Japan loves Jolie but will it welcome 'Unbroken'?

by Yuri Kageyama


Angelina Jolie’s new movie “Unbroken” has not been released in Japan yet, but it has already struck a nerve in a country still wrestling over its wartime past.

The buzz on social networks and in online chatter is decidedly negative over the film, which was directed by Jolie and depicts a U.S. Olympic runner who endures torture at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

Some people are calling for a boycott, although there is no release date in Japan yet. The movie hits theaters in the U.S. on Dec. 25.

Others want the ban extended to Jolie, which is unusual in a nation enamoured with Hollywood. Jolie and her husband Brad Pitt are popular and have reputations as Japan-lovers.

The movie follows the real-life story of Louis Zamperini as told in a 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand. The book has not been translated into Japanese, but online trailers have provoked outrage. Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, survived in a raft for 47 days with two other crewmen after their B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, only to be captured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp.

Especially provocative is a passage in the book that accuses the Japanese of engaging in the cannibalism of POWs. It is not clear how much of that will be in the movie, but in Japan that is too much for some.

“There was absolutely no cannibalism,” claimed Mutsuhiro Takeuchi, a nationalist-leaning educator and Shinto priest. “That is not our custom.”

Takeuchi acknowledged Jolie is free to make whatever movie she wants, stressing that Shinto believes in forgive-and-forget. But he urged Jolie to study history, saying executed war criminals were charged with political crimes, not torture.

“Even Japanese don’t know their own history so misunderstandings arise,” said Takeuchi, who also heads a research organization called the Japan Culture Intelligence Association.

Hollywood films that touch on topics that are sensitive in Japan have had a troubled history here.

Theaters canceled screenings of the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove,” which delved into the bloody annual dolphin hunts in the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, after the distributor was deluged with threats from people who said the movie denigrated the nation’s food culture. Taiji is known as a whaling town.

Roland Kelts, a journalist and expert on Japanese culture, compared the outburst over “Unbroken” to the frenzy over “The Cove,” calling it “banal and predictable.”

“None of them have even seen the film, and while it is based on one man’s story, it’s a feature, not a documentary. There are plenty of movies that depict the brutality and inhumanity of war,” he said.

Jolie said recently on a promotion tour in Australia that she wanted to depict a human story, one that gives hope, noting that war “brings out the extremes,” both the good and the bad, in people.

On Friday, Jolie reluctantly canceled her promotional tours after Universal Pictures said she was suffering from “a mild bout of chicken pox.”

Jolie’s illness comes days after she was maligned by top Hollywood executives in private emails made public by the Sony cyberattack and her film was ignored by the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards.

The release of “Unbroken” comes at a time when some in Japan are downplaying its colonization of its Asian neighbors and the war of aggression waged by the Imperial Japanese Army as it entered World War II.

For example, some politicians dispute the role played by Imperial Japanese soldiers in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which an estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed in a weekslong orgy of rape and murder. They say the tally is a vast overestimate.

Similarly, they reject historical studies that show women from several countries, especially Korea, were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese military. Some oppose the term “sex slave,” which the U.N. uses, preferring the vague and euphemistic term “comfort women” instead.

Japan has not always been averse to Hollywood portrayals of World War II.

Clint Eastwood’s 2006 “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which focused sympathetically on a gentle commander, played by Ken Watanabe, was favorably received here.

Japanese directors have made their share of movies critical of war. Akira Kurosawa made “No Regrets for Our Youth,” as well as “Ran” and “Seven Samurai.” Kihachi Okamoto’s “The Human Bullet” and Kon Ichikawa’s “The Burmese Harp” relay powerful anti-war messages.