Why can’t “Unbroken” — Angelina Jolie’s hit World War II drama — catch a break in Japan? There are presently no plans to release the film here in theaters, on DVD or online, even though it has a strong Japan focus as well as a major role for popular local rock musician Miyavi (whose real name is Takamasa Ishihara).
That focus, however, is on the tortures Miyavi’s character — a sadistic internment camp guard — inflicts on the captured Louis Zamperini, a real-life U.S. bombardier hero played by Jack O’Connell. Based on Zamperini’s war experiences — related in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling 2010 book of the same name — “Unbroken” has been fiercely attacked by Japanese rightists. Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of a group called the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that the film “has no credibility and is immoral.”
All of this, however, is business as usual. Local rightists have been complaining about movies they consider anti-Japanese for decades. But several of those films had something “Unbroken” doesn’t: a Japanese release date.
The 1990 WWII drama “Blood Oath” (also released as “Prisoners of the Sun”) graphically depicted Japanese abuse of Allied POWs on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Directed by Australian Stephen Wallace and featuring a young Russell Crowe, the film was distributed locally by Toei — a major film production and distribution company — but opened in only one Tokyo theater. Toshi Shioya, who played a Miyavi-like role as a merciless Japanese prison guard, told the Chicago Tribune in 1991 that “Blood Oath” was the “first film ever shown here that actually portrays ordinary Japanese soldiers as accomplices in war crimes. We were lucky to find a distributor willing to show the film because for many Japanese, this is a shocking motion picture.”
More recently, “Yasukuni” — Chinese filmmaker Li Ying’s 2007 documentary about the titular controversial shrine, where war criminals are honored in addition to millions of war dead — angered not only local flag-wavers for its references to Japanese atrocities, but also shrine officials, who claimed Li filmed without permission. Sword maker Naoji Kariya, a central figure in the film, asked Li to cut the footage of him being interviewed. Despite death threats that forced Li to temporarily leave the country, distributor Argo Pictures opened an uncut version of “Yasukuni” in May 2008 with tight police security and it became an indie hit, with nearly 130,000 admissions.
There is also “The Cove” — Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 documentary about the dolphin hunts in the port of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture — which drew fire from rightists and outraged locals for depictions that were described as slanted, fake and racist. In response to a campaign against the film’s Japan release, which included loud protests at the office of local distributor Unplugged, several theaters initially cancelled screenings, but the film finally opened at six venues nationwide in July 2010. Though demonstrators converged on four of the cinemas, police presence ensured that theatergoers entered undisturbed, while two theaters in Tokyo and Yokohama secured court injunctions against protests on their premises.
So where is the Toei, Argo Pictures or Unplugged for “Unbroken”? It might have been Toho-Towa, the company that releases films distributed by Universal Pictures, the U.S. distributor of “Unbroken” — but they declined. Another company could buy the Japan rights, but so far none has.
One reason is straightforward business. In contrast to the low budgets of “Yasukuni” and “The Cove,” “Unbroken” cost a reported $65 million to produce and sellers of foreign films have typically asked 10 percent of the production budget for Japan rights. Even if a buyer could negotiate this figure down, it would probably need a release in more than six small independent theaters to break even. A multiplex chain could deliver the needed number of screens, but finding one willing to deal with the inevitable protests — and possibly worse — may not be easy.
Also, Jolie is known in Japan only as an actor, while her star, O’Connell, is a nonentity here. Miyavi has his fans, but he is not a marquee name. Furthermore, foreign films in general have struggled against the local competition in recent years and even ones with supposedly Japan-friendly themes, such as “Pacific Rim,” “Emperor” and “Godzilla,” have underperformed at the Japanese box office. It would take a confident distributor indeed to believe that “Unbroken,” given a similar release, would do better.
Despite all the negatives, a feisty distributor may yet open “Unbroken” in Japan — if just on one heavily guarded screen — or distribute the film on other platforms, assuming that similarly unafraid DVD store chains and streaming sites will step forward. But would it make a difference in public perceptions of Japan’s war actions and responsibility?
Shioya worked hard to have “Blood Oath” released in Japan, hoping that it would open the eyes of his fellow citizens to a forgotten chapter of the war, but he might not be so optimistic today. (We’ll never know, since he died at age 56 in 2013.) Old-school rightists, who once looked so isolated and pathetic shouting from their sound trucks, have been joined by legions of “Net uyoku” (Internet rightists), stridently proclaiming that everything from the Nanking Massacre to the forced conscription of “comfort women” are fictions propagated by Japan’s enemies.
And mainstream Japanese may still tell poll-takers they are stoutly anti-war, but they also helped make “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero)” — a WWII film whose hero is a self-sacrificing kamikaze pilot — one of the biggest live-action hits of 2014. There are other indications, from the declining numbers of Japanese studying abroad to the Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the last parliamentary election, of an inward turn and a nationalistic drift. A single Hollywood film will probably not change any of that.
So what are the boys on the sound trucks and their Internet allies afraid of?
Break the ban on “Unbroken.”