It couldn’t happen here — that was my first takeaway from the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment prompted by the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy “The Interview.” In the film, the two heroes journey to North Korea ostensibly to interview its real-life leader, Kim Jong Un, but in fact, they are there to assassinate him at the behest of the CIA.
Not that similarly silly comedies set in funny (to the filmmakers) foreign countries never get made in Japan. Back in 1993, a comedy by Yojiro Takita, of “Okuribito (Departures)” fame, was released, “Bokura wa Minna Ikiteiru” (“We Are Not Alone,” aka “Made in Japan”), about four salarymen in an impoverished Southeast Asian nation (actually, Thailand) run by a corrupt colonel. Competing cravenly for the leader’s favor to win a big construction contract, our four heroes find themselves caught in a violent coup and have to run for their lives. Farce ensues.
At the time, military regimes were not uncommon in that part of the world, and Japanese companies were also not known for letting a little oppression and murder by said regimes get in the way of business. Though hardly a great film, “We Are Not Alone” had a satirical bite. But Takita and scriptwriter Nobuyuki Isshiki did not — unlike Rogen and “The Interview” co-director Evan Goldberg — model and name their colonel after an actual, living leader.
If Takita et al. had tried, producer and distributor Shochiku would have most probably sucked air through its teeth and said “No.” Though Southeast Asian dictatorships weren’t a hacking threat back in the early 1990s, they might well have resented becoming targets of ridicule — and real Japanese living and working in their tropical paradises might have faced real consequences. Or retaliation might have been limited to an indignant letter dashed off by the dictator’s ambassador to Japan and dutifully received with furrowed brows by the Foreign Ministry. But in any case, discretion would have almost certainly won out over valor — or rather, in-your-face taunting of a goofy (to the filmmakers) foreign strongman.
Why didn’t the supposed grown-ups at Sony, including Sony Pictures Co-chairman Amy Pascal and Sony President and CEO Kazuo Hirai, bluntly tell Rogen and Goldberg that blasting Kim to smithereens on-screen might be a bad idea?
According to sources contacted by The New York Times for a Dec. 14 piece about the making of “The Interview,” Sony allowed Rogen and Goldberg to off Kim to prevent them from going to another studio with the project, which promised to be a hit like the pair’s “Pineapple Express” (2008), “The Green Hornet” (2011) and “This is the End” (2013).
When North Korean officials got wind of the film last summer and publicly declared it an “act of war,” Hirai personally expressed his concerns to Pascal, which, as she noted in a later email to Rogen, was the first such note she had received from the parent company in 25 years at the studio.
In subsequent exchanges, however, Hirai apparently limited his comments to the CGI in the film’s assassination scene, in which Kim explodes in a ball of fire ignited by the heroes. Rogen reluctantly toned down the gore at Hirai and Pascal’s urging, but the scene remained in the film and arguably served as a trigger for the computer system hack that brought Sony Pictures to its knees and aborted the scheduled worldwide premiere of the film on Dec. 25. Independent theaters in the U.S. later banded together to screen the film at 300 locations on Christmas Day, while Google Play, YouTube, Xbox Video and Sony’s own website streamed it to pay-per-view customers. According to Sony, the film earned more than $15 million from online purchases in its first three days on sale.
In retrospect, Hirai pussyfooted when he should have stomped — or at least have stated plainly why he thought Rogen and company were crossing a dangerous line. Would he have been a damper on free, if juvenile, expression? Perhaps. The voice of reason? Most certainly.
With Sony Pictures Entertainment (Japan), the local distributor of Sony Pictures films, as well as an occasional film producer, Hirai didn’t even need to start the conversation. “The Interview” was never scheduled for a Japan release, one reason being that, as a Sony spokesman told me, “Hollywood comedies don’t do well in Japan.”
Another, unstated factor was that Japanese are intimately acquainted, as Rogen and his collaborators evidently were not, with the North Korean regime’s capacity for, not only buffoonish threats, but deadly serious criminal actions, as illustrated by its kidnapping of dozens of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s, with the fates of many still unknown.
So why didn’t Hirai speak out more forcefully about depictions in “The Interview” that, as a Japanese, he must have known would anger the face-conscious North Koreans? Hirai and Sony had not made a public comment about the incident at the time of the film’s release, but Sony’s long-standing policy of not interfering with the day-to-day running of Sony Pictures may have made Hirai reluctant to suddenly start throwing his corporate weight around. Or he may have calculated that, since “The Interview” would not be released anywhere in Asia, impact in the form of pricked North Korean egos would be muted. In any case, he ended up doing little more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic — or rather, rejig the digital effects on “The Interview.”
It’s hard to imagine Japan’s Sony Pictures making anything similar, but if Takita and Isshiki had come to them with an updated version of “We Are Not Alone” and the company had greenlighted a scene of an actual colonel getting assassinated in a hail of bullets, it’s also hard to imagine Hirai confining his comments to the number of bullet holes.
What the entire fiasco illustrates, rather vividly, is that in a totally connected world, national borders and cultural barriers are becoming increasingly irrelevant — even for Hollywood stoner comedies. This doesn’t mean that companies like Sony and Sony Pictures should knuckle under to a dictator like Kim, but it does mean that they, as well as makers of take-it-to-the-limit comedies, need to understand the possible consequences of certain actions and frankly communicate them. Since the hack, Hirai has reportedly been consulting more closely with Sony Pictures Chief Executive Michael Lynton, including Sony’s decision to release “The Interview” despite hacker threats — a step in the right direction.
Japanese-style tact, known as enryo, with its consideration for the feelings of even ignorant outlanders, can be wonderful, but when you see someone about to douse a fire with gasoline, suggesting — ever so delicately — that they use a slightly smaller bucket may not be enough.