JPRI Critique Vol. VIII No. 6 (July 2001)
Disney's Pearl Harbor: Two Views

Marketing Pearl Harbor
by Kozy K. Amemiya

All Art is Propaganda But Not All Propaganda Is Art,
by Sheila K. Johnson



Marketing “Pearl Harbor”
by Kozy K. Amemiya

On January 16, 1991, I was driving on a freeway in San Diego when I heard on the radio the onset of the American air raid on Baghdad. I was stunned. Only the night before, the Bush administration was still struggling, or so we had been led to believe, to persuade Congress and the American public to support the war plan. That evening I was even more astounded by the reaction of that public on TV: an elderly man, overcome by emotion and with tears in his eyes, blurted out, "We've finally gotten revenge for Pearl Harbor!" As though the Iraqis should be punished for what the Japanese had done fifty years before. Of course that was irrational, but I learned then how deeply Americans felt a sense of humiliation over the Japanese surprise attack.

Once the bombardment of Baghdad started, rational objections to military action against Iraq quickly dissolved into a morass of emotions that mobilized public opinion behind the war. One day the local paper featured a picture of an American teenage girl standing by the roadside, obviously shouting in excitement and holding a sign that said "Kill Iraqis!" I shuddered. For the first time in my life in America, I had a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a Japanese-American during World War II.

Ten years later, on Memorial Day and sixty years after Pearl Harbor, I joined with mostly middle-aged or older Americans, all white, in a short line to see Pearl Harbor. I did not look forward to seeing it, but I wanted to learn firsthand how American moviemakers recreated the Japanese attack and I thought that I should see it with an American audience. Will I be harassed-- I wondered.

Marketing Pearl Harbor

There were plenty of empty seats. Perhaps younger people were having more fun on the beach or somewhere else rather than sitting for three hours in a theater, although the movie was billed as an epic drama of romance and action targeted at young moviegoers. Indeed, various reports noted that Pearl Harbor aimed at duplicating the success of Titanic. I cannot compare the two films because I did not see the latter, but Pearl Harbor did appear to me to court a younger audience with its syrupy romance and special effects. And in this day and age of globalization, Disney reportedly also paid a lot of attention to what Japanese audiences might react to.

The market-sensitive treatment of Pearl Harbor bothers some Americans. A former Councilman from San Diego County, Lionel Van Deerlin, criticized the film on the Op-Ed page of the May 29 San Diego Union-Tribune for sanitizing history to make sure it did not offend the largest overseas market-- Japan. He was particularly concerned about the way Admiral Yamamoto, whom Van Deerlin refers to as a "Nipponese commander," says in the film, "We have no choice but war" because of the American oil embargo against Japan. Van Deerlin fretted that "a youthful moviegoer in Tokyo-- or even in this country, alas-- might conclude that a peace-loving Japan was forced into an act of war because its economic supply line had been severed, arrogantly and arbitrarily, by a great power"-- i.e., the U.S. I think he overestimates the impact of Pearl Harbor on the interpretation of the Pacific War. This film does not have enough depth to challenge the Americans' unquestioned self-portrayal of their nation as the good guy in World War II.

Pearl Harbor is, indeed, a sanitized picture of the Japanese surprise attack. But it also sanitizes, as in most American films about World War II, America's involvement in Asia, then dominated by Western imperialism, and perpetuates the Americans' self-image as good guys on a higher moral ground. This makes it impossible for the American public to see a continuous thread from the Pacific War to the Korean War and then to the Vietnam War.

Since I did not see Titanic, Pearl Harbor reminded me of another movie, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), although the latter is more blatantly one-sided than Pearl Harbor in depicting all Westerners as good and innocent. Its foreword tries to fill in the historical background by claiming that the British simply "came" to live in Shanghai and led a happy life there until the Japanese military invaded. What struck me most in Empire of the Sun was the way in which the local Chinese, subjugated by the British colonizers, were depicted as a bunch of thieves who took advantage of Europeans in the chaos created by the Japanese invasion. By comparison, Pearl Harbor is more "sensitive," albeit to reactions in its largest overseas market. However, I cannot help but wonder why, if the creators of this movie were so sensitive to Japanese viewers, they are so sloppy in the language and settings they used to portray the headquarters of the Japanese navy? The Japanese dialogue is so clumsy and the settings are so ridiculous they are simply unbelievable.

What Is Not Said

To me, the whole movie is not only unbelievable but terribly shallow. Whether American or Japanese, you can sit back and watch the bombing scene with a safe psychological distance unless you were so bored in the first half that you either fell into a deep sleep or walked out. The audience of my fellow Americans did not seem very impressed with either the love story or the special effects. I heard no cheers and no applause, and no one paid any attention to my being Japanese. I do not think that this was due to the kind of sanitation of history Van Deerlin was concerned about.

Notwithstanding its tepid quality, Pearl Harbor troubles me. It will probably reinforce the view of the Pacific War in the framework of the U.S. versus Japan. "Remember Pearl Harbor," Americans still seem to be saying, to which Japanese keep responding, "Don't forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki." At one end of the spectrum Americans view themselves as symbols of innocence, and at the other end, Japanese see themselves as atomic bomb victims and symbols of extreme suffering. Both ignore the larger historical context, and both ignore the innocent people-- the Asians-- who suffered the most.

KOZY K. AMEMIYA is a member of JPRI's Board of Advisers and a contributor to Okinawa: Cold War Island.



All Art is Propaganda But Not All Propaganda Is Art
by Sheila K. Johnson

I went to see Disney's Pearl Harbor with some trepidation, because I dislike war movies in general and was afraid it would be crudely anti-Japanese. On both of these scores I came away reassured. The film is not as gut-wrenching as Saving Private Ryan (which I refused to see). And it is not particularly anti-Japanese. I had the distinct impression, during the very long segment depicting the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that a Japanese viewer might actually come away quite proud of the brilliant and daring precision-bombing raid on "battleship row."

So what exactly is this almost three-hour film about, and why is it being released now? I think that in fact we're talking about not one film but three, or perhaps four if one counts the credits, which take almost ten minutes to roll by and are quite interesting in their own right.

Lost Innocence

The first film could be called Lost Innocence. It opens in 1923, in Tennessee, with an idyllic sequence about two young boys, one of them the son of a crop-duster pilot, who are playing around with a biplane (my husband tells me that unfortunately the plane depicted did not exist in 1923 but dates from a much later era). The boys grow up to be skilled pilots and close friends, and in 1941 one of them volunteers to fly Spitfires against the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. People who remember those days and Churchill's remark that "Never have so many owed so much to so few" will be filled with Twelve O'Clock High nostalgia. The flying fields were actually the lawns of some of Britain's great estates. The fliers were very brave; the aerial dogfights exciting.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.-- and particularly in Hawaii-- the European war seemed very far away and of no great concern. Nurses with sexy 1940s hair-dos and Betty Grable make-up and dresses had a grand time dating handsome sailors and fly-boys. The U.S. was young and innocent: this is the Disney/Tom Brokaw message this segment of the film conveys. Since my husband and I saw Pearl Harbor at 11 a.m. on a weekday morning with about 10 other couples in their sixties or seventies, the message went down very well. But I wonder what today's young dating viewers will make of such primal innocence (Ben Affleck does not bed his sweetheart nurse the night before he leaves for England, even though he may get killed and they both want to).

The Attack

The segment depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor lasts around forty minutes, although it seemed to go on forever. Parts of it are riveting and reminiscent of Titanic. Parts are clearly computer-generated and reminded me of video-games where the player is trying to shoot down as many enemy planes or ships as possible. But the computer-generated Zero fighters are beautiful in their computer profiles (one gathers no actual Zero exists or took part in the filming).

The treatment of the Japanese commanders as they move toward the attack is highly stylized and rather grave. Mako makes a sad, stern Admiral Yamamoto, who seems to act more in sorrow than in anger. The film implies that he is actually on the ship from which the Japanese Zeros depart, which is not accurate, since he was head of the Japanese Navy, whereas Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was in charge of the Pearl Harbor attack. But, let's be fair . . . the Japanese are not depicted as buck-toothed maniacs (at least, not until the very end of the film) but as grave, serious gentlemen.

The Doolittle Mission

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the film moves back to the grave and serious gentlemen in Washington. (Jon Voight, who plays FDR, unfortunately looks and sounds more like Walter Mondale.) Our two hero fly-boys, both survivors of Pearl Harbor and one just safely back from Britain, are recruited by Jimmy Doolittle for his "morale-building" attack on Tokyo. This part of the film will please old airplane buffs such as my husband, and I also found it fascinating to see how ugly and lumbering B-25s were, refitted to fly off the deck of a very small aircraft carrier (only about one-fourth the size of the USS John C. Stennis, which hosted the film's premiere).

The Doolittle mission drops its bombs, the planes fly on to China (or almost to China), but they run out of fuel and are forced to crash-land in rice-fields where they are quickly surrounded by Japanese soldiers. And here we finally get some of the old World War II stereotypes-- cruel soldiers lashing prisoners to Christian-like crosses before shooting them, and yelling the equivalent of "Maline, you die!" One of our heroes dies and one survives (after all, the nurse cannot marry both of them). A voice-over tells us that the Doolittle raid inspired Americans and that after it the Japanese never again enjoyed another success in the war.

Who Paid for This and Why?

The fourth segment of the film consists of the credits, which-- like the raid on Pearl Harbor-- seem to go on endlessly. But they are very interesting. Much has been made of how much this film cost (an estimated $140 million), so it's worth watching the credits to see where all this money went. Animation, scene-dressers, Mr. Affleck's hair stylist, and what seemed to me like phalanxes of accountants. And finally, at the very end, the U.S. Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The latter are, of course, the folks who also had final script approval and who agreed to cooperate on this film, whereas poor Francis Ford Coppola had to scrounge around the Philippines for helicopters and plausible settings for Apocalypse Now. Is it any wonder that Pearl Harbor feels like nothing so much as a U.S. military recruiting film?

But why do we need a new recruiting film now? Toward the end of Pearl Harbor (but before the credits, of course), a sad-looking Admiral Yamamoto, after being told that the attack was a success, says, "Yes, but I fear we may have awakened a sleeping giant." He was right. But today the U.S. may itself be thinking of waking another sleeping giant-- namely, China-- without being aware that the outcome would be the same . . . the sleeping giant will surely win.

SHEILA K. JOHNSON is editor of JPRI and author of The Japanese Through American Eyes.

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