History and Hollywood decide what the past means.
The September 2, 1945, signing ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri marked the end of World War II. But what would Victory over Japan (or VJ Day) lead to?
It could have been the start of a smoldering, bitter resentment. (Think of the Versailles Treaty, which served as Hitler’s justification for starting another world war.) In that case, Japan’s capitulation could have been but a pause in the Pacific War.
Instead, the Japanese surrender was day one in what has become one of the most enduring and important strategic partnerships of modern history. Today, seventy-three years after the signing, the alliance is more important than ever.
Postwar cooperation between Tokyo and Washington has a lot to do with geography and geopolitics. Throughout the coldest days of the Cold War, the two nations needed each other. Today, they share common cause more than ever, dealing with the destabilizing rise of China. That said, history and popular culture ought to get their due credit.
With the Help of History
Atypical of most nations, neither Japan nor the United States let their history be trapped by the past. That’s not to say their past is unimportant. From the writings of Jefferson, Hamilton and other founding fathers to the teachings of Buddhist monks like Kōbō-Daishi, we look to earlier times to understand the religious, cultural, and political foundations of the modern world.
Important ideas that arose in the past are not important because they are ancient. They are important because they are important. The great defining attributes of civilization belong as much to the present and the future.
Of course, we also debate what happened in the past—actions right and wrong. In 1968, for example, the controversial historian Saburō Ienaga penned The Pacific War 1931–1945 intending to force the Japanese to confront the worst of the empire’s behavior. Rather than gloss over the history or focus on Japan as victim (the target of the 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) he wrote to spark reflection and self-criticism. Ienaga was equally disapproving of the United States, censuring America’s war in Vietnam and the Japanese support for the war—repeating, he argued, the worst mistakes of World War II.
Today in Japan, the cyclical debate over fault, responsibility, forgiveness, understanding and outrage continues. The passage of time does nothing to curb these reflections, only adding contemporary concerns, perceptions and prejudices to the spin cycle.
That’s normal. Free nations have a conscience. They struggle with their past. In America, passions run raw over Confederate statues and streets named for rebels who fought in a war over 150 years ago.
But there is a difference between arguing over historical narratives and being trapped by history. Reinterpreting and contemporizing history is an action of introspection. Nations trapped by history are mired in bitterness, revenge and retribution over past outrages. That is not America. That is not Japan. At the war’s end, both Japan and the United States unmoored themselves from the constraints of their legacy of wartime antagonisms.
With the Help of Hollywood
History is our brain. Popular culture is our heart. The emotional expression of who we are defines us as much as our intellect. No aspect of twentieth century popular culture was more important than cinema.
Not surprisingly, both Japanese and American wartime films reflected the animosities between the two countries.
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In Japan, a typical production was the 1943 film Ano Hata o ute (Tear Down the Stars and Stripes) telling the story of the Japanese victory at the Battle of Corregidor. Courageous troops liberate Asian peoples from Western aggressors. Not released in theaters until February 1944 when the war’s fortunes had clearly turned against the Japanese, the film nevertheless reflected the government’s insistence on emphasizing the just nature of the national effort, validation that every privation, every sacrifice, every excess was acceptable in the name of national virtue against a ruthless enemy.
The first big American movie on the jungle war against Japan was Guadalcanal Diary, debuting in 1943, six years before the most famous film on the Pacific, The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with John Wayne in the starring role.
Guadalcanal Diary had no stars. It was rushed into production with stock players whose faces and characters who were familiar to most moviegoers. Playing to packed theaters across the country, the film bore all the elements of great Hollywood war movies and bad history, setting the model for a steady stream of productions that continued to the end of the decade—red-blooded American good guys against the bad guys.
In fairness, Robert Brent Toplin argues in Reel History: A Defense of Hollywood (2002), it is unfair to expect historical films to portray history accurately. Whether they are contemporary films like Guadalcanal Diary or cinema done long after the fact such as Saving Private Ryan, in the end, movie makers have to make movies; Job 1 is to deliver a clear and compelling narrative, not to record history. The medium has significant limitations as a history teacher.
That doesn’t mean film has no value. “[A]udiences receive a modicum of information about broad historical events,” writes Toplin, even as they are “emotionally and conceptually rewarded.” He goes on to observe that “memorable films address important questions about the past and attach viewers’ emotions to the debates about them.” That was certainly true in the case of Guadalcanal Diary. The film connected its American audience to their fighting men in the far off Pacific, even if it did not convey the brutal reality of ground war in a faraway place.
But we didn’t stay angry in our heads or our hearts. After the war, no American film reflected the dramatic shift in how Japan and America thought about their common history better than Hollywood’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
In 1966, more than a quarter century after the lightning strike that killed 2,403 Americans and sunk or damaged nineteen ships, including eight battleships, Hollywood producer Daryl Zanuck decided it was time to make a big movie about this fateful day. The war was still a vivid part of America’s modern memory. Dwight Eisenhower was only five years out of office. Winston Churchill had died only a few months before Zanuck conceived his grand project. Further, the burden of the Vietnam War had not yet soured the nation on celebrating Americans warring overseas. It was the perfect time to find a big audience for a big movie.
Zanuck had every reason to hope that he could deliver both an iconic film and a box office bonanza. He had done it before. In 1962, Zanuck produced The Longest Day an epic tableau of the Normandy invasion. His plan was to copy that formula—but with a wrinkle that he thought would make the film a surefire classic: The Japanese side of the story would be fashioned by the acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa.
Japan’s most famous director was thrilled with the project. He longed to bring a sentiment to the story that would bridge the historical war legacies of his homeland and the United States—now fast and firm postwar allies. “This movie will be a record of neither victory nor defeat but of misunderstanding and miscalculations and the waste of excellent capacity and energy,” he declared at a news conference announcing production of the film. “As such, it will embrace the typical elements of tragedy. I want to look straight into what it means to be a human being in time of war.”
That was the plan.
Japan’s “master of cinema,” never saw his grand vision reach a theater. After many months of frustration, cost overruns, and stupefaction over Kurosawa’s erratic behavior, the studio dropped him from the project. The final movie only vaguely reflected Kurosawa’s magisterial, but sprawling and arguably unfilm-able, screenplay.
The producers did manage to stay true to the original concept of telling both sides of the tale, adopting Kurosawa’s vision of Pearl Harbor as a shared Shakespearean tragedy. Japanese audiences responded to the courage, determination, and professionalism of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Americans took solace in film’s final scene. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, looks out to sea across the deck of his flagship while his words scroll across the screen subtitled in English, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve,” foreshadowing the terrible retribution for the Japanese attack.
In the end, Kurosawa was right. Audiences accepted the film’s premise—history had thrown the two nations into war. Pearl Harbor went from being us against them, to something more like the Battle of Gettysburg—brother against brother.
Future with a Past
The 1980s demonstrated the resilience of the Japanese-American partnership. The alliance weathered a spike in anti-Japanese attitudes in the United States sparked by economic competition. Remarkably, according Yohei Ogawa in The Practice of Public Diplomacy (2011), the number of Japanese favorably disposed toward America, “has been between 70 and 80 percent for almost all the time since the 1980s (even in the worst year, which was 1986, it remained at 67.5 percent).”