Summer Internment

How to market Pearl Harbor in Japan.

Pearl Harbor, this summer’s Disney-backed, surefire blockbuster, has an unbeatable formula: explosions for the 15-year-old boys, a love story for the 15-year-old girls, a veneer of historicity for the adults, a PG-13 rating, and an unchallenged wide release on Memorial Day weekend. But while Pearl Harbor is the easiest domestic sell since The Phantom Menace, getting it over in Japan is another thing. Big American movies can usually look to make at least an additional $40-$60 million in Japan. So how do you sell a movie about Japanese treachery and aggression to the Japanese? Go light on the guns, heavy on the butter.

The American trailer for Pearl Harbor is a work of art in itself. It begins with two small boys playing imaginary fighter pilots in a barn. A voice-over from Jon Voight as FDR asks, “How long is America going to pretend the world is not at war?” We see shots of the three leads: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale. Next we see a series of shots of Japanese soldiers, beginning with the wartime banner of the Rising Sun, followed by an officer outlining the attack, then pilots donning Rising Sun headbands and scrambling to their planes, and then another officer shouting at his pilots, his face contorted in an ugly expression. Then there is a series of shots of Japanese planes streaking toward Pearl Harbor while a radio report buzzes, “Warning of Japanese aggressive movements.” Then come the money shots. We see the attack on Battleship Row as we get FDR’s famous line, “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the empire of Japan.” We see the American ships sinking. Finally, FDR returns to say, “We are at war. Tell that to the soldiers who today are hitting hard in the far waters of the Pacific. Tell that to the boys in the Flying Fortresses. Tell that to the Marines.” Finally text appears on the screen reading, “It was the end of innocence … and the dawn of a nation’s greatest glory.”

The Japanese trailer (click here, and then on the trailer on the right) makes, as they say in the Actors Studio, different choices. A text banner proclaims, “An epic drama on the scale of Gone with the Wind and The Titanic,” while the trailer opens with an aerial shot of the barn but doesn’t show the boys playing pilots. Instead, it cuts quickly to two young lovers embracing underwater. We then are shown a series of shots of lovers kissing, dancing, and embracing on a train platform while FDR asks, “How long is America going to pretend the world is not at war?” We see Cuba Gooding Jr. boxing, and a shot of Ben Affleck writing a letter, which dissolves into Kate Beckinsale also writing a letter. Then the Japanese planes begin to descend, but without the radio “Warning” from the U.S. trailer. As the attack begins, FDR says clearly, “December 7, 1941, a day that will live …” but the words “in infamy” are muffled so as to be almost inaudible while the rest of the speech is omitted completely. As the American ships begin to sink, FDR says only, “We are at war.” And then a Japanese voice-over says, “This fight took lovers away and ripped apart the friendships of men.” The Japanese trailer doesn’t include a single Japanese face.

The theater one-sheets are also dramatically different in both imagery and message. The American poster is silver and gunmetal gray and prominently displays the faces of the three leads at the top while a large Japanese plane dominates the foreground. The visual look is so striking that there is no teaser text. The Japanese one-sheet is a sea of orange and red flames billowing out of a sinking ship, while text reads, “The drama of the century, dedicated to hearts throughout the world. 1941. Local time December 7, 6 in the morning, the Hawaiian Islands. On that day, when in an instant the blue of sea and sky was stained deep red. Only love was the final paradise left to young people.” Note the passive tense and the Benetton-ish, we-are-one reference to “hearts around the world.”

Unlike the Germans, who have engaged in a decades-long mea culpa (which caused them to embrace movies from the miniseries Holocaust to the film Saving Private Ryan), the Japanese still have conflicting attitudes toward World War II. On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese parliament failed to pass a resolution of regret for the incident even as the prime minister and foreign minister caused a minor uproar by personally expressing “deep remorse.” In 1994, several members of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s Cabinet listened to speakers declare that Japan’s wartime actions had been justified. Pearl Harbor is usually treated glancingly in Japanese classrooms, and according to the Los Angeles Times, “Generations of postwar Japanese have virtually no objective knowledge about Japan’s aggression in Asia because government-sanctioned textbooks simply ignore much of that era.”

The suits at Disney—who are famous for micromanaging movies—must know that there’s a chance the Japanese public will reject Pearl Harbor. The script was sent to Disney’s Japan division for notes before production began, and director Michael Bay told Entertainment Weekly “that a voice-over describing an alleged human rights violation by the Japanese was excised: ‘It wasn’t important to the story.’ ” Even so, Disney is playing it safe. Pearl Harbor opens in America on May 25 and expands worldwide within a month. Everywhere in the world, that is, except for Japan, where it won’t open until July 14. By then, Pearl Harbor will already have taken in the lion’s share of its eventual worldwide revenue. It’s a tactical move that would make Adm. Yamamoto smile.

To purchase Pearl Harbor: The Movie and the Moment from, click here.