japanese can be hard to figure out, especially when they concern such topics as the war in which they were so soundly defeated that it fundamentally changed their culture and their relations with the rest of the world. Zero tells that story from the perspective of its characters, but we're not sure what message the moviemakers were trying to project. Japan deserved to lose the war because it built planes that didn't protect its pilots? (If so, then why the tearful tribute to the Zero at the movie's end?) War is bad because young Japanese girls have to stay at home to build airplanes and can't go kill Americans? Don't become a pilot?
If this movie had been a lot shorter, and a little less melodramatic, we probably could suggest it. But so much of this film is silly, and it goes on for so long, that our enjoyment dwindled to... well, Zero.