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Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata)
Directed by Seijiro Koyama
Written by Tsuneyuki Mori
Pony Canyon, 1993, 111 min., Video

This touching movie about two kamikaze pilots who love playing the piano became a big hit when released in 1993. Over 2.1 million people saw the film within two years of its release, and it was shown in over 2,000 locations in Japan. Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) has strongly influenced Japanese people's perception of kamikaze pilots as cultured and sensitive young men. This movie's great popularity led to creation of a documentary novel, children's book, and drama CD on the same subject.

Tsuneyuki Mori, who has written several other documentaries, plays, and novels about issues related to the war and postwar period, wrote the novel Gekkou no Natsu in 1991. He also wrote the script for the movie, which received financial support for its production from Tosu City in Saga Prefecture, the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, and many other individuals and organizations.

Although the movie is fictional, it is based on the true story of two kamikaze pilots who one day in May 1945 visited Tosu Elementary School, located several miles from Metabaru Army Air Base where they were stationed. They wanted to play music one final time on the grand piano located at the school. Utako Ueno, the young teacher in charge of the piano, listened to one of the pilots play Beethoven's Sonata No. 14, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata. In 1989, the school wanted to get rid of the old piano no longer in use, but Ueno gave a talk at a school assembly to tell her story about the two kamikaze pilots who visited the school before their final mission in order to play the piano. The local media covered the assembly, and many residents expressed their support to have the piano restored.

Two extended flashbacks, one near the beginning of the film and one near the end, cover the experiences of the two kamikaze pilots in June 1945. The movie starts with the talk by Kimiko Yoshida (Utako Ueno in real story) to the assembly at Tosu Elementary School, and the film then shows the 1945 visit by the two pilots to Tosu as Yoshida tells the story to present-day schoolchildren. After one pilot plays Moonlight Sonata, the other pilot plays the war song "Umi Yukaba" ("If We Go to Sea") as the students gather around the piano to sing. Yoshida gives the two pilots some white lilies as they leave the school to return to base. After the end of the war, Kimiko waits for the pilots to return to play the piano again, but they never do.

Kimiko listens to
pilot play piano at
Tosu Elementary School

 

After Yoshida's talk to the Tosu children, several reporters ask her questions including one about the identity of the pilots. She explains that she never asked their names, so she does not know. Rie Ishida, a local reporter who attended the school assembly, calls Yasufumi Miike, a Tokyo-based documentary producer, to ask him to visit Saga Prefecture to consider making a documentary on this story. Miike and Ishida first find out some information about the Army's special attack operations from a former kamikaze pilot living in Saga Prefecture.

One of the two pilots told Yoshida during the 1945 visit that he had attended Kumamoto Teachers College with the dream of becoming a music teacher. Based on this information, a reporter calls Shinsuke Kazama, a man living in Kumamoto Prefecture who had attended the same college. Kazama says he does not remember anything and hangs up on the reporter. Ishida and Miike decide to visit Kazama's home, but he tells them to leave without telling them anything. However, Kazama calls Miike in Tokyo a short time later and asks him to come again to his home. When Miike visits this time, Kazama explains that he was one of the pilots who visited Tosu Elementary School and that his wife is the younger sister of the other pilot, Mitsuhiko Unno.

The second extended flashback in the film tells what happened to Kazama and Unno after leaving Tosu. They went the next day to Chiran Air Base, where they soon had to go on a suicide attack mission. On the way to make an attack on Allied ships off Okinawa, Kazama's plane developed engine trouble, so his squad commander ordered him to return. After his return to Chiran, he was ordered to a Fukuoka Prefecture Army facility called the Shinbu Barracks, where he was confined with other kamikaze pilots who had returned from missions.

After telling Miike about his wartime experiences, Kazama says he will go to Tosu to meet Yoshioka. He enters the gymnasium filled with people and sees the same grand piano that he and Unno played several decades before. He warmly greets Yoshioka and sits down to play the first movement from Moonlight Sonata. As he plays, a final brief flashback shows Unno and the rest of the pilots in his squadron being shot down before they reach their targets.

Kazama plays Moonlight Sonata at end of film

 

Kazama embodies the distress and shame felt by many kamikaze pilots who survived when their comrades perished in attacks. Many Japanese gained an understanding of the complex emotions felt by surviving pilots for the first time when they viewed this film. Kazama shows in his eyes and expression the great sorrow felt for many years, not only from the death of his comrades but also from the terrible treatment he received in Shinbu Barracks after he returned from his kamikaze mission.

The film's plot basically follows Mori's novel, but the movie and book have many small differences. For example, when Yoshida visits the Chiran Peace Museum in Kagoshima Prefecture, in the movie she recognizes the face of Mitsuhiko Unno, the pilot who played the Moonlight Sonata, among the more than 1,000 photos of kamikaze pilots displayed at the museum. However, in the book the reader does not know about Unno until Shinsuke Kazama reveals his identity. The film also leaves out most of the historical background information regarding special attack forces that made suicide attacks near the end of the war.

Japan's Ministry of Education, National Congress of Parents & Teachers, Japan Film Society, and other groups recommended this film. The Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots displayed Tosu Elementary School's grand piano from 1993 to 1995, and now the Tosu Board of Education displays the piano in an assembly hall to allow the public to view it.

Gekkou no Natsu connects several images to kamikaze pilots to show their innocence, purity, and culture. Kazama and Unno depart Tosu Elementary School carrying white lilies. On the night before their departure to Okinawa, one pilot in their squadron plays with a puppy and another pilot has two small mascot dolls next to him. In the moonlight the squadron sings together a German folk song on the eve of their departure. Kazama and Unno both loved piano music rather than fighting, an image in stark contrast to the typical Western view of kamikaze pilots as fanatical warriors.