At a production cost of $100 million, director Roland Emmerich’s “Midway” is one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (Lionsgate)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo

The recent release of Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic “Midway” brings to mind another film with the same title, released in 1976.

Both films are, of course, about the June 1942 battle that was a turning point in the Pacific War. Both present the American and Japanese perspectives, featuring real-life military leaders.

Toshiro Mifune played Adm. Yamamoto in the 1976 “Midway.” (Universal)

In the 1976 version, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was played by Toshiro Mifune, the best-known Japanese actor outside of Japan at the time. But the rest of the Japanese naval officers were played by Japanese Americans and their dialogue was in English. Mifune’s voice was dubbed by Paul Frees, presumably because he otherwise would have been the only one speaking English with a Japanese accent.

The cast included James Shigeta (“Flower Drum Song”) as Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, and Pat Morita (“The Karate Kid”) as Rear Adm. Ryunosuke Kusaka, along with John Fujioka, Dale Ishimoto, Clyde Kusatsu, Sab Shimono, Conrad Yama, Robert Ito, Seth Sakai and Yuki Shimoda — a who’s who of JAs working in Hollywood. Morita, Kusatsu, Sakai and Shimoda also appeared in the made-for-TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar” that same year.

(In 2005, Shigeta, Morita and Kusatsu were among the special guests at a community event in San Francisco. I’m told that when the three of them were riding in an elevator, Morita exclaimed, “Hey, in ‘Midway’ we were in charge of the Japanese navy. No wonder we lost!”)

James Shigeta, Robert Ito and Pat Morita were among the Japanese American actors playing Japanese officers in the 1976 “Midway.” (Universal)

The American officers were played by Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson and Robert Wagner, among others.

Unlike the current film, the 1976 version focused on two fictional characters, Capt. Matthew Garth (Charlton Heston) and his son, Lt. Thomas Garth (Edward Albert). It’s revealed that the son is romantically involved with a Japanese American living in Hawaii, Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo).

In one scene, Sakura tells Capt. Garth that she and her parents have been unjustly interned and asks if he can do something about it. We later see Sakura dockside as a badly wounded Lt. Garth is carried off his ship after the battle.

There are no Japanese American characters in the current version.

Christina Kokubo and Edward Albert play star-crossed lovers in the 1976 “Midway.” (Universal)

The new “Midway” features Japanese actors, including Etsushi Toyokawa as Yamamoto, Jun Kunimura as Nagumo and Tadanobu Asano as Rear Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi. Canadian Peter Shinkoda plays Capt. Minoru Genda. Hiromoto Ida appears briefly as Gen. Hideki Tojo and Hiroaki Shintani as Emperor Hirohito.

The American cast includes Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid and Woody Harrelson.

Visually, the 1976 film was a mishmash of new footage, stock footage from other movies, including “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), and archival war footage. The new film seamlessly blends live action with CGI re-creations of Midway, Pearl Harbor and the Doolittle raid on Tokyo.

Etsushi Toyokawa as Adm. Yamamoto in the 2019 “Midway.” (Lionsgate)

The battle scenes in the 1976 film were made even louder with a speaker system called “Sensurround,” also used for “Earthquake” (1974) and “Rollercoaster” (1977). Today’s action films don’t need that since the volume always seems to be at maximum.

After the battle, there is a poignant scene in the new movie where two Japanese commanders, to take responsibility for the defeat, decide to go down with the ship rather than abandoning ship with the rest of the crew.

(It would also be interesting to compare “Tora! Tora! Tora!” — directed by Richard Fleischer on the American side and Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Matsuda on the Japanese side — with Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” released in 2001. We would have to add two more Adm. Yamamotos to the list, Soh Yamamura in the former and Mako in the latter.)

The new “Midway” was released to coincide with Veterans Day, and it’s interesting to note that it is dedicated to both the American and Japanese servicemen who lost their lives.

In the new “Midway,” Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) lands in China after bombing Tokyo. (Lionsgate)

One of my sisters recalls that when she saw the 1976 version, the audience cheered enthusiastically every time a Japanese ship or plane blew up. She considered hiding her face when she left the theater.

There was no such reaction when I saw the new movie. It’s possible that different audiences in different regions and of different ages might cheer during those scenes, but I wonder if the passage of time has lessened the anti-Japanese sentiment. Today many young people may not even be aware of which countries fought in World War II.

I also recall that when “Pearl Harbor” was released, the JACL expressed concern that it might inspire hate crimes. As far as I know, that did not happen.

While I didn’t fear for my life while watching the new “Midway,” I noticed the frequent use of “Jap” throughout — historically accurate but still unsettling. It certainly won’t help efforts to get rid of that word.

I’m not sure what the takeaway should be from a JA perspective, but it would be nice if Pearl Harbor and Midway weren’t the movie industry’s go-to subjects when it comes to U.S.-Japan relations.


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  1. As a grandson of a man who fought in the pacific let me say that the war had at least one good outcome for both the Japanese and Americans. We have been good allies ever since, and if the courage of your enemy does you honor, then all those who fought on either side were honored.