A dramatization of the events leading up to and culminating in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and the American points of view. 1971 Oscars: 1 win (Best Effects, Special Visual Effects) plus 4 other nominations (Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) The signal radioed back to the fleet by LtCmdr Mitsuo Fuchida (played by Takahiro Tamura), commander of the first wave of Japanese attack planes, to signify that they had achieved complete surprise over the American forces at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day.
This is a movie for history buffs. It is as accurate a film depicting an historical event as has ever been produced. This is also a movie for non-history buffs. It depicts that event in a dramatization with an ensemble cast, cohesive storytelling, effective special effects (even by today's standards, albeit not to the same level as its cousin Pearl Harbor, or PH, released Memorial Day Weekend, 2001), great cinematography, and excellent film editing. The lack of romance and other sub-plots does not detract; in fact, it enhances the drama and tension of the event. For both the history buff and the non-history types, this is history at its finest, wrapped in storytelling as only Hollywood can do.
On December 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy as it came to be known, 350 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy, in two waves, conducted a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Island, Oahu, Hawaii Islands. While more successful than could have been reasonably expected (who could have known that it really would take the Americans completely by surprise?), it was not as successful as had been hoped. The Pacific Fleet was devastated in a single air battle that lasted a bit under two hours. In that short time the U.S. lost 21 ships sunk or damaged out of the 90 or so that were at anchor in or near the harbor, or under way near the harbor. This included all 8 battleships assigned to the Pacific Fleet. Three of these, the West Virginia, the Oklahoma, and Arizona were sunk. The West Virginia was later raised and returned to duty. Most of the other vessels, including the other 5 battleships, were eventually repaired as well. In addition to ship losses, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged. Although totals vary, some reports carry human losses at 2,403 dead (including 68 civilians that in a later era would come to be euphemistically called "collateral damage") and another 1,178 military (including 35 civilians) wounded. No matter what the precise totals, they were high.
For all of this damage, it's important to understand what the Japanese missed. Neither of the two Pacific Fleet carriers (the Enterprise and the Lexington) was in or near port that day, so they were unscathed. (Of the U.S.'s other five carriers, the Saratoga was at San Diego, and the Ranger, Yorktown, Wasp and Hornet were assigned to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.) Missing the carriers ultimately would prove grievous to Japanese strategy. Moreover, a third wave was cancelled by the Japanese fleet commander, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (played by Eijir˘ Tono). This wave had been scheduled to hit harbor installations, repair facilities, warehouses, and fuel dumps on Oahu. However, the destruction it might have inflicted, while adding to the recovery problems facing the U.S. Pacific Fleet, would not have had near the same impact that catching the carriers in port would have had.
The Japanese lost 29 planes and 60 dead that failed to make it back to their carriers. Another 26 aircraft that made it back were damaged beyond repair at sea. Japan's 6 carriers had a total of 441 aircraft, including enough spares of the types used in the strike, that these losses were more or less made up.
The story of Japan's attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor cannot be told effectively without providing background on why and how it came to be, and the movie does just that. The attack was rooted in the effect the Great Depression had on Japan's economy, which stimulated their desire to control the natural resources needed to fuel their economy; Japanese militant expansionism, which put them on a collision course with the U.S.; Japanese military culture and tradition, which made them willing to take on a world power significantly their superior and which also believed in initiating hostilities by sudden, overwhelming attack; and the war Europe. As to the latter, especially given their concern with the U.S. naval threat to their eastern flank, would the Japanese have moved south in the first place if France and the Netherlands hadn't already been defeated in Europe, or if the British Empire wasn't already fighting for its life against Hitler's legions?
There were many in the Imperial Japanese Navy that understood the fearsomeness of what they were getting into and preferred diplomacy to military operations. Ironically, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the strategy to strike the American fleet at Pearl, played by S˘ Yamamura, felt this way as did his chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki. (Admiral Ugaki is not identified in the movie.)
There is a telling scene where Admiral Yamamoto is visiting Prince Fumimaro Konoye (Japan's soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister, played by Koreya Senda). Prince Konoye asks what the navy really thinks about strategy of attacking Pearl. Admiral Yamamoto responds that the navy will raise havoc in the Pacific for a year, but after that he can guarantee nothing. Admiral Yamamoto had spent several years in the United States. This included two years as a student at Harvard (1919-1921) and three years as Japanese naval attachÚ in Washington (1925-1928). He knew what they were up against. He saw both the near-inevitability of war with the U.S. and the futility of it.
The movie played up the fact that the Japanese diplomatic ultimatum was not presented until after the attack started and points to this as one of the reasons behind the massive U.S. public embitterment after the attack. Hence, Admiral Yamamoto's doleful warning (and the most memorable line from the movie), "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." (The second most memorable line is by an old man fishing while warplanes are practicing their low-level runs, "Navy pilots attract geisha girls, but they frighten the fish." It's the same all over, but I digress.)
This point is actually of little importance. As the movie pointed out, word was dispatched to U.S. field commands some 90 minutes or so before the deadline. It didn't reach Pearl in time. It wouldn't have made any difference had the Japanese ambassadors been more prompt, thus maintaining the legality of advance declaration of war. The effect on the American people would have been the same - it would still have been viewed as a sneak attack, and that is what angered America. Americans never have been accepting of legal loopholes when they feel they have been wronged.
While Tora Tora Tora doesn't delve into all of the geopolitical issues as much as it could, it does provide a cohesive, understandable description of the diplomatic and military events that led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor (better than PH) and the devastation it caused. Moreover, it does so with an even-handedness that is refreshing. This starts from the very beginning of the movie where the credits are alternated between the American cast and film crew and the Japanese, and continues throughout the movie as scenes shift back and forth between the Japanese and American perspectives.
The movie does depict key pieces of the strategic context: Japan's need for resources, its joining the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, the perceived threat to their plans from America by virtue of its military presence in the Philippines and the forward deployment of its Pacific Fleet to Pearl, as well as the vital role of airpower in military operations - a lesson that appeared to be lost on many in the American leadership. It also depicts the inexorable convergence, the collision path, of the diplomatic maneuvers and the military preparations for war with America - the Japanese planning and training for the attack contrasted with the confusion and miscalculations of the U.S. Army and Navy field command at Pearl. It goes on to provide operational-level considerations such as the Japanese fleet's approach march (or should I say "sail") through the northern Pacific in order to increase the probability of avoiding detection. There is also the tactical level. The planning factors - stressing air power, the mix of aircraft types, attacking on a Sunday morning, and so forth - are explained by a weary Captain Kometo "Gandhi" Kuroshima (Admiral Yamamoto's senior staff officer, played by Shunichi Nakamura) as he looks for holes in the plan.
One of the most effective elements of the movie is how it builds tension and suspense as the Japanese plan is put into action, alternating between the Japanese strike force and the Americans. The Japanese fleet sails determinedly through the stormy northern Pacific while the American intelligence staff at the War Department in Washington becomes increasingly frustrated as they attempt to raise the alarm. The Americans' misguided posture is juxtaposed with the almost youthful exuberance of the Japanese flight crews and maintenance teams as they continue their training and preparation shipboard. Their enthusiasm is contrasted with the solemnity of their Shinto prayer and the tension of their senior officers. The tension mounts as the director employs the Gettysburg-esque technique of using maps to show the fleet's progress toward the Islands. It culminates in the dawn launch, with engine exhausts aflame, large formations of planes circling overhead as they form up before departing for the final air leg to their target, and the unsuspecting, unconcerned American fleet waking on a lazy, sunny December morning in Hawaii, feeling safe.
There are several nice touches in the movie. One is Admiral Yamaoto's address to the assembled officers of the strike force before their departure wherein he alludes to his hope for a diplomatic resolution and cautions them as to what kind of enemy the Americans can be. He snaps at them when he detects potential hesitation at turning back in the event the fleet is recalled. This isn't far fetched at all. The Imperial Japanese Army operated in Manchuria without Tokyo's permission in 1936, essentially formulating its own foreign policy. To say that the Japanese military had more than its share of hotheads is no understatement; likewise that the Japanese government had only tenuous control of their military.
Then there was the War Department's G-2 (Intelligence Division) Far Eastern Section headed by Colonel Rufus G. Bratton (played by E. G. Marshall) and assisted by Lieutenant Commander Alvin D. Kramer (Wesley Addy). It was a nice touch when Colonel Bratton read the Japanese transcription as it came out of the decryption machine (appropriately codenamed Magic), translating it into English real-time as he writes it down in longhand. A West Pointer, Colonel Bratton had been a language student in Japan and had attended the Japanese Imperial War College in 1932. LtCmdr Kramer was fluent in Japanese, as well. There was a lot of intercepted radio traffic that flowed through Colonel Bratton's office, but as the movie depicted, the high-level diplomatic traffic received priority at the time.
There were three things noticeable absent or underplayed in the movie. One is the ascension of General Hideki Togo from War Minister in Prince Konoye's cabinet to Prime Minister upon the latter's resignation on October 16, 1941. Somewhere in the film editing this transition was left on the cutting room floor. It was not only ominous that an Army general was becoming Prime Minister at this important point in events leading up to the decision for war with America, but he was even allowed to remain on active duty (that is, to continue to wear his uniform). He also retained his post as War Minister. These details were not lost on the Japanese, even if later underplayed by historians.
Another, more significant issue downplayed is the Japanese intelligence-gathering effort in the Hawaiian Islands. (It was better depicted in PH.) The movie correctly described Lieutenant General Walter C. Short's concern that sabotage was perceived as a greater threat than air attack. One of the factors that fueled General Short's concern was the likelihood of infiltrated and native-born agents among the 130,000 to 140,000 residents of Japanese heritage in the Islands. This wasn't explained well in the movie, although it was alluded to. The detailed reports the Japanese commanders received naming the ships anchored at Pearl, with one report coming in only one or two days before the strike, could only have come from agents on the scene - what we today call human intelligence, or HUMINT. Anyway, this made General Short (played by Jason Robards) appear out of touch and misguided. He was wrong about the full extent of Pearl's vulnerability, but whether he was foolish is arguable. Unfortunately for him, the U.S. Congress took a similar view of him, and of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, played by Martin Balsam, as the movie and put the blame for our unpreparedness at Pearl squarely on their shoulders. (By the way, Jason Robards was actually there on December 7, 1941.)
Finally, while the movie brought out the British raid on Italy's Taranto Harbor in November 1940 as a tactical precedent for a shallow-water torpedo attack, it did not mention the special adapters installed on the Japanese Type 91 torpedoes that allowed their shallow runs at Pearl. (PH did. Two points!) Nor did it depict that at least one midget submarine succeeded in penetrating into Pearl Harbor. (For a long time it was thought that this submarine did no damage. However, there is a theory that it or another midget sub fired two torpedoes at Battleship Row and scored hits with each.)
There are inaccuracies, too. For example, the midget submarine sunk by the USS Ward had the wrong bow and stern structure. The large white cross near Schofield Barracks that the Japanese planes fly over as they close in for their attack was actually erected in memory to the US servicemen that died in the attack. Many of the ships filmed in the harbor were built after the war, as was the "USS Enterprise" shown steaming back into port after the attack. Ship's Cook Third Class Doris "Dorie" Miller was shown firing a water-cooled .30 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. According to his and other eyewitness accounts, he actually fired a .50 caliber gun. (PH, by the way, did a much better job with Dorie.) And then there was Admiral Yamamoto himself. He had lost two fingers on his left hand as an ensign on the armored cruiser Nisshin at the Battle of Tsushima (May 27, 1905). S˘ Yamamura appeared to have all ten of his. But, you really have to get nitpicky to worry about stuff like this.
These few, minor errors do not detract from the overall impact of the movie, which is substantial. The combat scenes were well choreographed, graphic, and action-packed. The special effects, while not of the same caliber as PH's, are excellent and effective even by today's standards, and the sets are first-rate. For example, in the movie's opening scenes, Admiral Yamamoto meets his officers aboard a battleship. The ship was a full-scale replica, complete from bow to stern. It was built on a beach in Japan, next to the replica of the aircraft carrier "Akagi," which consisted of about two-thirds of the deck and the island area. Both "ships" jutted out into the water.
A couple of scenes in the film were all too real. The B-17 that came in for a landing with one wheel up was an unplanned accident that was caught on film. (The shot of it skidding to a halt on the runway looked to me like World War II footage, but I'm not sure.) An American P-40 crashed accidentally as well. There are two shots of it skidding into other aircraft and scattering ground crews. If they looked like they were running for their lives, they were! In fact, at least one person (a pilot of a "Japanese" plane) died during filming.
If there is any noteworthy failing of the movie, it is that it fails to depict the pathos of war - the overwhelming of the base (and presumably the civilian) medical facilities, the pain and suffering of incapacitating injuries, the civilian casualties, the mass of dead, injured, and struggling men in the water, the frantic attempts to escape by men trapped below decks in sunken and overturned ships. PH did a better job of showing the human tragedy of the attack.
It's interesting to note that each of the directors has a long list of credits. Most of Toshio Masuda's and Kinji Fukasaku's will be unfamiliar to most American viewers, but many of Richard Fleischer's will not. Fleischer's credits include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, starring Kirk Douglas), Barabbas (1962, with Anthony Quinn), Fantastic Voyage (1966, Raquel Welch and those other guys), and Doctor Doolittle (1967, Rex Harrison), among others. He went onto to direct Soylent Green (1973, Charlton Heston), Red Sonja (1981, Bridgette Nielsen), and Conan the Destroyer (1984, Arnold Schwartzenegger).
It's also interesting to note that for Tora Tora Tora it wasn't over when it was over. Parts of the movie were edited into other movies: Midway (1976), All This and World War II (1979), Pearl (a 1978 television mini-series), The Final Countdown (1980), and The Winds of War (a 1983 mini-series).
One last piece of trivia: Parts of the movie score used in the Japanese sequences sounded suspiciously like the score from Planet of the Apes (1968). Well, it turns out that Jerry Goldsmith did the original music for both movies. (Ah, what a well-tuned ear can pick up.)
In summary, Tora Tora Tora is an outstanding movie by any standard (and much better, in my opinion, than PH). It has action, realism (which is to say, attention to detail), and cohesion. It's accurate to true life events and provides an excellent history lesson, but has the look and feel of a good story.
The story it tells is two-fold. It tells of the misguided desperation of the Japanese that led them to take on the United States. ("Misguided," certainly, if their post-war success is any standard for comparison.) It also speaks to America's arrogance in 1941. We knew Japan was dangerous, but we didn't expect them to come at us the way they did. That and our belief in ourselves got in our way. In the end the American deaths at Pearl Harbor resulted from the failure of our imagination. We just didn't think an attack on it would happen.