September 10, 2022

The Great War of Archimedes

The rest of the movie aside, the first six minutes of The Great War of Archimedes (a literal translation) is worth watching for its recreation of the sinking of the Japanese battleship Yamato on April 7, 1945.

The most memorable scene in this segment has an anti-aircraft battery on the Yamato shooting down an American fighter, only to watch in stunned amazement as a PBY Catalina swoops in and scoops the fallen pilot out of the water.

It's like, "That is so not fair!"

The dark irony of the scene is surely intended, as the Yamato was dispatched to Okinawa on a suicide mission. Without air cover, it was destroyed along with its destroyer escorts soon after leaving the coastal waters of Kyushu.

The story then flashes back a decade to an Imperial Navy conference proposing the construction of the Yamato and turns into a movie about—accounting (do not trust movie posters to tell you what a movie is actually about).

The conference pits the Kantai Kessen faction led by Admiral Shigetaro Shimada against the carrier faction led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Convinced that Shimada has grossly underbid the project, Yamamoto recruits mathematics prodigy Tadashi Kai to come up with a more accurate cost estimate.

The middle third of the movie thus consists of Kai (promoted on the spot to lieutenant commander) and his aide, Ensign Shojiro Tanaka, desperately searching for some way to obtain the necessary data, while being obstructed at every turn by Shimada's henchmen and denied access even to the blueprints.

Along the way, Kai essentially figures out how to solve a Fermi problem, a method devised by the physicist Enrico Fermi for making accurate estimates about really big things using really small amounts of data. In this case, the really big thing is the largest battleship deployed by any navy in history.

Thus the title of the movie refers to Archimedes' principle, which describes the design of a vessel in terms of its displacement.

Actors Masaki Suda (Kai) and Tasuku Emoto (Tanaka) have reasonably good chemistry in what becomes a two-man play. It is based on the manga by Norifusa Mita. (That's the thing about manga. There is nothing unusual about a manga that is primarily a paeon to accounting and calculus in particular.)

Along the way, we also get lessons about how to cook the books and get your ridiculously low-ball contract approved by the government and still turn a profit.

But despite director Takashi Yamazaki's best efforts (he helmed the wonderful Always: Sunset on Third Street and the well-received war film Eternal Zero), there's not much in the way of dramatic tension. After all, if the Yamato didn't get built, it couldn't get sunk in the first scene.

Three Yamato-class battleships were ultimately constructed, the Yamato, Musashi, and the converted carrier Shinano. None of them survived the war, with the Shinano lasting a mere ten days after being commissioned.

Kai and Tanaka present their results to the conference in the nick of time (again, the dramatic tension is unconvincingly manufactured), proving that Shimada's proposed budget is utterly at odds with reality.

Of course, it proves a Pyrrhic victory. Shimada immediately switches gears and claims the official bid was purposely underestimated (by an order of magnitude) in order to mislead Japan's enemies. But then Kai points out a fatal flaw in the Yamato's design and again appears to have won the day.

This leads to the penultimate scene, the most interesting in the movie, in which Shimada (Isao Hashizume), recognizing Kai's genius, entices him to the dark side by offering an opportunity for existential atonement.

Shimada explains that he actually agrees with the carrier faction and fully expects the Yamato to become a sitting duck in any upcoming conflict. In the wake of an inevitable defeat, the sacrificial lamb bearing the historical name of Japan will show the way for Japan to leave its military past behind.

Frankly, it's a rhetorical reach, and even Hayao Miyazaki criticized Yamazaki for likewise imbuing the characters in Eternal Zero with sentimental but contemporary sensibilities. Though to play the devil's advocate, I think there is a constructive role for historical fiction as social commentary.

This fanciful historical revisionism does accurately capture what the Yamato became in the popular imagination of postwar Japan. Rather like the Titanic, its mention in any period piece now foreshadows both a heroic end and the inevitable doom that surely awaits such enormous displays of human folly.

The Yamato itself lives on most notably in Leiji Matsumoto's enormously influential Space Battleship Yamato franchise, in which the battleship is resurrected to save the human race from alien marauders. The first anime series debuted in 1974. Takashi Yamazaki directed the 2010 live-action movie.

The opening theme song for the 1974 series by Isao Sasaki has since become an instantly recognizable classic.

The Great War of Archimedes is currently streaming on Tubi.

Related links

Kantai Kessen
The Showa drama
The Great War of Archimedes
Star Blazers (2013 anime series)
Space Battleship Yamato (2010 live action movie)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,