Angelina Jolie's war film faces box office challenge in Asia
With anger over second world war atrocities still high in the region, marketing Angelina Jolie's POW film in Japan will be tricky, write Josh Rottenberg and Julie Makinen
As the Oscar race goes into the home stretch, Universal is preparing to roll out its top contender, the highly anticipated second world war epic Unbroken. But even as it looks ahead to the movie's release worldwide, the studio is facing a complicated and rather delicate situation in two of its most critical foreign markets: Japan and China.
In Japan, Unbroken is bound to meet considerable resistance due to its depiction of the brutality in Japanese POW camps. In China, it will probably be welcomed with open arms - for the same reason.
Adapted by director Angelina Jolie from Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction bestseller, Unbroken opens in the US on December 25. It chronicles the remarkable life of Olympic runner turned war hero Louis Zamperini, who survived the crash of his B-24 bomber in the Pacific, spent 47 days adrift on a raft, and then endured two and a half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps before finally being liberated by US forces at the end of the war.
In the book, Hillenbrand depicts the treatment of the American and his fellow prisoners by sadistic Japanese corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe and other prison guards in harrowing detail. In the prison camps, she writes, "to abuse, enslave, and even murder a captive or POW was considered acceptable, even desirable".
Universal is still developing its strategy for the film's release in Japan, but Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell acknowledges that selling the movie there will be a challenge. "The content of the book is a difficult one in the Japanese market," he says. "We're probably going to wait a little bit and release it later in the year there than in the rest of the world. We're going to delay it a little bit so we can have a different kind of launch there."
(The film will be released in Hong Kong two months after it opens in the US.)
A lot of money is riding on how Universal positions the film in both countries. The mainland represents the second largest film market in the world after the US, while Japan is No3. On the mainland, American tentpole films that win one of the coveted release slots under the government's quota system can often earn upward of US$100 million, although the studios collect only 25 per cent of the grosses. In Japan, the numbers are not as big, but they are still substantial.
Although Unbroken has yet to be approved by the mainland for release there, the film will likely find an appreciative audience. Hillenbrand's book has been translated into Chinese and has earned largely positive reviews. Second world war movies such as Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan have performed strongly at the mainland box office. And actress-director Jolie has a sizeable and enthusiastic following there.
Most important, given the history of deep animosity and conflict between China and Japan, Chinese audiences have long embraced films and TV series with an anti-Japanese bent. On the mainland, such films are a veritable industry unto themselves: in 2012 alone, more than 200 were made by Chinese studios, most shown on TV.
"The government looks very favourably on anti-Japanese dramas," says Stan Rosen, a political science professor with the University of Southern California.
Shanghai-based film blogger Wu Renchu says it is premature to predict the box office potential of Unbroken, but "any movie that shows Japanese people doing bad things is likely to have a market in China. But how exactly marketers will leverage this remains to be seen," he says.
Given that some of the very qualities likely to help Unbroken in China could hurt its prospects in Japan, the answer is likely to be: very carefully. The last thing Universal wants is to be perceived as exploiting anti-Japanese sentiment.
Zamperini, who died in July at age 97, has long been celebrated in his homeland but his story is essentially unknown in Japan. Unbroken has been translated into 29 languages since its publication - but not into Japanese.
Nearly 70 years after the Japanese surrender, the second world war remains a highly sensitive chapter in the nation's history. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative government launched an initiative to inject a more patriotic tone into Japanese textbooks, many of which largely gloss over the war.
Over the years, Japanese moviegoers have often embraced Japanese-made films that depict the country's involvement in the war honourably or that focus on the suffering of ordinary citizens in US air raids and the atomic bombings. For example, Takashi Yamazaki's The Eternal Zero, which offered a sympathetic depiction of kamikaze pilots, was one of the country's highest-grossing films of 2013.
Although Hollywood movies about the second world war have only rarely been released in Japan, Clint Eastwood's 2006 Letters from Iwo Jima, which looked at the conflict from the Japanese perspective, was a major hit there.
Films showing Japan's role in the war in a critical light, however, have been few and far between, and Unbroken will face an uphill climb in winning over Japanese audiences, says Timothy Tsu Yun Hui, professor in the school of international studies at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan and co-editor of forthcoming book Chinese and Japanese Films on the Second World War.
"The Japanese audience for movies that are critical about the war is really very small," says Tsu. "There is an exhaustion and a revulsion about war apologies." As far as Unbroken is concerned, he says, "My guess is that not too many people would want to see it."
In marketing the film to Japanese audiences, the studio is likely to emphasise the movie's themes of hope and resilience of the human spirit and downplay the portrayal of the Japanese soldiers and prison guards as often ruthless torturers.
"The Japanese part is only one-third of the book," Universal's Shell says. "The story's really about Louis Zamperini surviving not just in a Japanese prison camp but on the raft and in his earlier life. The story is not about Japanese being bad; it's about persevering."
From the outset, Jolie sought to humanise the central Japanese character, Watanabe, who was nicknamed "The Bird" by his prisoners. "He's described in Hillenbrand's book as this beautifully crafted monster," Jolie has said. "He was very well educated and a very complex person. It was very important to us that this was not going to be a stereotype of a Japanese bad guy."
For the actor playing Watanabe, Japanese rock singer-songwriter Miyavi, the decision to take on the role was a difficult one, given the controversial nature of the war in Japan.
"To be honest, I wouldn't have tried to do this if the script was all like the story of the book," says Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara), whose large fan base in Japan will be an asset in selling Unbroken there.
"But the film is focused on the unbroken spirit of Louis Zamperini, how strong you can be as a human being. In the end, he came back to Japan and showed his love and his heart to the Japanese people. Even Japanese people can respect how he survived and he forgave in his life.
"In the country which lost the war, everything is bad - everything is their fault. But we need to look at this fact directly. We can't avoid it or run away."
Los Angeles Times