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Seventy-one years after Japan surrendered in World War II, a taboo in Japan has been broken, or, more precisely, ripped apart. A movie specifically about the U.S-Japan conflict that more than mentions the atomic bombs, directed by Mexico’s Alejandro Monteverde, is opening this weekend. For many Japanese, “Little Boy” could come off as strange, disturbing and downright baffling.

Here’s some back story. Traditionally, Hollywood movies depicting WWII rarely opened on the archipelago (if ever) in August. The month marks three commemorative days: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9) and the official announcement of defeat that came on Aug. 15. The war is a painfully touchy subject at the best of times, and movies such as “Pearl Harbor” in 2001 and the more thoughtful “Letters From Iwo Jima” in 2005 both avoided August openings in Japan. (Though, actually, “Iwo Jima” opened on Dec. 9, a day after the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor.) The Japan-made war film “Eien no Zero saw a December opening, while Hayao Miyazaki’s last work “Kaze Tachinu” was released in June. Even Akira Kurosawa’s “August Rhapsody,” which starred Richard Gere and addressed Nagasaki’s nuclear bombing head-on, steered clear of an August release.

Though August in Japan is generally devoted to remembering the tragedies and destruction that befell the nation, many Japanese would rather not re-live to that dark period of death, ashes and rubble. For the older generation, watching TV documentaries and realistic dramas about the war and visiting family grave sites are the links they have to a past of painful memories.

Little Boy
Rating
Run Time 106 min
Language English

“Little Boy” is therefore a curious feature, one that seems to fit more into a technicolored 1960s framework of postwar America as it basked in the glory of victory and prosperity — a time when Hollywood saw Japanese as caricatures like Yuniyoshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” For a movie being released in 2016, and coming hot on the heels of President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima (the first time a U.S. president had taken that step), and his controversial “no first use” nuclear weapons pledge, “Little Boy” sends out a message that’s anachronistic, to say the least.

The double-entendre title — the nickname of both the 8-year old protagonist, Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), and the nuclear bomb deployed on Hiroshima tkilled over 140,000 people — should set alarm bells ringing. Little Boy and Fat Man, which was dropped on Nagasaki, lead to the death of 50 percent of both cities’ populations, and those who survived lived on to suffer from radiation sickness and complications for decades to come. The movie, brightly lit and tinged in a Norman Rockwell-esque color palette, however, blissfully — and bizarrely — ignores all that.

In the film, Pepper’s best friend is his dad (Michael Rapaport), who protects him against the bullying taunts of his classmates for being the smallest in his class. When his dad is drafted and sent across the Pacific to fight the “evil Japs,” Pepper is desperate to get him back. He is advised by the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) to have faith, for faith can move mountains and end the war. Pepper buys into that, mostly because he encounters a magician who leads him to believe he has special powers. If he prays hard enough, he thinks, he can end the war and bring home his father.

The earth cracks, skies fall and the war is ended — by a huge bomb that kills tens of thousands of people. Little Boy does indeed end the war. The townspeople celebrate the boy and are jubilant.

But exactly what kind of message to the audience does that offer?

Tokyo Teatoru and Nikkatsu are the film’s joint distributors in Japan, and they’re touting the movie as bearing a “message of peace,” one that reminds us “what really matters in life.” But by focusing almost entirely on the father-son angle in promotions, the elephant of a bomb issue has been shoved into a closet.

A member of the promotion team, who consented to a short interview only on condition of absolute anonymity, said: “The movie is told from the viewpoint of a little boy. He has no political opinions, and certainly no knowledge of what WWII was about. He only wants his father back. We feel that this is what the story is all about.

“We also want to target a younger Japanese audience who know very little about WWII. They’re not going to appreciate the same old (repeated) details of suffering and destruction.”

Fifty-seven years ago Alain Resnais’ French movie “Hiroshima Mon Amour” opened in Japan. That, too, tackled Hiroshima, but it grappled it with full force, revealing, documentary-style, the events in Hiroshima and how the city (and the rest of Japan) stared at that gaping wound.

The story is told through a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva), an actress visiting Japan, whose brief affair with a local architect (Eiji Okada) leads to discussions about their experiences of war. When that movie first opened, the distributors changed the title to “Nijyuyojikan no Jyoji” (“The 24-hour Love Affair”), fearing that the word “Hiroshima” would be too much for the Japanese audience to handle. It’s only in the last five years or so that the French title was officially adopted in Japan.

“Hiroshima Mon Amour” explores two different perspectives of WWII and the discordant memories and experiences, which were painful for both characters and difficult to reconcile.

“Little Boy” does no such thing. It’s as blithe and chipper as Pepper himself. It reminds me of a conversation I had with an American friend, who said, “If it weren’t for the atomic bombs, the war would never have ended,” in a way that implied the Japanese should thank the U.S.

“Little Boy” (Japan title: “Little Boy: Chiisana Boku to Senso”) opens in cinemas nationwide on Aug. 27.

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