Enemy Within

Conspiracy theories aside, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shock to the world. Hawaii was still only a US territory in 1941, and no one expected that the war would suddenly arrive to awaken the sleeping giant and throw the United States into the war. Enemy Within is based on an unexpected aftereffect of the attack on Pearl Harbor called the Ni’ihau Incident, bringing the tension and panic of the time to vivid life.

Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese pilots were not kamikaze pilots. They had as good a chance of returning home as the average combat pilot… which still aren’t great odds, but there were plans in place to retrieve damaged planes. They were told to attempt a landing on Ni’ihau, a small island about 100 miles from the attack site, and wait for a rescue submarine. But Ni’ihau isn’t uninhabited, as the Japanese thought — there was a small community there, hunting and fishing as their ancestors had. Aside from the occasional neighborly dispute, it was a peaceful place — at least until the damaged Zero fell out of the sky.

Haku, Matsu, and Ben pulling Shigenori from the water.
Haku, Matsu, and Ben doing something they’ll regret.

Ben Kanahele (Joseph Naufahu), leader of the islanders, rescues the unconscious pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi (Kazuma Sano) without a second thought. The locals treat Shigenori’s wounds and welcome him to the island. But no good deed goes unpunished, and when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor finally reaches Ni’ihau, sides have already been chosen. There are three people of Japanese descent in the village, you see: Irene and Yoshio Harada (Chika Kanamoto, Takashi Yamaguchi), and Matsu (Takuma Anzai), and despite having lived on the island for years they’re not sure their friends and neighbors will ever want to have any Japanese around again. As the fear and uncertainty eat away at them — and Shigenori fights with all his strength to return home — desperate plans are made on both sides. When tension explodes into violence, it soon becomes clear that none of them will be able to return to their old lives.

Enemy Within masterfully juxtaposes the beauty of Ni’ihau with the ugliness that appears all too often when the stakes are high and reason is overcome by emotion. Basing a film on actual events can be challenging, but again the film faces that challenge expertly, creating a realistic portrait of Ni’ihau and its citizens both before and after war descends on them.

Naufahu as Ben and Maria Walker as his wife Ella particularly shine as they struggle to find balance amid the chaos, while Kanoa Goo as angry young man Hawila spends much of his time stirring up more chaos. But as decisions are made and alliances shift, the interplay among the characters is always convincing, creating a truly fascinating community. It’s a compelling, vivid drama that illuminates a neglected chapter in history as well as timeless questions of loyalty, identity, and duty that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.

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