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TOKYO (Reuters) - A film celebrating Japan's wartime "kamikaze" suicide pilots and written by Tokyo's nationalist governor opened in theatres on Saturday, sparking more of a pacifist than a patriotic response from audiences.
The movie comes as Japan's government edges towards a vote on revising the U.S.-drafted constitution that has strictly limited the country's military activities for six decades following its World War Two defeat.
"For Those We Love," written by Shintaro Ishihara, a 74-year-old writer-turned-politician, tells the true story of a restaurant owner who became a mother figure to many of the young men as they trained to crash explosives-laden aircraft into U.S. warships.
Tome Torihama's restaurant at Chiran on the southern island of Kyushu was a home from home for the trainees, mostly in their teens and early 20s, who were preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice as Japan tried desperately to avert U.S. invasion in the final months of World War Two.
Though Ishihara is known for patriotic policies, including introducing compulsory singing of the national anthem in schools, members of the audience took away a different message from the lavish 1.8 billion yen production.
"It made me think we should never go to war. War is terrible and all it leaves behind is bitterness," said a 58-year-old businessman, who gave his name only as Hiro, after watching the film in a central Tokyo theatre.
Director Shinjo Taku has said he had no intention of glorifying the extreme policies adopted in wartime Japan.
"In a word, I think the military leaders of the time were despicable," Taku told reporters on Tuesday.
"They took these pure, inexperienced young men and sent them off to die. I think they should take responsibility for that."
Both he and Ishihara have emphasized the differences between the wartime kamikaze and contemporary suicide attackers, but others say the two phenomena have common threads.
"The similarities in the selection of young men to carry out these one-way missions and the methods used to convince them cannot be ignored," said Linda Hoaglund, one of the makers of "Wings of Defeat," a documentary film about the kamikaze set to be screened in Japan later this year.
Vice-Admiral Takejiro Onishi initiated the desperate strategy of having pilots fly their planes into U.S. ships when Japan was on the verge of losing control of the Philippines.
The success of the first "kamikaze" attack off the island of Leyte in 1944 led to the recruitment of more young men for such missions.
"The suicide attacks were an inevitable result of Japan's pre-war militarism," said businessman Hiro. "It was a kind of religion."
More than 2,000 planes were used and 34 U.S. ships were sunk in Japanese suicide attacks in the last few months of the war, according to a Japanese encyclopedia.
One 80-year-old who lived through wartime bombing said it was hard for those who did not remember the conflict to understand it.
"I don't really feel proud of them," Kunimitsu Suzuki said of the pilots after watching the film. "I think with the education they had, they were forced into it. They felt there was nothing else they could do."