Last Night's TV: They were on a wing and a prayer
The Day of the Kamikaze, Channel 4; Dawn Gets Naked, BBC3
One of my son Jacob's good friends at primary school is a kindly octogenarian called Mr Barker. Not only is Mr Barker chair of governors, he also goes in frequently to read to the children, or to be read to, and mucks in energetically – muck sometimes being the operative word – at every school function. I wouldn't want to make him blush, but if Mr Barker gets as much out of the school as he puts in, then it must be a source of great pleasure to him. Jacob is nine, and he doesn't have many good friends over the age of 10, but Mr Barker is certainly one of them.
All of which is by way of a little scene setting, because Jacob, who has a young boy's enthusiasm for explosions, sat down with me to watch The Day of the Kamikaze, a documentary about the flurry of Japanese suicide attacks in the final months of the Second World War, and we looked at each other in astonishment when who should pop up but Mr Barker, sharing his reminscences of life on board HMS Victorious. Jacob knew he'd been a naval officer during the war, but not that he'd been in the Pacific on a ship attacked by a kamikaze. His stock in our house, already high, hit the stratosphere.
The Day of the Kamikaze would have been a fine documentary even without Mr Barker. Meticulously researched, it bravely paid as much attention to the Japanese side of the story as the Allied side. It would have been easy enough, especially in an age when suicide bombings are right back in currency, to have focused on the victims rather than the perpetrators of this uniquely shocking form of warfare. But the stance taken by Peter Nicholson's film was that the kamikazes were victims too, young men who in many cases were emotionally blackmailed into volunteering. After all, the very word "kamikaze" means divine wind, while the name given to the rocket-bombs some of them flew was "oka", meaning cherry blossom, and the campaign to destroy the American fleet was Operation Floating Chrysanthemum. Participation was a cultural and religious imperative, and the pilots who signed up could choose between pronouncing themselves "eager" or "very eager" to fly. There was no third way.
I don't suppose this went down too well with some of the British and American contributors, or with other watching veterans. After all, how would the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks feel watching a documentary sympathetically chronicling the grief of relatives of those who steered the planes? Yet it was no less moving to see the tears of the ageing siblings of kamikazes who died 63 years ago than it was to hear the testimonies of seamen who were on the stricken ships. Maybe "63 years ago" is the vital factor in that sentence. Or maybe I'm wrong to see any moral equivalence. At least the kamikazes were operating in a theatre of war, against military targets.
Yet still, as Mr Barker said, their attacks felt "unreal" and "unnatural" and somehow personal. "It's not the way you're supposed to fight a war," said another veteran. An American pilot called Dean Caswell offered an interesting insight into what it was like up there trying to intercept the kamikazes. "I peed in my pants and a few other things," he said. "I was successful in shooting down planes, then I had to come back and wash my underwear." As soon as the credits rolled, I looked up Mr Caswell online. He is officially recognised as a war hero, with seven kills to his name. Not many war heroes own up to wetting themselves with fear. Maybe more should.
The man who masterminded the kamikaze campaign that lasted for two months in 1945 and remains the most intense period of suicide bombing in history was Admiral Matome Ugaki, who on the day after the Japanese surrender, as his daughter-in-law tearfully recalled, decided that he was honour-bound to join all the men he had sent to their deaths. With several other aircraft accompanying his, he set off for one final, devastating attack on an American target, which seems like a curious way of seeking honour, but then perhaps he felt that the US atomic-bomb attacks had obliterated the rules, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever, his squadron never reached its target and was never seen again.
After all that death, it was a relief to turn to Dawn Gets Naked, which is seemingly being repeated round the clock by BBC3. A 29-year-old journalist called Dawn Porter tried to ridicule body fascism, and conquer her own inhibitions, by stripping off, and it concluded with her and some like-minded sisters on top of a bus, flaunting their bodies. Except Dawn didn't quite flaunt hers. Wearing what looked like paper shamrocks over her nipples and another botanic arrangement down below, she unwittingly destroyed her own thesis, by failing to realise that nudity, like kamikaze flying, is all or nothing.
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