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Tora, Tora, Tora

March 11, 2007

On Dec 7,1941 Japan attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii , in one of the most daring assault operations. The US was caught napping literally, and this proved to be a turning point in the war. Till then, the US , which did not involve itself in the war, entered it, and this turned the tide decisively in the favor of the Allied Forces . But to date this event, has raised more questions than answers.

Why did Japan provoke the US, very well knowing it was risky? Were they too confident of themselves or was it the Japanese tendency for suicide? Why did the US bureaucracy and White House, ignore the repeated intelligence warnings? How were 423 Japanese fighter planes, allowed to enter into US airspace, without any warning? How did the military brass not anticipate this disaster? Considering that US-Japanese relations were not too cordial, why did Washington take the threat lightly? What motivated the Japanese to carry out an operation which was suicidal in the long run?

Well many questions still left unanswered, and there have been many attempts to answer them. Not many movies are there on this event. Spielberg’s 1941 , was more of a comedy about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, while the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity was about the relationships between characters at that place. But if you want to really know the reasons behind Pearl Harbor , and the assault, then the best movie I would recommend is the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora. Though Tora means tiger in Japanese, in reality, the words are derived from the Japanese code word totsugeki raigeki , which means a torpedo attack. “Climb Mt. Nitaka” the title of my review, is the Japanese code for this operation. Now coming to some of the questions, this movie, does provide some very clear and plausible answers.

Why Japan wanted to attack the US, and why was it confident? The answer is given in the beginning of the movie. Fleet Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto , who takes over the battleship Nagato, from his predecessor Osami Nagano , discusses the US embargo against Japan. Now during the early part of the 20th century, Japan’s victory against Russia, gave it hope, of being a regional power, and it went in for a massive industrialization drive. But problem was lacking in natural resources, Japan needed to import everything from other countries. During the War, concerned over Japanese hegemony, over Asia, the US imposed sanctions on it, which effectively, hit Japan very hard. Though Yamamoto is one of the few sensible officers, who is against war with US, many hot headed politicians and army officers, string up an alliance with Nazi Germany and plan for the war.

Their calculation is that the US would be bogged down in Europe and Atlantic, and they would not be challenged in the Pacific. How was the attack planned? This part is brilliantly depicted in the movie. And in fact that is the strength of this movie. It does not take sides, and instead of caricaturing the Japanese, it shows them as highly intelligent and trained professionals. In fact compared to the Germans, the Japs, were much more brainy, unfortunately, they utilized it for the wrong purposes.

The attack is masterminded by their most famous Air Staff Officer Minoru Genda . The statistics are staggering . 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, 9 destroyers, 23 fleet submarines, 5 midget submarines, 441 fighter planes and eight oil tankers . One of the most breath taking scenes in the movie is when it shows the entire Japanese flotilla, rushing towards the target. It just takes your breath away. Again the way in which they overcome the issue of shallow water in Pearl Harbor, to fire their torpedoes, is superbly depicted.

Make no mistake, Pearl Harbor was one of the most audacious, brilliantly planned, most comprehensive military operation planned at any time in the history of the world. But since history is always written by victors, it only went into footnote as a “day of infamy” in the US. Why did Washington not respond? The movie is scathing in it’s criticism of American dilly dallying and incompetence. Inspite of repeated intelligent reports, the bureaucracy and White House, never show any urgency in their actions. The onus is left on two men Admiral Kimmel and General Short, who do a last ditch operation to shore up the defenses. The way they fight against a thick headed bureaucracy, is shown superbly in the movie. Neither Defense Department nor White House, show any concern over the intelligence reports.

In fact, they go for a “heart to heart” conversation with the Japanese, trying to preempt the attack. Reminds you of our own Indi-China bhai bhai fiasco right? When you watch scenes of bureaucrats and senior officers, casually brushing aside warnings, the chilling reality back home strikes you. We never learn from history don’t we. In fact so dumb is one American lieutenant, that when he receives reports of the Japanese aircraft coming in, he thinks it is a group of American aircraft coming. How did 423 Japanese aircraft enter American airspace without any warning? Again as in the movie, shows, a combination of factors, ensure that the Japanese war declaration reaches, the US government late.

Due to this Washington fails to issue an alert, and the Japanese themselves are surprised at the ease with which they have come in. In fact the scene where the aircraft fly into Pearl Harbor, to the astonishment of it’s residents, is just outstanding. And that’s where the Japanese give their cry “Tora, Tora, Tora” to indicate that mission has been achieved. And of course the piece de resistance, being the 40 minute climax showing the actual destruction of Pearl Harbor. Shot in the 70’s, when special effects were not as advanced as today, the combat scenes are still superlative. As bombs explode, aircraft dive in, ships go up in flames, and the American soldiers mount a valiant but futile counter attack, you are just mesmerized by the depiction. Unfortunately in spite of all the brilliant strategy and planning, Pearl Harbor was not an unqualified success. Two of the most important battleships USS Enterprise and USS Lexington , escaped the carnage, and they would be used in the coming battles against the Japanese. In the most memorable scene at the end of the movie, Admiral Yamamoto says, when his staff are celebrating, “We have awakened a sleeping giant”.

It would be tragically true 4 years later, when Japan was reduced to a rubble, and lost the war badly. The movie does not have any major stars, most of them were well known actors, and this was done so that the story does not get overshadowed.

Martin Balsam who appeared in many character roles, plays the role of Admiral Husband Kimmel , while Joseph Cotton who acted in movies like The Third Man and Citizen Kane, plays the role of then Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Jason Robards who won the Best Supporting Actor for playing the role of the editor in the 1977 movie All the Presidents Men, appears as Lt Gen Walter Short . And we have Japanese actor Soh Yamamura as Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto.

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