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Against the background of a culture that traditionally places great importance on consensus and conformity, Japan has produced maverick filmmakers who grab the attention of cinephiles around the globe. However, the nationalist-leaning government of Shinzo Abe has been pressuring “off message” media, while small but vocal far-right groups have become increasingly active and aggressive, already leading to the release of one Hollywood film being cancelled this year. Some in the entertainment industry are concerned that in the current climate, films perceived as critical of the government or Japan, whether from home or abroad, will find it more difficult to get made and to reach audiences.
When Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the gory dolphin hunt in a town in Japan, was given a limited release in 2010, it was amid protests by nationalist groups that saw some cinemas cancel screenings and others take out court orders to stop demonstrators harassing theatergoers and staff. However, despite the furor, the film was shown – something that Takeshi Kato, president of the distributor Unplugged, believes would be difficult nowadays.
“The Cove was released when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power,” says Kato, referring to the left-of-center government that briefly broke the half-century monopoly of the Liberal Democratic Party of Abe.
Kato said he would still consider acquiring politically controversial films, but that the problem would be convincing theaters to risk screenings that might attract noisy protests, particularly outside Tokyo.
“When we arranged screenings of The Cove, we had a lot of discussions with local police forces about safety. It would probably be difficult to get permission in today’s atmosphere,” added Kato.
Indeed, the release of the Angelina Jolie-directed prisoner-of-war film Unbroken has been postponed indefinitely following online protests by ultranationalists. The movie is based on the memoirs of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell), a former Olympic runner who was captured by Japanese troops after spending nearly seven weeks on a raft following the downing of his plane over the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
Distributor Toho-Towa, which handles Universal’s films in Japan, declined multiple requests for comment on the reason for the postponement and would not even confirm the release had been postponed.
One irony is that the thrust of the protestors’ objections concern scenes that do not appear in the movie.
“There is no history of cannibalism in Japanese culture. And there is no mention of it in the book that the film is based on,” says Hiromichi Moteki, head of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, a nationalist pressure group which led the protests against Unbroken. “This film is stupid, fabricated and humiliating to Japanese people.”
In fact, the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, contains a claim that Japanese soldiers carried out acts of cannibalism on prisoners of war, but that did not make it into Jolie’s film.
The film does depict the brutal treatment of Zamperini by a guard (played by Japanese singer Miyavi), and Japan’s nationalists are particularly sensitive about reports of wartime atrocities.
“We have the full right to stop it coming to Japan. There is freedom of speech, but a film that contains claims like this without verification shouldn’t be permitted,” says Moteki, who admits he has not seen the film. “It is propaganda, like the propaganda about the Nanking Massacre – there was no massacre. There was not one single unlawful killing,” he adds, referring to the sacking of the Chinese capital by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937-38.
While there is disagreement as to how many civilians were slaughtered and raped in the city, mainstream historians’ estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
Asked about the testimonies of Japanese soldiers who witnessed and confessed to taking part in the atrocities, Moteki explained that this was the result of some being, “brainwashed in Chinese concentration camps.”
The Nanking Massacre is a bete noire of Japanese nationalists and an ongoing source of tension with China. Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale and directed by Zhang Yimou, tells the tale of a group of Nanking citizens who take refuge in a church from the marauding Japanese army. That film also failed to get a release in Japan, despite Zhang being one of the most popular Chinese directors there.
Extreme nationalists represent a small minority of Japan’s population, but they seem to have been emboldened by the current government, which includes a number of leading figures who share their view that Japan has been unfairly singled out for criticism of its wartime actions. And although Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the U.S. Congress on April 29 – the first by a Japanese leader – was well received for its expression of remorse over World War Two, many in Asia believe he was playing to the gallery.
Back in Japan, the government has publicly rebuked media outlets critical of its policies and stances, recently hauling producers from public broadcaster NHK and private network TV Asahi before the Diet, the country’s parliament, to explain the content of their programs. This followed harsh criticism by the prime minister last year of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper – part of the same media group as TV Asahi – after it retracted a 20-year-old article about women forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers during the war.
With most of the major TV networks heavily involved in filmmaking, there are concerns that both overt and behind-the-scenes pressure will lead to an avoidance of controversial or political topics.
“The thing in Japan is, even if there is no direct pressure from the government, producers may censor themselves by avoiding tackling difficult issues such as Fukushima. And I think there is a reluctance to talk about the situation with the nuclear plant,” said Yoshi Yatabe, programming director for Tokyo International Film Festival.
While the major studios have been largely avoiding potentially controversial subjects, independent directors have made a number of films about the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster.
“There are a lot of political films being made, though whether they are cinematically any good is another question; some of them are just propaganda, like Power Point presentations,” suggested Atsushi Funahashi, director of the two acclaimed Nuclear Nation documentaries about evacuees from Fukushima.
Funahashi believes that while movies with TV network involvement may already be self-censoring, independent filmmakers are not yet being silenced, a view echoed by Tokyo-based British filmmaker John Williams.
“If anything, I think the Abe administration has got people worried and thinking that they should start making more political films,” said Williams.
Getting releases for controversial productions has never been easy, but the added hurdle of political pressure may mean that such films become even more reliant on festival screenings to get their message out.
The Tokyo festival’s Yatabe hasn’t felt any kind of pressure from above and remains determined that, “we should be very independent, even though we are partially funded by the government. As a film festival, we have to be brave and show controversial films.”
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