Tora! Tora! Tora! (Japanese: トラ・トラ・トラ) is a 1970 Japanese-American biographical war drama film that dramatises the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, and stars an ensemble cast including Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, Sō Yamamura, E. G. Marshall, James Whitmore and Jason Robards.
The tora of the title is the two-syllable Japanese code word used to indicate that complete surprise had been achieved. Japanese being a language with many homophones, it is a coincidence that tora also means “tiger” (虎).
In August 1939, the United States imposes a trade embargo on a belligerent Japan, severely limiting raw materials. Influential army figures and politicians push through an alliance with Germany and Italy in September 1940 and prepare for war. The newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reluctantly plans a pre-emptive strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbour, believing that Japan’s best hope of controlling the Pacific Ocean is annihilating the American fleet when war starts. Air Staff Officer Minoru Genda is chosen to mastermind the operation while his old Naval Academy classmate Mitsuo Fuchida is selected to lead the attack.
Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. military intelligence has broken the Japanese Purple Code, allowing them to intercept secret Japanese radio transmissions indicating increased Japanese naval activity. Monitoring the transmissions are U.S. Army Col. Bratton (E. G. Marshall) and US Navy Lieutenant Commander Kramer. At Pearl Harbour itself, Admiral Kimmel and General Short do their best to increase defensive naval and air patrols around Hawaii which could provide early warning of enemy presence. Short recommends concentrating aircraft at the base on the runways to avoid sabotage by enemy agents in Hawaii.
Several months pass while diplomatic tensions escalate. As the Japanese ambassador to Washington continues negotiations to stall for time, the large Japanese fleet, including six aircraft carriers, sorties into the Pacific towards Pearl Harbour. On the day of the attack, Bratton and Kramer learn from intercepts that the Japanese plan a series of fourteen radio messages from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington. They are also directed to destroy their code machines after receiving the final message. Deducing the Japanese intention to launch a surprise attack immediately after the messages are delivered, Bratton tries warning his superiors of his suspicions. However, Bratton encounters several obstacles: Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark is indecisive over notifying Hawaii without first alerting the President; and Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall’s order that Pearl Harbour be alerted of an impending attack is stymied by poor atmospherics that prevent radio transmission and bungling when a warning sent by telegram is not marked urgent. At dawn on December 7, the Japanese fleet launches its aircraft. Their approach to Hawaii is detected by two radar operators but their concerns are dismissed by the duty officer. The Japanese thus achieve surprise and a joyous commander Fuchida sends the code to begin the attack: “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
The damage to the naval base is catastrophic and casualties are severe. Seven battleships are either sunk or heavily damaged. General Short’s anti-sabotage precautions prove a disastrous mistake that allows the Japanese aerial forces to destroy aircraft on the ground easily. Hours after the attack ends, General Short and Admiral Kimmel receive Marshall’s telegram warning of impending danger. In Washington, the Secretary of State Cordell Hull is stunned on learning of the attack and urgently requests confirmation before receiving the Japanese ambassador. The message that was transmitted to the Japanese embassy in 14 parts – a declaration of war – was meant to be delivered to the Americans at 1:00 pm in Washington, 30 minutes before the attack. However, it was not decoded and transcribed in time, meaning the attack started while the two nations were technically still at peace. The distraught Japanese ambassador, helpless to explain the late ultimatum and unaware of the ongoing attack, is bluntly rebuffed by a despondent Hull.
Back in the Pacific, the Japanese fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, refuses to launch a scheduled third wave of aircraft for fear of exposing his force to U.S. submarines. Aboard his flagship, Admiral Yamamoto solemnly informs his staff that their primary target – the American aircraft carriers – were not at Pearl Harbour during the attack. They had sortied into the Pacific days previously to search for Japanese vessels. The Admiral also lamented that the declaration of war arrived after the attack began. He noted that nothing would infuriate the U.S. more. The film closes with Admiral Yamamoto’s ominous conclusion: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Tora! Tora! Tora! book by Gordon W. Prange and The Broken Seal by Ladislas Farago.
Prange’s 1963 Tora! Tora! Tora!, published in the November and December issues of Reader’s Digest, and later expanded into At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story Of Pearl Harbour, portrayed the attack on Pearl Harbour, and is credited as the basis for the screenplay of the film Tora! Tora! Tora!, which was produced in 1970, while Prange took a leave of absence from the University of Maryland to serve as the technical consultant during its filming. His extensive research into the attack on Pearl Harbour was the subject of a Public Broadcasting Service television program in 2000, Prange and Pearl Harbour: A Magnificent Obsession.
Originally published in 1967, Farago’s book, The Broken Seal, is a concise history of the post World War I American intelligence and its early victories with Japanese code breaking. Fargo offers an engrossing tale of how the US intercepted, broke, and disseminated intelligence from the Red, Purple, naval, and commercial Japanese codes prior to 07 December.
Production & Filming Details
- Directors: Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku.
- Producers: Elmo Williams, Richard Fleischer, and Darryl F. Zanuck (unaccredited).
- Screenplay: Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa (unaccredited).
- Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
- Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler, Shinsaku Himeda, Masamichi Satoh, and Osamu Furuya.
- Editors: James E. Newcom, Pembroke J. Herring, and Inoue Chikaya.
- Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
- Release Date: 23 September 1970 (US/Japan).
- Running Time: 144 minutes.
- Country: US and Japan.
- Language: English and Japanese.