ACADEMIC BULLSHIT: Destination Tokyo (Daves, 1943)

Disjointed thoughts on Destination Tokyo

* Rhetorical structuring and presentation of the modern, and in particular how the machines of war are inscribed within an ambiguous position. On one hand these machines are glorified. Early in Destination Tokyo there is a montage of the weaponry available to the US Military that at the very least can be described as glorifying. Weapons are quite literally held up for admiration, suspended in the air as they get loaded onto ships and filmed from a low angle. They are handled carefully, but the careful handling does not come across as precaution–these are bombs, after all, and a misstep could lead to probable death. Instead, the careful handing is best read as a mix of wonderment and excitement. The soldiers look at once focused on the job at hand and full of esteem for that job and what it means within the larger context of the war. They are cogs all right, but what glorious cogs they are, coming in contact with the very weapons that will, they hope, win the war. This somatic experience for the soldiers finds an analogue in the audience. The display of machinery is viscerally stimulating rather than intellectually inspiring. In the final battle sequence, when the last torpedo is loaded into its slot–a process that seemingly takes the entire crew, all of whom help guide the missile with something like gritty jubilation plastered on their faces–the messages written on the bomb glide across the screen, accompanied by the hands of the crew members. The individual messages are directed at the Japanese, but certainly they’ll never have the opportunity to read them (they’ll get the larger message, though, which seems to be more important). So the putative significance of the messages is as an outlet for the emotions the men feel. That the outlet involves imprinting on the bomb a physical trace from each man seems to be precisely the point. The torpedo becomes the fetishized object in the strict Freudian sense of the term, with all the attendant emphasis on the object-ness of the torpedo intended.

To compound the regard for the machinery are the quick cuts and dissolves that initially introduce the machinery to the movie. Though by this point in American cinema the technical achievement of such a sequence was probably not noticed as such, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the technically virtuosic presentation of the technically advanced machines is fitting. This sequence is reminiscent of the clip we watched in class on Thursday in which the engineering tools of the Chinese (antiquated) were contrasted with the tools of the Japanese (modern). My guess is that a careful examination of Japanese films that deal with soldiers and the military will yield sequences similar to the ones in Destination Tokyo.

*There is a strong theme of sacrifice in Destination Tokyo. Immediately after Cary Grant is introduced as the Captain of the submarine there is a scene in which he writes a letter to his wife. His leave has been cut short and so he will have to spend Christmas on the sub. Though he expresses remorse for the unfortunate turn of events, the next thing he tells his wife is that his rank has improved–he now has three stripes on his sleeve–the implication being that the sort of sacrifice he’s subjected himself to by being an ideal member of the Navy has resulted in the gains one would hope would compensate such sacrifice. Of course, those gains only lead to more sacrifice, and its not until Grant has been through a perilous journey into the bay of Tokyo and back that he finally does get to see his family. Sacrifice is ultimately rewarded in the end, but it is telling that Grant’s character has no idea that his wife will be greeting him in San Francisco. So although sacrifice will be rewarded, there is not always an indication of when that reward will come. One must always be sacrificing, then. That said, sometimes the rewards are immediate. The three men who risk their lives to breach the Japanese shores do so on the promise that their actions will enable the US Military to accurately bomb the Japanese. The heroics (synonymous with sacrifice) of a few men lead to the first bombing of Japan.

Other instances of sacrifice are when the new crew member volunteers to disable the unexploded bomb that has lodged itself in the bowels of the ship. Though it is possible to read the sacrificial action as a means for gaining entry into the brotherhood of the crew, an alternative reading is supported by the fact that the boy volunteers after he admits failing to help Mike, who has just been stabbed in the back by a Japanese soldier. In light of this the sacrifice is more to settle the cosmic score than to gain a personal advantage. Grant’s character can’t reach the bomb but he does guide the boy through the steps to disarm the bomb. The two go to disarm the bomb together, the Captain and the rookie, even though the specter of another attack remains a grave and likely possibility. Grant’s character admits as much when he notes that the Japanese soldier probably gave coordinates to where he was shot down prior to ejecting from his plane, which means that more Japanese soldiers are probably on the way. Of course, Grant’s character still opts to go down below with the rookie, though before doing so he informs the crew that should they be attacked they must immediately submerge the sub. Stuck down below, Grant and the rookie would drown, but better that then risk the death of the other soldiers on board. The message is clear: no one is above anyone else and the individual always sacrifices himself to the betterment of the group.

Keeping in mind that no one is above anyone else, it is interesting to think about a) Carry Grant as the star of the film and b) the individual triumphs that lead to the first bombing of Japan. In light of (a) and (b) Destination Tokyo is a quintessential Hollywood film. Valor and sacrifice are encouraged within the diegesis of the film, but the individual will always get his due. World War II might be a huge operation undertaken by a bunch of soldiers that requires all the individuals to be subsumed within a larger whole (such is the ethos of the military) but the heroic deeds of a few could mean the turning point in the war–though part of the whole the actions of any individual can have large consequences–and the star is always the leader, the person who is at once one of the guys–he goes below with the rookie to disarm the bomb–and in charge of everyone (the ethos of Hollywood). The genius of Hollywood is how the narrative smooths the possible contradictions of these two positions out, so that the film can support a reading that encourages sacrifice to the whole while simultaneously emphasizing the individual and reward.

*Though the Japanese are regarded with ill will, there is an interesting scene after Mike has been stabbed by the Japanese soldier (after trying to help the solider out of the water no less! after the soldier literally stabbed him in the back!) during which Grant’s character relates an anecdote about how wonderful a father Mike was. Mike bought his five year old the best roller stakes money could buy and showed his son love, and this is the legacy Mike will leave. The Japanese soldier, on the other hand, was probably given a dagger by his father, as are so many five-year-old Japanese boys. The Japanese soldier stabbed Mike in the back because he had been on a course to do so since he was a little boy. In a surprising twist Grant’s character practically grants the soldier absolution, chalking up his evil deed as an unfortunate character trait and not an inherent part of his being. This is a near total reversal on how the Japanese have been regarded throughout the film. Though no one goes so far as to say that the Japanese are inherently evil, what is said about the Japanese would certainly support such a reading. That is, except what Grant’s character says about the Japanese soldier during his eulogy for Mike. The final words Grant’s character says about Mike is that he died so more kids in the world would have roller stakes, especially the Japanese kids. The Japanese, it seems, are not some evil creatures that must be eradicated but are a wayward people that need to be reformed. Of course, nothing in the rest of the film suggests that the plan is to reform the Japanese and everything suggests that eradication is the plan. Perhaps the rationale is that the elder Japanese are incurable and that the only way for the country to be saved is for it to start over (hence Hiroshima?). This was one sequence of the movie I really do not know what to make of.

*The eulogy of Mike brings me to the final aspect of Destination Tokyo that struck me and that’s the prevalence of family as an organizing metaphor for the crew of the submarine. The rookie crew member upon waking up Christmas morning on the sub–his first Christmas spent away from home–reminisces about how his mom and dad would wake him each Christmas by singing carols. Soon after relaying this story three men walk into the cabin singing Christmas carols.

After Mike dies one of the crew members remembers that Mike was always listening to a record that he kept stashed under his bed. Thinking that the recording might be of something funny or sexual (or both!) a group of men grab the record and put it on. The sound is of Mike’s wife, and for a moment there is hope that she will say something…naughty? funny? It’s hard to say. Instead she delivers a genuine, personal confession of her love for Mike, and upon hearing this the group starts to quickly dissipate. Perhaps entertaining the idea of what it will be like for Mike’s wife to find out Mike is dead is too troubling and so everyone leaves. I would argue that they all leave out of respect for the sanctity of Mike’s relationship with his wife, of which the record is a stand-in and, since Mike is dead, the only physical remnant of that relationship left on board. To listen to the record, especially with the hope that it will entertain, is to mock something sincere and familial, and to do that is to violate not only the bond between Mike and his wife but also the unspoken bond connecting all the men on the submarine. Indeed, this familial structure and longing is inescapable. The lulls in action are almost always filled by the men discussing their family. The problem with the Japanese is that the dynamic of their families are out of whack: the fathers give the sons daggers and the daughters are seemingly sold into prostitution when they turn 12 (or at least that’s the implication). As one crew member says, the Japanese don’t understand the sort of love Americans have for women. The Japanese don’t have a word for it, so how could they understand?

When the Japanese ships are attacking the submarine and things are looking grim for our crew, there is a close up of Cary Grant’s face. Suddenly his face dissolves to that of a young boy–his son’s. In times of great strife Grant’s character turns inward to his family to steel his resolve, and any subsequent action–such as escaping the Japanese attack or perhaps winning the war–can be traced back to the importance of family.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the final sequence of the film–when Grant and crew return to San Francisco–triumphs not the victory over the Japanese but the reuniting of a family, a somewhat curious choice given that this is the first time Grant’s wife is ever shown on screen. Though early on the film establishes how much Grant’s character longs for his wife and kids, seeing his family at the end seems a too-strong counterpoint to what transpired in the beginning.


~ by Scottie Ferguson on February 14, 2008.

One Response to “ACADEMIC BULLSHIT: Destination Tokyo (Daves, 1943)”

  1. Good article, amazing looking website, added it to my favorites!!

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