‘The Interview’: It’s time for Sony Japan to say no


Special To The Japan Times

It’s not easy task to make North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un look like an unfairly maligned underdog, but leave it to the bumbling greed of Hollywood to succeed at mission impossible.

“The Interview” may be a joke of a film, but the Sony hacking incident and escalating war of words between anti-Kim detractors and the pro-Kim hackers is deadly serious.

Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in,” Sony Japan finally found the gumption to say “no” to its decadent, derelict Hollywood division.

Is it worth beating the drums of war for an exercise in bad taste?

What principles are at stake? Is it not about free speech?

The United States is rightly proud of its tradition of free speech and Hollywood filmmaking. But to put a lame, ill-conceived comedy film on the frontline of a trumped-up battle in defense of Western values is a bit like betting the bank on Bozo the Clown and refusing to back down.

For one, it suggests the Hollywood mogul’s Midas touch can do no wrong, when there’s ample evidence of tone-deaf studio bungling and bad judgment. Sony’s American branch inadvertently echoed the kind of one-sided righteousness invoked by defenders of the CIA’s indefensible torture record: Admit no wrong, for if we do it, it cannot be all that bad.

Hollywood hardly holds the high moral ground on free speech issues either; it has a rich history of self-censorship, pandering to vested interests and playing to power.

Sony Executive Amy Pascal is no exception. She vowed she would never work with Mel Gibson after his intemperate drunken outburst about Jews, which he later apologized for. Her reputation now rests on her decision to promote a racist film that takes cheap shots at Asian characters.

Free speech runs the gamut from the principles of the founding fathers and other lofty ideas all the way to hate speech, anti-Semitism and incitement of panic or crime.

America, with its penchant for political correctness, is not the bastion of free speech it pretends to be.

What’s more, as Sony has learned, America’s obsession with violence on the screen, while couched in terms of artistic “freedom,” is not without consequence, even if it’s just a second-rate slacker comedy looking for quick bucks and cheap laughs.

The kill scene in Seth Rogan’s “The Interview,” in which an explosive projectile strikes the leader of North Korea in the head and creates a fiery mess is not art; it does constitute a kind of hate speech that would be fiercely contested if the object of the on-screen killing were the standing leader of the U.S. or an ally.

The Sony hacks are unprecedented, but it is ludicrous to characterize them as an act of war, as suggested by radio shock jock Howard Stern, shock politician Newt Gingrich and other assorted knee-jerk rightists spoiling for a fight.

The financial damage to Sony is real, and mounting, and the hack raises vexing issues of how to balance privacy and journalists’ right to publish leaked documents, and a host of other digital age conundrums that will be discussed for years to come.

For Aaron Sorkin to cry “treason” and squelch discussion of leaked material because it happens to be humiliating to him, or to argue that the hack is an act of war along the spurious lines that financial loss is equivalent to an act of terror is a good illustration of just how out of touch some of these Hollywood execs can be.

If the Sony hack was an act of war because it involved monetary loss, one is left without words to describe the incomparably bigger shock that Wall Street inflicted on the world in 2008. Or “Shock and Awe” for that matter.

The anonymous hackers warned moviegoers away from the theaters, an ugly development by any reckoning. Nobody likes to be told what to do, perhaps nowhere more so than in post-2001 America, where the received political wisdom suggests that the U.S. way of life is entirely honorable and nonnegotiable.

Americans will continue to do what they please, and will do so with a vengeance, all the more so for being told not to. The despicable threat of violence might even boost the film’s popularity in a perverse way. Bring it on.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. Isn’t American society saturated with enough violence already?

Has U.S. foreign policy not tweaked enough foes and wreaked enough death and destruction abroad?

Have the shoot first, ask questions later tactics of U.S. domestic policing and the horrid schoolyard shootings and the violence of America’s vast prison archipelago become such an integral part of the national DNA that it is normal to relax and celebrate the season of light by scheduling a “feel-good” assassination comedy on Christmas Day? What was Amy Pascal thinking?

Morita Akio, the legendary head of Sony, who built a world-class company from scratch on principles of quality and prudence, thrift and innovation would be horrified to see his legacy at risk due to a bloated, inane stoner picture.

Morita admired the U.S. and thought the U.S. and Japan had a lot to teach each other, but he also pointed out that American executives were ridiculously overpaid and lacked an understanding of Asia. He stressed the need for Sony to build bridges with neighboring countries in Asia, an important part of Sony’s core electronics market.

The Sony head office in Japan understands this, which is why Seth Rogen’s snuff comedy never had a serious chance at theatrical distribution in the Japan market, or on the Asian mainland either. A film that depicts the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for Japan, a country that had no police shooting deaths in a year. The U.S. had over 400.

The Pyongyang regime is unpopular with its neighbors, especially Tokyo, which has seen citizens kidnapped from Japan’s shores by its erratic and tyrannical neighbor, and even Beijing has been sufficiently annoyed by North Korea’s bad behavior to look the other way when Chinese netizens made a music mash-up making fun of a dancing Kim Jong Un. But a graphic cinematic kill crosses the line into stupid violence.

There’s no magic fix for Sony in the face of its own lousy decision-making, but this time the Japan office was right to say no.

If its American branch chooses to release “The Interview” at some future date, it would be prudent, and congruent with the best of the Hollywood’s creative tradition, to edit out the exploding head and work for laughs the old-fashioned way — by earning them.

Philip J. Cunningham has worked in film and television in China and Japan since 1986. A 2014 Abe Journalism Fellow, he published “Tiananmen Moon: 25th Anniversary Edition” earlier this year. His new novel, “Fuji,” is due out in 2015.

  • JeromeS81

    Anyone who has seen the leaked scene of Kim Jong-un’s death knows it doesn’t exactly happen the way the author describes it. That’s not the overall point, just a clue into his lack of understanding. He is judging an unreleased movie, and can’t even describe it correctly. If he gets that wrong, what else might be wrong?

    I’d like to see the author similarly denounce the propaganda from North Korea which often depicts attacking US cities, and calls for the death of American leaders, and so on. That would demonstrate cultural understanding on a deeper level, rather than his sympathy for a despotic regime.

    Simply put, if NK can depict things the way it wants to, America can, too. We might be talking about a truly horrible movie, but that also might have nothing to do with KJU’s final scene. If Sony wants to be in the motion picture business in America, it must play by American rules – just as American companies that do business in Japan have to adapt to local customs and etiquette.

    • rossdorn

      Jesus…. the movie IS ridiculous. Its the kind of humour you will fiind all those intellectual gems like Dumb and Dumber.

      Your argument rests on ignoring the fact, that no one in his right mind would consider defending North Korea as a great example of how countries should be run.

      While on the other hand the US considers itself a true democracy, while it is in the end nothing but a selfrighteous, continuosly war-mongering country, that has caused the death of world wide about 3.000.000 civilians in those wars in foreign countries after 1945…
      Remind us, please, how many deaths has North Korea caused in foreign countries?
      How many wars has it started?

      Yet people like you complain that the time during which the rest of the world accepted American Exceptionalism comes to an end? Don’t be ridiculous….

      • JeromeS81

        It’s our right to make ridiculous movies. Just look at “Transformers”, you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, um, well, genius…North Korea invaded South Korea and started THE Korean War, in which 2,500,000 civilians died and another 1,000,000 or so soldiers (of both Koreas, and the UN Command, as well as Russia and China) died, so…that’s around 3.5 million dead (including 35,000 US soldiers) as a result of North Korea’s invasion of a foreign country. A little tiny country managed to cause all those deaths. Amazing!

        And then let’s add in the millions of dead in the famine which hit North Korea as a direct result of Pyongyang’s domestic policies. Some estimates put the death toll for the “Arduous March” at more than 3,000,000. So, right now we are looking at at least 6,500,000 deaths caused by North Korea’s foreign and domestic adventures.

        North Korea has also helped Syria and Iran work on nuclear and ballistic missile technology. It has provided training (and training bases) for Palestinian terrorists (such as those who trained for the attack on the ’72 Munich Olympics, and Hamas, etc.). In recent years (just since I’ve moved to Korea), it has sunk a South Korean ship and launched an unprovoked attack on a South Korean border island.

        But let me remind you of that number, friend: 6,500,000 deaths caused by North Korea. They invaded the South. They starved their own people. And who knows how many hundreds or thousands of their own they’ve executed for the “crime” of watching foreign media.

      • rossdorn

        If you ever have some spare time, like when you are not frothing around the mouth from screaming USA; USA… you might take a look around the world. There actually are history books around that were not edited by the US government…

      • JeromeS81

        I live in South Korea, man. And I’ve been all around the world; East and West, northern and southern hemispheres. I’ve seen the rich towers of NYC and the shanty towns of Cape Town. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, gone hunting in the African bush, and been to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Auschwitz. I don’t need to be lectured on seeing the world by you…I travel the world in my spare time. I experience it. How about you?

        Currently, in Seoul, I live within range of thousands of pieces of North Korean artillery. I’ve met defectors, heard their stories. I’ve seen the value of my salary rise and fall as a direct result of North Korean rhetoric (and in some cases, North Korean attacks). I’ve been to the war memorial museum in Seoul. I’ve been all over the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Just like when it comes to travel, you don’t get to lecture me on Korea, either, bub.

      • phu

        Blah blah ignorant political rhetoric, blah blah US warmongering.

        Dumb and Dumber is a horribly stupid movie. So, by some accounts, is The Interview. And that does not make either of them — or any other work, regardless of your or my opinion of it — acceptable targets for this kind of action.

        But some people simply don’t understand that this is the problem, just like some people would rather point out the shortcomings of others (perceived or real) in place of taking care of their own problems, and won’t accept that others can reasonably point out their failures despite not being perfect.

        The article is stupid in that it recognizes that this is the point and then throws it out arbitrarily. Your comment is also stupid in that it goes entirely on an unrelated tangent. Thanks to both of you are due for helping distract from the real issues and making the whole thing harder for rational people to deal with.

      • rossdorn

        Sweetheart, you miss the simple point, that at present NO ONE has any idea who hacked sony….

  • Tando

    Philip Cunningham´s Article is spot on. Before America gets
    excited about the right of free speech, it should make sure to protect the right to live. Violence seems to be at the core of American society. I like especially the sentence: “Sony’s American branch inadvertently echoed the kind of one-sided righteousness
    invoked by defenders of the CIA’s indefensible torture record: Admit no wrong, for if we do it, it cannot be all that bad.” American hubris is unbearable. Killing people within or outside their own country seems to be fair game as long as it satisfies the narrow-minded American public.

    • SC4649

      I don’t think free speech and American aggressions overseas have anything to do with each other. Sure, we all agree what the US does in the name of democracy is highly questionable (deplorable even), but saying that Hollywood (or anyone for that matter) isn’t allowed to counter cyber terrorism unless the US stops bombing overseas is nonsense, and mixing two issues together.

    • SC4649

      I don’t think free speech and American aggressions overseas have anything to do with each other. Sure, we all agree what the US does in the name of democracy is highly questionable (deplorable even), but saying that Hollywood (or anyone for that matter) isn’t allowed to counter cyber terrorism unless the US stops bombing overseas is nonsense, and mixing two issues together.

      • Tando

        I am not only talking about American violence abroad, but also about what is happening inside the US. So many people as young as 12 years old are getting killed there. The news that reach us from the land of unlimited freedom are rather disturbing. Terrorist acts like 9/11 are in most countries considered to be taken care of by the police, but in the US it was reason enough to start two wars, creating a complete mess in the Middle East. If you had the choice between Saddam Hussein and the IS, which one would you choose? America seems to be so obsessed with the freedom of speech, the freedom to bear weapons, the freedom to pay the highest costs for medical treatment in the world etc. But the worth of human life seems to pale in comparison. “This village had to be destroyed in order to be saved”, was the famous quote of an American Colonel during the
        Vietnam War. Maybe only Americans understand this logic.

      • SC4649

        Freedom of speech is not an exclusively American ideology but one of the principles of modern progressive society, and is a pillar of “Western” civilisation.

        Many nations around the world embrace it, including Japan, and should never be confused with or be exchanged for other political ideologies or war-mongering behaviours of certain nations.

        It is a value that is essential for a healthy democracy and must be defended in order to protect the rights of ordinary citizens everywhere.

        Should never be part of a negotiation.

        This is totally separate from war crimes and atrocities, which much of American overseas operations have often degraded to.

      • Tando

        If freedom of speech is so essential to America,
        why are they spying on the rest of the world?

      • SC4649

        The issues you bring up are very serious indeed: War crimes and atrocities committed by US armed forces have to be acknowledged and addressed accordingly, spying and torturing by CIA also needs to be criticised and opposed.

        However, these issues are separate from freedom of speech, which is universal to modern civilisation, not just the US. This freedom needs to be defended for the sake of a healthy democracy and to keep governments in check, regardless of other crimes any nation may have committed.

  • KStyleBlue

    The point of free speech is to defend speech that is unpopular, stupid, or even disgusting. It is to defend speech of the minority groups and dissenting opinions.

    If we only defended speech that is insightful and apeals to the majority, it wouldnt be “free speech”.

    The author should reexamine what “free speech” really means, in depth. Maybe than he will understand why it is important to defend speach that we dont agree with (ex Westboro Baptists) – not defend insightful speech that everyone already agrees with.

    Hes right that America doesnt have a good track record with defending free soeech. But that shouldnt mean we should stip trying to do the right thing and do our best to try to live up to the lofty ideals of the constitution.

    What north korea is doing is erroding the rights of companies operating in America. If they can force all companies to avoid any media the crticizes North Korea through cyber attacks, we will be left with a censored media. This has already happened. American movies are already required to always depict Chinese in a positive light. Any “evil” chinese characters are censored and banned in China, therefore banned by American movies that want to sell in the Chinese market.

    Note: i did not read all of the authors article: and therefore i may have missunderstood his point. Also i am typing on a cellphone, i apologize for my spelling.

  • J.P. Bunny

    I’m sorry, but this article is nothing but swill. The movie may be violent, low class etc., but so is just about everything else that comes out of Hollywood. Are movie studios supposed to censor themselves just because some tin pot dictator and his keyboard elves are displeased? Defending free speech means defending all of it, no matter how unpleasant. When you start giving in to people who don’t like what you do, where does it stop?

  • BouVirMyNToilet

    I agree, but want to elaborate this debate. “The Interview” seems to motivate that NKs leader has no right to life. Should we say that someone inside or outside of America is free if their right to life can be argued against by Hollywood, even without a fair trial? Should the right to free speech not be protected alongside the right to a fair trial? Perhaps Americans should start debating the principles of freedom they want to have applied outside of America, as that will reflect the ones being applied inside of America.

  • phu

    The author’s failure to depict a scene of the movie pales in comparison to his inability to make a reasonable assessment of the issues underlying the film’s lack of release and the difference between quality and freedom.

    No, the US isn’t perfect. No, the film (by most accounts so far) isn’t very good. Does that mean the ideal of freedom of speech should be thrown out until we have a truly insightful, masterfully produced work of art and that comes under threat?

    Casting aspersions over the shortcomings of a government, society, or even a particular work is not a productive way to address an explicit attack on the freedoms — abused or not — underlying those institutions and works. The author seems perfectly happy to abandon those things; this is not a person who has the perspective to comment rationally on the situation.

    JT editorial staff: I’m addressing clear failures of logic in something you’ve published. Removing my comment due to your own failures is NOT appropriate. I will repost as often as you delete… again.

  • Jim

    I have no idea what this is supposed to mean:

    “Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in,” Sony Japan finally found the gumption to say “no” to its decadent, derelict Hollywood division.”

  • Jim

    No, the “crux of the issue” is NOT “Isn’t American society saturated with enough violence already?” I’m not a fan of violence, fictional or otherwise, but the REAL “crux of the issue” is that someone is threatening real violence in response to fictional violence.

  • Adam

    This comes across as something written by a freelancer who was up all night drinking in Japan (sorry!) and dashed off an opinion column at the last minute. I’m sure these points could have been better formed if there had been more time.

    But hey, I’m just making some comment in the comments section.

    As a rule, I’m against shouting down — including when social justice warriors do it to university guest speakers.

    Let me just say, whatever the case with the film, I did quite enjoy the preview. I feel like I’ve seen as much as I need to see of this movie.