She may not be the head of a pariah State nor the leader of an international terrorist organization, but in recent days Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and director, humanitarian activist and former special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has been branded a threat to national security by the nationalist press and interest groups in Japan.
- Thursday, 18 December 2014
On Christmas Day Unbroken will be released in US cinemas. The film is Jolie’s second feature length work as a director and is based on the 2010 bestseller written by Laura Hillenbrand and adapted for the big screen by the Coen brothers. Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete in the 5000m at the 1936 games, where Hitler shook his hand, and a prisoner of War in Japan between 1943 and 1945.
The book chronicles the Japanese guards’ mistreatment of their prisoners and the exceptional cruelty of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who American prisoners nicknamed “The Bird”. Watanabe is described as a sadist intent on the physical and psychological destruction of the detainees: the future war hero Zamperini was frequently the focus of his brutality.
In addition to the physical punishments and beatings that Watanabe meted out to Zamperini, Hillenbrand outlined some of the more macabre details of the Japanese prisoner of war camps: these included cases of men being burnt alive, deaths resulting from experiments or prisoners being eaten alive by the prison guards.
The controversy surrounding the film was ignited at the beginning of December by the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, the publication popular among supporters of Shinzō Abe’s ruling government. The newspaper warned that the film could trigger a wave of indignation in Japan and inflame the anti-Japanese sentiment that is already widespread in China.
According to Sankei this is the reason why Universal Pictures has not yet announced the release dates for the film in China and Japan, respectively the second and third largest cinema markets in the world.
Then there’s the case of one of the stars of the film: Miayvi, a Japanese musician and actor of South Korean origin who has become the target for the vitriol of the online communities sympathetic to racist groups such as Zaitokukai that has even called for the actor to leave Japan.
Even though nobody in Japan has actually seen the film yet, the outcry among those who wish to defend Japan’s historical innocence is gathering momentum.
First of all came the proliferation of online campaigns to boycott the film; cyber activists have branded Jolie a “demon whose head is covered in human skin”.
Next came the press releases. Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, told British newspaper The Telegraph, “this movie has no credibility and is immoral.
If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims" .
Moteki’s position was then defended by Mutsuhito Takeuchi, educator and Shinto priest, when he was interviewed by Associated Press.
“Even the Japanese themselves do not know their own history, therefore some misunderstandings can arise,” he claimed.
However, over the years such ‘misunderstandings’ have been chronicled and studied. Episodes of cannibalism of prisoners of war, as with other crimes perpetrated by the Japanese military, have been well-documented and crop up in numerous witness testimonies. Neither is Hillenbrand the first to shine a light on the subject. In 1997 Japanese historian Toshiyuki Tanaka attempted to explain the dynamics behind such behaviour as officers employing “instruments for the projection of power” over their subordinates”.
Nonetheless, Jolie’s film seems to have struck a raw nerve among Japanese conservatives - the relationship between today’s Japan and that of 70 years ago. As with the case of the “comfort women”, over 200 thousand women of mainly Korean origin forced into sexual slavery at the service of Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, the theme risks censorship for being antipatriotic and could even be sidelined from public debate and prohibited from inclusion in school text books.
Just a few months ago Abe’s cabinet was said to be considering revising the apology made by the Japanese government in 1993 that recognised the existence of the sex slaves in the Japanese army. Though this initiative never came to fruition, just a few weeks later the newspaper Asahi publicly retracted articles about the comfort women published during the 1980s and 1990s due to doubts surrounding the veracity of their source, author Seiji Yoshida. The retraction drew significant fire from the conservative press and nationalists active online.
Today, just a few days after Abe’s emphatic election victory, the Prime Minister, who has long been an advocate for the reform of Japanese education in a more patriotic vein, might be tempted to enter the fray in order to push forward his own political agenda. This time he has a new and attractive enemy in Angelina Jolie.