Review: Films Set In Japan – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Admittedly I only ever found out about this movie thanks to the title being parodied by ‘The Simpsons‘ when the dysfunctional family visited Japan way back in season ten (S10E23) of the long-running American animation comedy. The contrast between the two could not be more different though and funnily enough, the one with more on screen time in Japan is actually the cartoon!

Only about ten minutes of this overly long war drama (138 minutes!) are in Japan but they are the best and most pivotal scenes in the movie which makes sense given its title. Those two facts just about merit an inclusion in this films ‘set’ in Japan series. The bombing raid on Tokyo is tense, dramatic and well made, with pretty good award-winning special effects. Some of the realism stems from the fact that actual footage of the B-25 Mitchell bombers taking off from the U.S. was used in the film.

Warning: Contains spoilers!

It takes a while to just get to that stage though! 80 minutes to be precise. That’s when a brief shot of Mount Fuji is seen as the soldiers close in on Japan to complete their mission in the more compelling second half of the film. Before all that there was of course the launch which followed a scene where the soldiers were told that it’d be a night job and that they had the opportunity to choose the city they prefer which sounded quite flippant to me and made it sound like someone coming to Japan to teach on the JET programme rather than basically selecting the city they were going to bomb.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo‘ details the Doolittle-raid on Japan in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks and was actually one of four movies made by Hollywood during the 1940s relating to the U.S. military’s Dolittle Raid on Tokyo during WWII. The other films were ‘Destination Tokyo‘ (1943), ‘Bombardier‘ (1943) and ‘The Purple Heart‘ (1944) which were all considered to be more fictionalised versions of what really happened.

The story is told from the perspective of pilot Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) who trains for combat with some other likeable characters whose background is never really given too much time. The love story element of the film relates to Lawson and his wife Ellen expecting a baby but they never seem to have any reservations about whether he should undertake the very dangerous flying mission to Japan or not.

All-in-all it’s quite heavy on sentiment but from my experience it seems like that is what many films from this more innocent era were like. Given that it was actually made during WWII there are some propaganda elements like when the air force and marines go on about their mutual respect for each other, or when the Americans say how much they admire the Chinese.

It is their relationship with the Chinese following the raid which make for the most touching scenes as Lawson and Co. make a crash landing close to mainland China when making their way back to safety in Chungking. They receive help from friendly locals and get seen to by a Chinese doctor. Lawson’s left leg is seriously injured and some slightly strange dream sequences with his wife Ellen ensue as he becomes an amputee.

To be honest, the real tension of the film fades away once the soldiers are taken to hospital and it does plod on a bit too long after that although there are some more lighthearted scenes with the Chinese such as an old native guy presenting slippers to the U.S. soldiers as well as the inevitable communication problems.

There are a lot of references to “the Japs” throughout the film showing just how dated it all is. Lawson though doesn’t seem to have any prejudice towards them as proved by one scene where he talks of a Japanese gardener who seemed like “a nice enough fellow” and also of his desire for the war to be over rather than wanting to kill more Japanese.

In this MGM produced movie, a brief reference is made to some valuable intelligence information which Doolittle’s men received from a submarine that had infiltrated Tokyo bay prior to their bombing mission which seemed like a little nod of respect to their rivals Warner Bros who made ‘Destination Tokyo‘ (1943) the year before about the same mission.

Having endured other movies from this era in recent times I have to say that I wasn’t looking forward to this one too much despite many reviews raving about it. I went in to it with an open mind though and whilst it didn’t live up to its average rating on IMDb (in my opinion) I was ultimately mildly satisfied with this sweet love story set amidst the war theme.

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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