Writer's critical take on Jolie's 'Unbroken' raises readers' hackles

Some emails and online comments in response to Nicolas Gattig’s Jan. 7 Foreign Agenda column, “Japan may shun ‘Unbroken’ just because it’s old hat,” about the Angelina Jolie film “Unbroken,” which tells the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini’s ordeal in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II:

Know your facts before writing

What a ridiculous article. I saw the movie and thought it was a balanced portrayal of the man’s life. How could you present the man without presenting the torture? That became the center of his life for years at the prison camps, and then something his mind had to deal with the rest of his life. You, sir, are trivializing that.

And where do you come off with that Superman and Jesus nonsense? And cannibalism? I guess I missed that part of the movie. Everything that I saw in the movie, as far as I know (after extensive reading), really happened, and actually quite a bit more happened than what was shown. If anything, the movie quite tamed down how most prisoners were treated.

By the way, [prison guard Mutsuhiro] Watanabe himself admitted getting sexual pleasure from the torture he performed. So I guess that portrayal is spot-on. If you’re going to write an article, know your facts.

Should Japan and Germany be ashamed of what they did? Of course. Should that be portrayed in movies? Yes, for a really long time. Did Americans and other allies commit atrocities? Yes, individual and small-scale incidences because they are human, but nothing like the institutionalized abuse, torture and mass atrocities the Germans and Japanese committed. They need to be reminded of it for many generations.

Remember, those who fail to study the past are doomed to repeat it.


No monopoly on revisionism

I think the Americans and Europeans are doing their own share of historical revision. Hollywood’s “Pearl Harbor” was a checklist of what Americans believe, and they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it [if they made it] in Tokyo.

I do think that Japanese would be a lot better off in these disputes if they were aware of how much more the rest of the world knows about their own history than their own education system is prepared to teach them. In a couple of hours of mild interest on YouTube or Google, I can learn more about Japan’s war crimes than most Japanese citizens normally imagine.

But we all do this, we really do. Why does U.S. education refuse to call the Vietnam War “the American Invasion of Vietnam”? Why do we refuse to call our War on Terror the “War against Islamic States” or the War on Drugs the “War on Poor People and Poor Countries.”

We should attack historical revisionism on both sides of each argument.


Trust has to be earned

Sadly, most of the men who endured the sadistic torture [in Japanese POW camps] were broken in some way, physically and emotionally. Their experiences of starvation and brutal beatings are valid stories. These men also showed great humanity to each other and tried to put their experience of being treated as “less than human” behind them to support the principles of democracy and freedom.

Our family lives were affected by hearing about one’s father’s experience of torture at night in his sleep. The nightmares! I listened with great interest to Richard Flanagan and watched his story about the book he had written [“The Narrow Road To The Deep North”], about how he tried to deal with his father’s experience by writing a novel to honour the integrity and complexity of these men and understand someone he loved.

Their experiences went beyond reason — so much so that they have not been talked about, as most of it was unspeakable and difficult to come to terms with. Families are still living with the consequences, even though it may be a boring story to you. I still seek to understand my visceral experience of growing up around someone who had to hold this unspeakable experience inside of him for the common good of others and did his best to just get on.

As a nurse, I witnessed the naked fear on patients’ faces who had been subjected to these experiences when they woke up after surgery and in intensive care. A Japanese doctor, or nurse, or someone Asian, would go to attend them, and the ex-POWs’ desperate attempts to escape in their post-procedure haze were unlike any other confusion I’d witnessed. The terror was horrible to watch, and it was difficult to communicate to them that they were safe now.

There were many elements that impacted on family life. My father had a commitment to community service, to the men that had endured this experience. He made an effort to find good in people, and these men in general were not materialistic. My parenting was harsh since my father believed due to population pressure and to redeem Japan’s shame there would be further attempts at war. He wanted us to be tough enough to survive.

It has taken me a long time to know and appreciate what he and many others endured. I still remember the deep sadness and pain etched into his face.

I witnessed the enormous effort to help and support each other among the former-POW community as they aged. His postwar act with the other ex-POWS in the town was not to glorify war but to build a memorial to all the doctors and nurses who were placed in impossible situations and yet still honoured life.

Without the atomic bomb I would not be here! More people died on the Burma railway and as prisoners of Japan [than died in the atomic bombings], and, sadly, it took such a horrible weapon to stop these atrocities.

Japan has not accepted full responsibility for its wartime acts, unlike Germany. Very few people were punished, in stark contrast to the destruction of so many and the sadistic behaviour that had been allowed to thrive.

There has not been an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crimes committed, yet we are asked to forgive and let the white-washing of such acts continue, including the denial of the ordeals faced by the “comfort women.” Recognition, justice and repatriation are parts of being truly sorry.

I have had Japanese students staying with me in my home. So the hate does not continue, and my son and family can see the current generation and build different kinds of relationships than those my father endured. But the pain and human fortitude suffered by these men constitute valid stories.

We must be aware that history has a tendency to repeat itself if this behaviour is not acknowledged and addressed in sincere and real gestures of sorrow. I have often wondered how that awful behaviour impacted on Japanese family life — were these men just as indifferent to their families’ tribulations and pain? Did they harm them too? How do you behave normally at home or under stress after repeatedly administering beatings and torture?

There were many Asian people who suffered, too. In these circumstances, their experiences have been swept under the carpet. Trust has to be earnt!

Perth, Australia

‘The Bird’ is a cowardly creature

Last night I attended the movie “Unbroken,” and it was difficult to watch the beatings portrayed in the film. Being a veteran and watching today’s current treatment of prisoners, I have no doubt that Zamperini was treated harshly by his captors. Yes, I wanted to shoot “The Bird” [as Watanabe was nicknamed] and hoped that that would happen. But Zamperini survived and had many years of struggles due to his treatment as a POW. Finally he achieved peace only granted by his Creator and forgiveness for those who had harmed him.

Getting to carry the torch in Japan for the Olympics was no doubt a highlight for him, but to be able to tell those who were guards at the POW camp that he forgave them was even more important, because it gave him the closure that helps secure peace within.

Only Watanabe would not meet with him. I had a Japanese boss once, from Hokkaido, and found him to be the most honorable man I have ever known, and other Japanese I have met have been wonderful, gracious people. However, I find Watanabe to be without honor because he would not even meet Zamperini. Watanabe has proven himself to be a very cowardly man.

Perry, Georgia

Petition Japan to show the film

Your article about the movie “Unbroken” was another of many versions, however consistent, about the Japanese denial that this kind of treatment ever happened in World War II.

I speak on behalf of the thousands of former POWs who suffered at their hands (my late father being one) and their families and descendants. Please interview them about their lifetime PTSD and the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that have affected them and future generations.

This petition against the ban of this movie in Japan speaks volumes, as victims and their families and supporters raise their voices. Please take a look and circulate this petition: bit.ly/unbrokenjpn.


Who is this nincompoop?

“Old hat,” he says? Revisionist history in Japan is “old hat”? There’s a need for films like “Unbroken” as long as so many Japanese continue to embrace a right-wing revisionist view of their nation’s wartime atrocities, while also insisting on the false narrative that Japan was a “tragic victim” of WWII. If so, Japan was a victim of its own racialist nationalist militarism and jingoistic pride. During the 1930s, it was Dai Nippon’s intent to one day rule the world, or at least all of Asia and the Pacific regions.

Who is this nincompoop Nicolas Gattig? Director Angelina Jolie took the time to learn about Louis Zamperini’s wartime captivity from the elderly man himself. She didn’t simply read the book based on his life — he became a father-like figure to her during the production of this film.

Jolie’s intent was not to delve into sadomasochism or torture porn, as Gattig has glibly suggested. No, Jolie’s intent was to honor the memory of all the American and Allied POWs who fell victim to Japanese and German brutality during the darkest days of WWII. And since the Cold War is over, Jolie decided not to gloss over the unrelenting cruelty that Zamperini and so many other Allied POWs suffered at the hands of their often sadistic Japanese captors. That other POW film that was produced in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, “The Bridge On the River Kwai,” never attempted to give an accurate portrayal of Japan’s vicious inhumanity towards enemy combatants who had chosen to surrender.

Has it occurred to Gattig that Jolie is very aware of the ongoing “comfort women” issue in Asia? The Japanese government must be thankful that these wartime sex slaves were not included in her film. Jolie’s film does demonstrate how wartime Japan was fully capable of using various forms of coercion, not just in the narrow sense, when dealing with POWs, sex slaves, or colonial subjects living in constant fear of their often ruthless military overlords.

It should also be mentioned that the Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” only hints at the sort of atrocities suffered by inmates in Nazi death camps. When one Holocaust survivor was asked how accurately Spielberg’s film depicted the hellish conditions in a German concentration camp, he replied that it was only about 10 percent accurate.

Spielberg knew before he even started production that he would not be able to portray the full extent of Nazi atrocities. Such a film would prove too painful for the general public to view and very likely would never have won approval for even an R rating. If Spielberg had attempted to depict the full horrors of Nazi depravity, even in a Hollywood drama, it would have been far too traumatic for most viewers and would never have been granted approval for distribution.

Somebody should send a copy of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 film “Fires on the Plain” (Japanese title “Nobi”) to Shinto priest and history revisionist Mutsuhiro Takeuchi. This disturbing black-and-white film is based on the true personal accounts of Japanese soldiers who resorted to cannibalism in the last months of the war to stave off starvation while fighting in the Philippines.

Hell, I’m going to send a copy of Ichikawa’s film to Nicolas Gattig. Won’t he be in for a shock! All that wartime “cannibalism porn.” I suppose if a major Hollywood director did decide to make a film about Japan’s wartime abuse of comfort women, glib critics like Gattig would mock the film calling it “sex-slave porn.”

Otaru, Hokkaido

In cases where a location is not included below the author’s credit, comments have been taken from the JT website. Have your say: community@japantimes.co.jp

Coronavirus banner