Flashback to 1983: Director Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” set during World War II in a Japanese-run POW camp in Java, is opening in theaters across Japan. It starred David Bowie with two huge local stars: comedian Beat Takeshi and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. The film confronted the reality of fascist wartime brutality, while also sending a message of reconciliation. It was a huge hit.
Flash forward to 2016: Angelina Jolie’s movie “Unbroken,” also set in a POW camp and starring another rock star, Miyavi, is lucky to even be opening. This big-budget Hollywood production, scripted by the Coen Bros. and shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, was dropped by the usual distributor of Universal movies, Toho-Towa, who seemingly caved in to pressures from netto uyoku (outspoken ultra-rightist Internet users). Now, at last, it is opening at a few art houses, thanks to a different distributor. But beyond the controversy, is the movie any good?
“Unbroken” is based on the life of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell), a tough Italian-American kid who was well down the path to juvenile delinquency when he discovered a passion for running and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. When war broke out, Zamperini enlisted, serving as a bombardier over the Pacific until he was shot down. He survived 47 days at sea and then a grueling two years in Japanese POW camps.
“Unbroken,” like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” is a movie about forgiveness and enduring the unendurable, with a lot more of the latter than the former. Zamperini’s ordeals include Japanese “Zero” Fighers strafing his plane, sharks assaulting his life raft, and a particularly sadistic prison guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), beating him savagely. (And Jolie even evokes the crucifixion with one shot.)
It’s gut-wrenching stuff, but Jolie’s problem vis-a-vis the Japanese market is that every Japanese soldier shown is essentially a Nazi thug. That’s certainly true to the experience of many Allied POWs — one in three would not survive capture — but by not including any humane Japanese, as Oshima did in “Mr. Lawrence,” Jolie makes her film a tough sell.
While Japanese right-wingers see this as “Japan-bashing” and point out that America also committed crimes, they seem to ignore the scene Jolie has included of the firebombing of Tokyo and its aftermath — mass destruction caused by American bombers like Zamperini. War is hell, and Jolie instead emphasizes Zamperini’s transformation, from wanting to kill Watanabe to passive resistance and eventually compassion.
Yet “Unbroken” is unwelcome in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s patriotic Japan for a number of reasons. First, it is based on eyewitness testimonies of Imperial Japanese Army brutality, something which the LDP neo-cons deny ever happened. Second, it reminds people that some Japanese officers beheaded prisoners, an uncomfortable fact — especially considering the Abe regime has used ISIS beheadings of Japanese captives to make its case for remilitarizing Japan.
Finally, as Japan looks toward the 2020 Olympics, it shows how Zamperini was targeted by his captors for being an Olympian. Not only that, but when he returned to Japan in 1988 to carry the torch of the Nagano Olympics’ in the spirit of reconciliation, his former tormentor refused to even meet with him.
That may be the most depressing thing about “Unbroken”: Jolie sees triumph in Zamperini’s perseverance and willpower, but Watanabe’s craven perseverance also paid off. He escaped being charged as a war criminal, was granted amnesty and went on to live a long and prosperous life, denying any wrongdoing to the end. It’s people like him — and their offspring — who rule Japan today.