Hotaru (Firefly)
Director: Yasuo Furuhata
Cast: Ken Takakura as Shuji Yamaoka, Yuko Tanaka as Tomoko Yamaoka, Tomoko Naraoka as Tomiko Yamamoto, Hisashi Igawa as Yoji Fujieda, Takami Mizuhashi as Masami Fujieda
Toei Video, 2001, 114 min., DVD

A Korean kamikaze pilot dies in a suicide attack, but his two Japanese comrades survive the war when one returns due to engine problems and the other makes a forced landing when shot down and wounded. The Korean pilot leaves behind a Japanese fiancée, who marries with one of his comrades soon after the end of the war. This story and many other specific details and incidents of Hotaru (Firefly) are fictional, but several of the film's characters and episodes are based on actual history.

Hotaru was one of the most popular films in Japan in 2001. The movie received nominations but did not win in 13 categories of the Japanese Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor (Ken Takakura), best actress (Yuko Tanaka), best director (Yasuo Furuhata), and best film score. The movie tries to present many interwoven themes, which ultimately leads to it falling short of its potential.

Most scenes in the movie take place in Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan. Shuji Yamaoka, a surviving kamikaze pilot, has lived there with his wife Tomoko since they married shortly after the end of the war until 1989, the year in which the action takes place. Tomoko suffers from kidney problems and has been on artificial dialysis for more than ten years. Yamaoka now has a business of fish farming after having been a fisherman for many years.

Emperor Hirohito dies in January 1989, and soon thereafter Yamaoka's war comrade Yoji Fujieda who lives in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan comes with his granddaughter Masami to visit Chiran, which served as the Army's largest sortie base for kamikaze attacks during the Okinawan campaign. Fujieda visits the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, where he remembers back to when he sortied in a kamikaze mission but had to return to base because of engine problems. On the day the war ended, Yamaoka stopped Fujieda from departing alone on a kamikaze mission by hitting him in the face. Fujieda also talks about the war with Tomiko Yamamoto, who ran a restaurant in Chiran during the war and treated many of the young men like her own sons when they visited. Fujieda tries to contact Yamaoka to see him in Chiran, but he is away from home. A few days later, Yamaoka finds out that Fujieda committed suicide by wandering out into a snowstorm.

Kanayama (middle) talks with Yamaoka and Fujieda in front of Tomiya Restaurant (now the Hotaru Museum)


Yamaoka and his wife Tomoko visit Fujieda's grave in Aomori Prefecture, but Tomoko is hospitalized when she falls ill at the end of the long trip. Yamaoka goes to Chiran to visit Tomiko, who asks him to return a small bag with an attached pendant to the family of a Korean kamikaze pilot, Second Lieutenant Kanayama (or Kim Sonje in Korean), who died during the war and had left the items with Tomiko before he sortied. Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910, so during the war Koreans also fought in the Japanese military. Kanayama had been the senior officer and the friend of both Yamaoka and Fujieda, and he had also been the fiancé of Tomoko, now Yamaoka's wife. Tomiko wanted to deliver the items personally to Kanayama's family near Pusan, Korea, but she cannot due to her weak legs, which have become so bad that she has decided to move into a senior citizens' home. Many former kamikaze pilots come to a party for Tomiko before she moves in order to thank her for all she has done for them over the years.

Yamaoka investigates donating a kidney for a transplant operation for Tomoko, but she refuses his offer. Masami, Fujieda's teenage granddaughter, visits Kagoshima again to deliver a note written by her grandfather to Yamaoka. In the note Fujieda has written his thanks to Yamaoka for his care over the years and his apology for leaving alone to the place of his war comrades. He also writes out the oral will that Kanayama recited to Yamaoka and Fujieda before he sortied to Okinawa.

After Yamaoka and his wife Tomoko go with Masami to visit Chiran again and to talk with Tomiko, Yamaoka takes Tomoko to the same place next to the sea where her deceased fiancé Kanayama gave his oral will. Yamaoka recites Kanayama's will to his wife. Kanayama said he would not die for the Japanese empire, but rather he would sortie for his family, Korea's families, and Tomoko. Yamaoka then asks Tomoko to go with him to Korea so he can tell Kanayama's family the will and return his bag and pendant.

About a dozen of Kanayama's relatives are waiting outside their home when the Yamaoka and Tomoko arrive. A man shouts at him [1], "Sonje cannot die for Japan! Why did Sonje die, and you a Japanese did not die?" However, in the midst of stony silence from the Koreans, Yamaoka reads the words of Kanayama's will and sings the Korean song Arirang, which Kanayama had sung at Tomiya Restaurant on the night before his sortie. A few of the Korean relatives seem to soften a little, and the younger sister of Kanayama's mother accepts the bag and pendant, and she invites them to see a photo of Kanayama and Tomoko. Yamaoka and his wife visit the graves of Kanayama's parents, since his family never built a grave for him without word from Japan on what had happened to him. The movie's final scene takes place 11 years later in 2000. Yamaoka, without Tomoko, watches as the boat he had with his wife is burned. As he watches the flames, he remembers his departed wife's words that she was truly happy living together with him.

Shuji Yamaoka (left) and Tomoko Yamaoka (center) say goodbye to Masami Fujieda (right) when she leaves Chiran


The title of the movie comes from an incident right before Kanayama's sortie, when he told Tomiko that he would become a firefly and return the next day. The young men at Tomiko's restaurant spot a firefly the next evening, and they silently remember Kanayama. When Yamaoka and Tomoko visit his parents' graves in Korea, they also spot a firefly and believe that Kanayama has now come home.

Although several characters in Hotaru are based on historical figures, many differences exist between the two. Kanayama is a composite of two actual kamikaze pilots, Second Lieutenant Fumihiro Mitsuyama and Sergeant Saburo Miyakawa. Out of the 1,036 Army kamikaze pilots who died in sorties from Chiran and other Japanese air bases during the Battle of Okinawa, 11 were Koreans. On the night before Mitsuyama's sortie, he sang the Korean song Arirang to Tome Torihama, the historical person who ran Tomiya Restaurant in Chiran, and her two daughters (Akabane and Ishii 2001, 130-9; Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha 1990, 15-6). During the evening before Miyakawa's sortie, he told Tome and her two daughters that he and his comrade Takimoto would return the following evening at 9 p.m. as fireflies. His comrade returned to base because of bad weather and went to Tomiya Restaurant that evening, when at 9 p.m. a firefly flew into the restaurant through the front door (Akabane and Ishii 2001, 156-169; Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha 1990, 27-8).

The movie tries to present the complexity of Japanese and Korean relations during and after the war, but in the end this issue does not get explored in depth. Kanayama's background, including his motivation for joining the Japanese military, remains unknown. Other than the brief outburst by a member of Kanayama's family about not understanding how Sonje could die when Yamaoka survived, the viewer gets nothing from the Korean perspective. The movie mentions that the remains stored in Yutenji Temple in Tokyo of over one thousand Koreans who died in battle as soldiers in the Japanese military have not yet been returned to their home country. However, the movie does not follow up on this issue so the viewer can understand the background.

Although the movie touches on a number of themes, the central one seems to be the true lasting love between Yamaoka and his wife Tomoko. The excellent acting by Ken Takakura and Yuko Tanaka, both famous movie stars for many years in Japan, gives a realism to the relationship between Yamaoka and Tomoko. After several decades of marriage, they still laugh and have fun together. Yamaoka shows his love for his wife in such ways as volunteering to donate a kidney for a transplant.

The character Tomiko Yamamoto is based on the historical figure of Tome Torihama, who ran Tomiya Restaurant in Chiran and who treated the young kamikaze pilots as if they were her own sons. Through her desire to remember the young men who gave their lives, she actively worked toward the establishment of the Chiran Special Attack Peace Kannon Temple and the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. The portrayal of Tomiko in the movie generally corresponds with the character of the Tome, who passed away in 1992 at 89 years of age.

Although Hotaru is a fine work as evidenced by the number of Academy Award nominations it received, the film ultimately does not achieve its potential. The Korean descent of Kanayama distracts from the main story of the relationship between Yamaoka and his wife. Although a few pilots of Korean descent did fly kamikaze missions, this part of the film departs the most from historical facts since nobody had a Japanese fiancée or said he would not die for the Japanese empire but rather for the Korean people. Although the wartime and postwar relation between Korea and Japan is an important topic for examination, this movie adds little to the discussion since it does not present the Korean side of the issue. Kanayama's Korean descent does not get revealed until about halfway through the film, but the Korean references in the last half of the film, including the climax at the Korean home of Kanayama's relatives, seems to drown out some other important topics introduced earlier.

The themes best presented in Hotaru are the close bond between the Yamaoka couple and the silent anguish experienced by the two kamikaze pilots who survived the war. However, the feelings of the two surviving kamikaze pilots often remain unspoken, so at times it can be difficult to understand their thinking. The movie tries to tie together the death of Emperor Hirohito and Fujieda's subsequent suicide, but this relationship remains unclear. In summary, this fine movie deserves a watch, but you may finish with the feeling some issues introduced in the film remain unanswered.


1. At 1:33:10 in film.

Sources Cited

Akabane, Reiko, and Hiroshi Ishii. 2001. Hotaru kaeru (The firefly returns). Tokyo: Soshisa.

Asahi Shimbun Seibu Honsha. 1990. Sora no kanata ni (To distant skies). Fukuoka: Ashishobo.