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Re-creating World War II on the Hudson: filmmaker Shohei Kotaki and the USS Slater.

Photo: Ann Morrow

A New Tour of Duty

With local filming set for August, Albany’s USS Slater will “star” in a major Japanese motion picture about World War II

By Ann Morrow

A blue-canopied pontoon boat approaches the USS Slater and circles the docked, World War II-era combat ship from stem to stern. The pontoon is full of Japanese men keenly observing the ship’s every detail, and they are almost as intently watched by the personnel aboard the Slater. But this recon mission isn’t a flashback to the Slater’s active duty during the war. Nor is it an invasion of tourists playing at naval espionage, though the Japanese contingent is armed with zoom lenses, light meters, and tape measures. No, the crew aboard the pontoon is a film production crew, come all the way from Tokyo in search of cinematic realism.

After taking turns on the pontoon, the crew, including director, screenwriter and co-producer Shohei Kotaki, take more tests shots of the Slater from the deck of a Dutch Apple Cruise day liner. The deck-to-deck vantage highlights the Slater’s cannon-class accoutrements: “Wonderful for realism,” enthuses assistant director Shunji Okada. Meanwhile, a member of the production team requests a paint swatch from Erik Collin, the Slater’s restoration coordinator. Collin explains that the ship’s original shade of “ocean gray” was duplicated with a customized mix, but says he’ll make some swatches. This August, the Slater’s name will be painted over with a fictional name, and she will begin her starring role in Orion in Midsummer, a battle film set in the final days of the Pacific war.

The pontoon’s side views of the Slater’s 306-foot-long exterior will be especially important in a key scene, when a Japanese submarine stealthily surfaces within gunsights of the restored destroyer escort. During wartime, the Slater and almost 600 other destroyer escorts—swift and heavily armed gunboats—accompanied convoys of merchant ships and protected them from Nazi U-Boats in the North Atlantic and Japanese submarines and aircraft in the Pacific. Moored on the Hudson River in Albany where it serves as a museum and memorial, the Slater is the only “DE” still afloat in the United States, and after an extensive (and ongoing) decade-long restoration, has earned its title of being the most authentic. She’s also been in the movies before, with a bit part in The Guns of Navarone.

But Kotaki didn’t know about the Slater when he was doing research for the Orion script last year. Location scouts looked at several DEs, and also contacted the Destroyer History Foundation in Saratoga Springs. Foundation organizer David McComb arranged for Kotaki to interview Navy veterans around the region (about 25 in all), and also put him in contact with Tim Rizzuto, a historic ship expert and the Slater’s executive director. Kotaki and his coproducers returned in March and cast the Slater as the U.S. escort ship that engages a Japanese submarine in a plot that was inspired by a real-life encounter.

“I was surprised,” says Rizzuto of the Slater’s casting coup. “There are operative DEs in the Philippines.” Rizzuto also cites the Slater’s competition, the USS Kidd, a museum ship in Baton Rouge, La. Though that ship is land-docked, and the Philippine DEs have been modified beyond recognition, verisimilitude wasn’t the only reason Kotaki chose the Slater. “He told me, ‘It feels live,’ ” says Rizzuto proudly.

Amid the bustle of enthusiastic tourists and volunteers doing restoration work, the producer-director discusses his decision to shoot part of the film in the United States aboard an actual DE. Were the Slater’s live armaments—canons, K-guns and a rare Hedgehog mortar launcher—a factor? “Of course, for authenticity,” he says, adding, “Hollywood films are ruined by too much computer effects.” But Kotaki emphasizes that he was more impressed by the warmth and dedication of the ship’s staff. “They want to transcend history for a new generation,” he says admiringly.

What both crews—onboard and behind the storyboard—have in common is a desire to get it right. “We’re working real close with them,” says Rizzuto of the charter. Technical assistance ranges from fact checking the script to supplying the Slater’s original navigational charts from Guam. Despite the historical zeal of all involved, the 21st century does intrude: for insurance reasons, the Slater won’t be loosed on the Hudson, and its K-guns will have to be replicated. There is a quick consensus to use compressed air instead of firing powder for the depth charges.

Action! Orion in Midsummer crew members check out the USS Slater.

Photo: Ann Morrow

The Japanese sub is being built in a studio in Tokyo, where about seventy percent of the film will be shot; as Kotaki quietly mentions, there aren’t any old subs in Japan because the United States sank them all.

Kotaki got the idea for Orion in Midsummer from an incident he heard about through the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force while working on a previous battle-at-sea actioner. The character of the Japanese sub captain is based on a real person, Capt. Hashinato, who refused to use Kitains—suicide torpedo missions that were the underwater counterpart of Kamikazes. The semi-biographical captain will be played by Hiroshi Tamaki, a young heartthrob and one of Japan’s most popular actors. And he will have a sense of humor, says Kotaki, “to break away from the stereotype of the strict and severe Japanese commander.”

The role of the American captain, he says, was influenced by characters from the 1981 German U-Boat film, Das Boot, and especially, by the commander played by Robert Mitchum in 1957’s The Enemy Below. Casting for the American captain hasn’t been finalized, but he will be of the “cool, calm and collected personality type,” says Kotaki, who says that contrasts between the two captains are equaled by what they have in common, which is “cherishing human life and wishing for peace.”

According to Rizzuto, the Slater is being paid “the Hollywood industry standard” for the two-week charter, a huge boon for a mostly donations-funded historic site. But payment was almost the least of his concerns.

“We did a great deal of soul searching,” he says. “We were concerned that veterans of the war in the Pacific might feel a sense of betrayal that we were allowing the Slater to be used as a backdrop for a Japanese movie about World War II. However, Sho presented us with a copy of the script to review, to help us understand that his goal is to honor the veterans of both sides.

“His script is an honest, balanced and fair treatment,” Rizzuto continues. “It’s about two veteran captains who are both war weary of seeing the needless loss of life. They’re both good,” he adds. “The American captain is very confident.”

Rizzuto also sees the Slater’s big-screen appearance as part of its mission. “We’re concerned that American schools don’t really teach World War II history—students just get brushed with it,” he says. “And Sho is concerned that the Japanese have ignored this history, and he sees making this movie as part of an effort to draw attention to it. Not to allow them to do the film would in essence be holding a 60-year grudge, and we feel that as a memorial, the USS Slater must stand for more than that.”

For his part, Kotaki says he learned a lot from the local veterans he interviewed, and was moved by their stories. “Unfortunately, in Japan, they try to forget the war, the past, and that’s a mistake, you have to remember the past to transcend it,” he says. In Japan, he explains, they don’t have museums or memorials to the Pacific War. “There is no such place as this ship,” he says. “It’s wonderful that schoolchildren, Girl Scouts, the children of veterans, can come here.”

The USS Slater will be closed to the public from Aug. 15 to Aug. 28 for film production. For more information, visit www.ussslater.org or call 431-1943.


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