On the other side, 'Pearl Harbor' is a hard sell

You cannot step into a taxicab, walk through a shopping mall, or open a newspaper without being reminded - via the winsome faces of Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale - that "Pearl Harbor" is opening here this weekend.

In light of cultural sensitivities, Disney is spending $10 million pitching the film as a love story, and has made minor script changes, eliminating such ethnic slurs as "dirty Japs."

'Pearl' seems a natural in the biggest movie market outside of the US. Last month, 30,000 Japanese turned out for a sneak preview held an a stadium. But the film arrives at a sensitive time in Japanese political life, not to mention in US-Japan relations. With the alleged rape of a Japanese woman by a US serviceman stationed in Okinawa two weeks ago, and the February collision of a US submarine with a Japanese fishing boat near Hawaii, the atmosphere for a movie that paints America in glowing colors may not be as good as the filmmakers had hoped.

"I thought it was empty," says Ryoko Katayama, after seeing a preview last Saturday in a downtown movie theater that was only half-full. "It was not a love story and it was not a war movie."

"Pearl" also debuts at a time when Japan's view of its own history is a source of international controversy: South Korea is angry with Japan over a revisionist middle-school history book that it says glosses over Japan's atrocities in Asia before and during World War II. China is also pressing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to back down from an August visit to a ancient Shinto shrine dedicated to war martyrs - and includes 14 executed war criminals.

"It was not [director Michael Bay's] intention to make a war movie, it was a pure love story," says Dick Sano, vice president and general manager of Buena Vista, the distributor of the film here. "Only because it was Pearl Harbor, only because it is 60 years to the date [of the attack], and only because there were nine corpses of the Ehime Maru lying in the water [near Hawaii]" says Sano, are people asking if the film will stir up resentment between the two countries.

Many here say that they doubt it will. But some, such international relations professor Tadae Takubo, say that the film certainly "doesn't play a good role for the betterment of relations."

"It's a simple-minded film, because Japan is all to be blamed, and the US has nothing to do with the sneak attack. This is the biggest problem," says Dr. Takubo, who teaches at Kyorin University and is a member of the right-leaning committee that proposed the controversial new history textbook.

Currently, the textbooks used in Japanese classrooms describe Pearl Harbor as a surprise attack. But the new textbook, which has become a runaway bestseller here, doesn't. In fact, the attack is described as a "great" military achievement.

Takubo's views coincide with those of conservative nationalists who are gaining more attention in Japan lately. They say each nation has the right to teach their own version of history. The film, plus the imminent arrival in Japan of the controversial 1999 book "Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor" by Robert Stinnett, he says, may reopen discussion on what really happened on Dec. 7, 1941 - or Dec. 8, on this side of the globe.

In the US, historians have challenged Stinnett's thesis, but it finds a ready audience here. "That book clearly tells that Japan was in a trap of Roosevelt," who wanted to be seen as having been forced into the war by Japanese provocation," Takubo says. "I don't mind [the film] because it's only for amusement or entertainment." But adds that he is concerned about young people seeing the film as history. "When young Japanese go to the cinema, they will say that Japan was so bad and America was so good, and it's all black and white."

Yoichi Funabashi, a columnist, suggests in an article that many here are uncomfortable the "bending of historical facts" - often at Japan's expense. For example, he points out that the Combined Fleet Commander Isoruko Yamamoto, was shown at the helm of one of the attacking battleships when he was in fact in Tokyo. And writes Funabashi: "Roosevelt stood up desperately from his wheelchair, glared, and said, 'Nothing is impossible.' There is no source for this."

While some critics focus on historical inaccuracies, others are bemused at the portrayal of the Japanese commanders as old men holding a top-secret meeting on a romantic hilltop while children frolicked nearby, flying kites. "Men of my generation sitting near me at the movie laughed at this," chuckles Takubo.

After seeing the film, Mikami Tsuyoshi, a pilot trainee, observes: "Some Japanese might feel that this stirs up aggressive feelings toward Japan in America, because so many Americans die in the film. Many American were killed in Pearl Harbor .... But I would like Americans to know that many Japanese were killed also, and especially at Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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