While Hollywood has a long tradition of demonizing Muslims, Japanese filmmakers have taken a decidedly more benign approach

As news and pictures of the torture at Abu Ghraib began filling front pages in Britain and the United States, Robert Fisk of The Independent wrote that among the factors contributing to the hatred of Western soldiers for their Iraqi prisoners was the “poisonous, racial dribble of a hundred Hollywood movies that depict Arabs as dirty, lecherous, untrustworthy and violent people.”

Popular as that pernicious stereotype has proved with filmmakers and cinemagoers in America, it’s generally been a non-starter in Japan. Despite the alacrity with which Japanese studios normally peruse the outside world for usable villains, they have evinced surprisingly little interest in the heavily bearded devilry supposedly peculiar to the world of Islam.

Quite another matter entirely are the flying carpets, harems, wish-granting jinns and other entrancing myths associated in the popular imagination with this religion. “Yume, Yume no Ato (Dream, After Dream)” — the 1981 release that marked the directorial debut of noted haute couterier Kenzo, who also designed the film’s Sheikh of Araby-esque costumes — is practically marinated in 1001 Nights atmospherics.

To the accompaniment of a bombastic musical soundtrack by Journey, a sad young weaver (Enrico Tricarico) sets out on a quest for happiness. He eventually arrives at an old castle, where he is taken in by the beauteous Tsuki (Anicee Alvina) and Yuki (Anne Consigny), both of whom have been placed under a magical spell.

Released from that spell by the weaver’s love, Tsuki and Yuki begin running and flapping their arms, their breasts falling out of their Kenzo originals, their bodies becoming progressively more feathered. Finally, they turn into birds. The young man, actually an older man whose story has been told in flashback, wonders if it all was real or merely a dream.

Whatever other criticisms may be leveled against this vanity project, it is remarkably free of the hostility toward Arabs and Islam that characterizes such near-contemporaneous Hollywood features as “Rosebud,” with its inhumane Palestinians; “Ashanti,” with its present-day slave traders in Morocco, and “Jewel of the Nile,” with its fanatical, weapon-wielding buffoons. “Yume, Yume no Ato” is a product of its culture.

As far as the West is concerned, writes noted scholar Edward W. Said, “Islam represents not only a formidable competitor but also a late-coming challenge to Christianity. For most of the Middle Ages and during the early part of the Renaissance in Europe, Islam was believed to be a demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy and obscurity.”

During World War II, in addition to the Asians of the Pacific region, American GIs demonstrated a “great loathing . . . for Arabs, whom they met in Africa,” writes Michael C.C. Adams in “The Best War Ever.” Abu Ghraib, not to mention those many Arab-bashing Hollywood features condemned by Fisk, are just some of the latest manifestations of the West’s very long, very contentious relationship with Islam.

The Japanese, however, have never seen Islam as a threat to their cherished belief system. Japan never had a colonial presence in the Middle East; its culpability in mucking up that region, as it has been quick to point out, is practically nil. Additionally, this country’s lack of domestic sources of oil and its negligible Jewish population have served as further impetuses to make nice with a people American filmmakers have “collectively indicted . . . as Public Enemy #1,” as Jack G. Shaheen puts it in “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”

If Japanese films set in Muslim states are to be faulted, it is not so much for demonizing their inhabitants as for shunting them to the sidelines or making them invisible. “Sayonara, Morocco,” released in 1973, was clearly inspired by “Casablanca.” And like that perennial Japanese favorite, first seen here in 1946, it focuses on the expatriate community to the exclusion of the natives.

Kinya Aikawa, who wrote, directed and produced, plays a director of commercials so in love with Morocco that he contemplates applying for permanent residence. There, he meets and becomes equally passionate about Marie Therese, an aspiring actress from Paris who has lost all faith in her talent following a romantic breakup. Realizing that she will never heal unless she returns home, Aikawa becomes Bogart to Marie Therese’s Bergman, and persuades her that failure to board a Paris-bound flight will inevitably lead to a lifetime of regret.

While the northwest African setting of “Casablanca” begat “Yume, Yume no Ato” and “Sayonara, Morocco,” it is the Morocco of Sternberg and Dietrich that inspired two Japanese films released in 1996.

“Morocco: Yokohama Gurentai Monogatari (Morocco: The Yokohama Hoodlums’ Story)” and its sequel, “Morocco 2: Yokohama Gurentai Monogatari,” concern a Yokohama hoodlum, nicknamed “Morocco” Tatsumi, and his confreres, all of whom wear wide-brimmed “Morokko hatto” (Morocco hats). Thus do these lowlifes underscore their enthusiasm for “Morocco,” the 1930 Paramount release that was Marlene Dietrich’s first American feature and the first imported talkie to be subtitled in Japanese.

Why this film? At the time of its release, tribes in Morocco had been mounting uprisings against the French colonial administration for close to two decades, and it is against this background in Joseph von Sternberg’s feature that a romance develops between Parisian entertainer Amy Jolly (Dietrich) and French Foreign Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper). Morocco Tatsumi & Co. clearly see themselves as rebels rising up against their colonial administrators, those being the Allied troops that occupied Japan after then end of World War II.

But notwithstanding Tatsumi’s reading of the film, “Morocco” seems firmly on the side of the colonial overdogs, with hero Tom Brown characterizing revolutionary bedouins as “walking bed sheets” who “can’t shoot straight.” Perhaps like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, who went to Morocco’s largest city for the waters, Tatsumi was misinformed.

Serving to misinform the public about political conditions in the Iran of a quarter of a century ago was “Moeru Aki (Burning Autumn),” whose tourism-promoting shots of that Middle Eastern country were on view in Toho-chain theaters even as events on the ground were causing tourists to flee. The film was released Dec. 23, 1978, a little over three months after martial law was declared in 12 Iranian cities, nearly a month and a half after a military government was installed to deal with striking oil workers and about three weeks before the shah was forced to leave the country.

Besides being involved in a love triangle, the film’s heroine, Aki Kiryu (Kyoko Mano), has a mad passion for Persian carpets, an enthusiasm not entirely unrelated to the fact that the film was produced by Mitsukoshi, sponsor of a Persian-carpet exhibition that opened the same time as “Moeru Aki.” Eventually, Aki’s love of Middle Eastern floor coverings takes her to Iran, where she marvels — as only a citizen of a highly industrialized country can — at gnarled old female weavers going about their work. On the evidence of this release, Japanese filmmakers are no better at bringing to life non-Arab Muslims than Arab ones.

“Hi wa Shizumi, Hi wa Noboru (The Sun Sets, the Sun Rises)” is unique in being one of the few non-softcore features produced by Nikkatsu during the early 1970s, and in inspiring an official protest from a diplomatic representative of a Muslim state. The film concerns a Japanese race-car driver who, after losing badly at Le Mans, decides to drive through the Middle East with Paul, an American, and Tina, a European stripper destined for an arranged marriage in Afghanistan. Kidnapped by a group of Muslims, Tina somehow manages to escape, only to die in the company of her traveling companions, who later burn her remains.

Characterized by the Afghani Embassy in Tokyo as insulting to Afghanistan’s “customs, traditions and religion,” “Hi wa Shizumi, Hi wa Noboru” was cut by its distributor in three different places. Not unlike “Moeru Aki,” this 1973 feature serves as an example of the importance of timing your release with current events. It was in 1973 that a coup toppled Afghanistan’s king and ushered in a republic.

One of the few times that Arab villainy has been given a face in a Japanese film was in 1992, and the face turned out to belong to perhaps the best-known Arab actor of the past 40 years. Unrelentingly xenophobic, “Tengoku no Taizai (Heavenly Sin)” was nonetheless chosen to open the 1992 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival. Besides car-burning Iranians and trick-turning Filipinas, the film boasts, in the character portrayed by Omar Sharif, what critic Donald Richie described as “an all-purpose foreigner: born in China, English-speaking, Arab origins.”

A drug lord and the villain of the piece, Sharif uses his liquid brown eyes and devastatingly effective gap-toothed grin to convince his chief pursuer, District Attorney Sayuri Yoshinaga, that, deep down, he’s not one of those dirty, lecherous, untrustworthy and violent Arabs. On the contrary. By the conclusion of “Tengoku no Taizai,” speaking more-than passable Japanese, he’s become the DA’s caring husband and the loving stepfather of her only child.

Allah be praised, indeed.

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