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Behind the Scenes:
A Personal Quest Fulfilled
by Keiko Hagihara Bang


Sinking the Supership homepage

Every filmmaker has a program that embodies the fulfillment of a lifetime objective. For me, "Sinking the Supership" was that program.

As the child of a Japanese father and an American mother, I had always felt caught between two worlds—worlds so seemingly far apart, you would be challenged to find more diametrically opposite folk on the cultural spectrum. Growing up in Tokyo for part of that childhood and in Los Angeles for the other added to this jarring, surreal sensibility. I felt a foreigner in Japan, a foreigner in America.

So for me, the Pacific War, this horrific, complicated battle between the two countries I had grown to love so much naturally became a personal conundrum, a riddle that I needed to solve. What caused these great countries to go to war? More importantly for me, how could these Japanese I knew so intimately—my relatives, friends, and teachers—how could they have been capable of such extreme behavior, be it atrocities in the heat of war or even the unthinkable suicidal sacrifice? In the faces of my 21st-century Japanese comrades, it was hard to see the passion of the kamikaze, the temptation of Bushido (the feudal Japanese code of chivalry that values honor above life), or even the cruel samurai spirit.

I began what I consider one of the key personal journeys I've chosen in my life: a hunt for answers about what happened to the Japanese in the 20th century, what happened to cause World War II, bringing the two nations I cherished most to fight each other to the death. Along the way I found this story, the story of the Yamato.

A sensitive subject

"Sinking the Supership" was inspired through sheer serendipity. In 2002, I was having a simple business meeting with TV Asahi, a leading commercial broadcaster in Japan, when I glanced over at the wall to my right and noticed a picture of a submerged ship. I immediately thought Titanic, but then I realized that blazoned in Japanese down the side of the poster were the words "The Yamato Lives!" To be honest, the only Yamato I was familiar with until that point was the Battleship Yamato of anime fame, a futuristic Japanese cartoon program that had me glued to the screen when I was growing up in the '70s. Episode 1 of the program tells the story of how the World War II Battleship Yamato is lifted from the sea and relaunched as a spaceship a la Star Trek.

When I probed for details, TV Asahi told me that, together with the French Aquaplus underwater expedition team, they had launched a $2 million expedition to "find" the actual Yamato. It had never occurred to them, however, to share this project with an overseas broadcaster. Their thinking was, "The Yamato is a difficult, sensitive part of Japanese history. Even we must be careful with how to portray the Yamato on air." Thus began my three-year attempt to fund and produce what would be the first program ever on Western television to fully tell the story of the Yamato and to show the watery grave of what had been one of the greatest battleships in history.

“Are we not samurai? Then as samurai we must die. The Yamato must die a glorious death.”

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the story was the controversial command issued by the Imperial Japanese Navy that sent nearly 3,000 men to their deaths. Drastic measures are a hallmark of war, but this was something different, I felt. A commander, one assumed according to Western thought, would only make such a sacrifice if there was a chance that by doing so he would damage or delay the enemy. A Western commander, one believed, would weigh the cost of thousands of lives in a desperate attempt at sea against the benefit of having these troops on land to defend the motherland. I was intrigued by a value system that would place the intrinsic worth of human lives beneath the dishonor of allowing the Yamato to survive the war intact.

We were not able to track down the actual notes from that last military powwow in Tokyo concerning the Yamato, but hearsay tells us there was great dissension and the final act was one of pride, not strategy. Some advisors were strongly against such a large sacrifice of life, but ultimately, we are told, the lead decision-maker sealed the sailors' fate by jumping up and shouting something to the effect of, "Are we not samurai? Then as samurai we must die. The Yamato must die a glorious death."

A survivor's tale

This mindset, which is so alien to us in the West, was most poignantly explained to me by one of the survivors, Naoyoshi Ishida. We had spent almost a year speaking with the survivors in order to convince them to allow us to film their story. After having survived the Yamato's demise, Ishida had struggled to make a living in post-World War II Japan. But 12 years after the end of the war, unwilling to lay ghosts to rest, he began to split his time between running a bookstore and petitioning the government for pensions for Yamato sailors.

Off camera, Ishida tried to explain to me a childhood in which complete obedience was mandatory for survival, where students accepted at face value what was told them. Where soldiers unquestioningly followed commanders to their deaths. Where in the complete abrogation of individual will there was a sense of purity, or beauty. But what moved me most in speaking with him was his ability to live in both the past and the present: his adherence to a value system that for most of Japan was long gone, and his ability to see with clear eyes the mistakes of the past; his reverence for the sacrifice he and his comrades had made, and his disdain for war and its unnecessary violence.

Mr. Ishida passed away in July 2005, but the day before he entered the hospital for the last time, I was able to meet with him and pass him a copy of our program. He had known that it would be broadcast in the United States, and he had hoped that in telling his story, people would understand the passion of patriotism, the supreme sacrifice of the sailors he had admired who had not survived as he had, and most importantly, the brutality of war. In his last conversation with our researcher, Ishida-san mentioned that, now that he had told his story, he felt peaceful enough "to go." I feel honored to have known such a warrior.

“We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Amidst the numerous stories we heard while researching the Yamato of sailors who did not survive was one that carries particular poignancy and irony. Ensign Nakatani was the only American aboard the Yamato when it sank. As a Nisei, or second-generation American of Japanese descent, he had been studying in Japan when the war broke out. Almost immediately he was forced to serve as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese navy, where apparently he was treated with great disdain and suspicion. Unlike most soldiers on either side of the war, Nakatani was unable to contact his family stateside or his younger brothers, who were serving at the same time with the U.S. military in Europe.

Only as he departed from Kure on the Yamato's last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive a single letter from his mother written years earlier that had been forwarded to him via the International Red Cross in Switzerland. "We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let's both pray for peace." According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida, who relates this story in his book Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. I still think of Nakatani from time to time when I ponder what my own fate might have been had I been born 30 years earlier.

A haunting metaphor

David Axelrod, a wonderful director and a man of great integrity, and I started out making a documentary about the past. But instead we found that not only is the Yamato very much alive in modern-day Japan, it is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. As we prepared to release our program, a new Yamato museum opened in Kure, showcasing numerous artifacts and blueprints hidden for half a century that had "suddenly materialized" from attics and warehouses across the country. This December, a feature-length movie will be released in theaters across Japan, bringing the story of the Yamato's final days to a generation of Japanese who are unfamiliar with the legend.

I am often asked whether this "Yamato boom" represents a return to the imperialistic philosophy of pre-World War II Japan. I don't think it does. The Japanese, in my opinion, are now far too cosmopolitan, too savvy, and too cynical about their own government to allow blind faith to rule.

However, the Yamato continues to maintain a profound hold on the Japanese, serving as a haunting metaphor of contradiction: the purity in elegiac death, the tragedy of lives wasted; a symbol of industry and excellence, a somber reminder of the failure of war. The ship was a technological wonder, an inspired engineering marvel of its time, particularly for a country so recently backward as Japan had been. And its demise was emblematic of not only the end of the battleship but the end of the Japanese empire.

Ironically, the technology developed in the course of building the Yamato helped Japan rise from the ashes after the war. Optics from the Yamato were adapted by camera companies like Nikon and Canon, and Kure went on to become one of the biggest shipyards in the world. Today, in the very shipyard where the Yamato was built, the largest supertankers in the world are now being made.

For me, telling the story of the Yamato was a private catharsis of sorts. As we made our way through production, I felt like I, too, was sinking into the whirlpool of history swirling around the Yamato. It took on a metaphorical glow, a meaning far beyond a science-history documentary—as if the telling of this story, this awesome battleship and its demise, would somehow heal the wounds of the past and bring America and Japan closer. As if the sacrifice of these sailors' lives would not be in vain and that somehow their deaths would serve as a lesson to us all: of the dangers of cultural ignorance, of the price of rash arrogance, of the folly of war.

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Chrysanthemum

More than an average man's height in diameter, a golden chrysanthemum shield graced the bow of the Yamato, here seen where it has lain since it broke apart and sank on April 7, 1945.

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Film crew

Bang's film crew recreates a scene from the Yamato's final battle aboard the only surviving Japanese warship from World War II.

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Ishida

Naoyoshi Ishida, one of only 269 survivors out of a crew of 3,016 that were aboard the Yamato on its final voyage

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Survivors

In recent years, Japan has witnessed a rekindling of popular interest in the Yamato and its remarkable story.

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Yamato

To many Japanese today, the Yamato and its tragic fate conjure up a welter of emotions and convictions, many of them contradictory.

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Sinking the Supership
Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes
For executive producer Keiko Bang, making this film was cathartic.

Survivor Stories

Survivor Stories
Two eyewitness accounts of Yamato's last battle

Anatomy of Yamato

Anatomy of Yamato
See what made the ship both seemingly unsinkable and highly vulnerable to attack.

Yamato's Final Voyage

Yamato's
Final Voyage

Relive the super battleship's last moments in photographs.



Keiko Bang Keiko Hagihara Bang, the executive producer of "Sinking the Supership", is president and founder of Bang Singapore Pte Ltd, an award-winning production company based in Singapore.



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