NYAFF Review: The Eternal Zero


The Eternal Zero is one of the biggest blockbusters ever released in Japan. A tale of the World War II from the viewpoint of the fighter pilots who took on the American forces. An ostensibly epic tale celebrating… something, The Eternal Zero hits the beats of an emotional story, but it doesn’t actually hit any of the emotion.

If I learned one thing from this experience, it’s that Japan’s audiences are every bit as gullible as America’s.

The Eternal Zero (Eien no Zero 永遠の0)
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Rating: NR
Country: Japan 

I’m really not that patriotic. On July 4th, I went out for Indian food and went to sleep as the fireworks started booming. But as much as America and I have our differences, I’m still a relatively-proud citizen of a pretty great country. And that made The Eternal Zero hard to swallow, because it is really, really difficult for an American to feel for a Kamikaze pilot. Even though the film is not really pro-war and it tries to portray the Kamikazes as people forced into a horrific situation by their government, so what? They were working towards the death of Americans; they just didn’t want to cause their own in the process. That may be something people want to see and hear about in in Japan, but on this side of the Pacific, it’s weird and uncomfortable. 

And it’s made worse by just how emotional the whole thing is. Nearly every scene ends in tears, and they’re not the attractive kind. These people go all out, shouting and screaming and contorting their faces in the ugliest of manners. It’s the kind of thing that would be off-putting if I did feel for their plight. Watching the whole thing dispassionately, it became a new level of awkward. From start to finish, The Eternal Zero is trying to be this emotional epic drama, and it does not succeed. Not in the slightest. But it thinks it does, and that’s actually sad.

Haruma Miura and Kazue Fukiishi in The Eternal Zero

I’ve realized in the past few years that I rarely like framing narratives. It’s something I’ve written about before, and it’s something that is really difficult to pull off. Almost every time I see a film that switches back and forth in time I find myself wishing that one part of the film wasn’t there, for various reasons. Usually it’s the framing story, where person A is telling the actual story to person B (who is the modern day protagonist). It works sometimes; it doesn’t work in The Eternal Zero.

At the family meal following his grandmother’s death, 26-year old Kentaro Oishi finds out that the man he calls grandfather is not biologically related. He and his older sister, Keiko, go off to learn more about Kyuzo Miyabe, who had gone Kamikaze many years before. They go from person to person, piecing together this story and building up this image of this man. And as I watched the film, I found my thoughts constantly returning to videogames; the narrative felt like like one giant series of unnecessary quests. Go talk to this guy, then this guy, then this guy. And in the end, it all comes back to where they started. Sure, they learned all kinds of new things, but the intentional withholding of information in order to send the kids on a wild goose chase is both obnoxious and ridiculous. The final reveal, then, isn’t poignant but disappointing. The whole thing could have taken 30 minutes and been done with. Maybe that would have been worth watching. Probably not, but I would have had a whole lot less to complain about.

Junichi Okada in The Eternal Zero

The padded narrative isn’t the only reason I thought about videogames; the atrocious effects. I’ve been complaining about CG (especially in Asian films) a lot recently, but it’s particularly awful here because the film is so reliant on it. The massive dogfights that punctuate each and every flashback look like acceptable pre-rendered cutscenes from five years ago. The tiny little animated sailors in white on the ships at Pearl Harbor look just silly as they scramble around before their ships burst into meh-looking flame. (And again, these are fake Americans that I guess I’m supposed to be rooting for the annihilation of.) If it’s impressive by Japanese standards, that’s the other sad thing about The Eternal Zero, because it’s really, really bad. Seriously, I’ve seen fake vehicles that look every bit as realistic on YouTube.

But the worst thing about The Eternal Zero is its runtime. At 144 minutes, it’s at least an hour too long. I checked my watch five times throughout, and my friend who sat next to me said he considered doing the same, but he knew it would have just depressed him. The focus on the present day (which is actually 2004, the year before the 60th anniversary of America’s victory over Japan) takes up an obscenely long time. As much as I didn’t like the sections because of its subject matter, they told a much tighter and more compelling narrative. When I’d rather watch people plot the deaths of Americans than some emotional confrontation, that’s a really bad sign.

And by the end, I had tears in my eyes. But it’s not because I was emotional; The Eternal Zero literally bored me to tears. And it was pretty much a steady stream for the last 15-20 minutes. I was so done with the movie, but it wasn’t done with itself. And that may be the saddest thing of all.