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How Box Office Figures Dictated Disney's Portrayal of the Japanese in Pearl Harbor

By Kathryn Burke, with comment by James (Alec) Murphy

[1] Pearl Harbor was created with the intention of becoming a blockbuster film, with Disney Studios lining up the hugely successful Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer as director and producer to insure a box office hit. Titanic, another historical event turned blockbuster film, grossed over six hundred million dollars in the United States -- and two hundred fifty-five million dollars in Japan. The importance of these figures is pivotal to examining the portrayal of the Japanese in Pearl Harbor. Aware of their audiences, Bay, Bruckheimer, and the writers carefully crafted a portrait of the Japanese that would entertain Americans but not offend the Japanese. As critic John Dower remarks, "Humanizing the enemy is… canny marketing strategy."

[2] The filmmakers avoided offending Japanese audiences largely by limiting appearances of the Japanese in the film. Critic Roger Ebert says, "Japanese audiences will find little to complain about apart from the fact that they play such a small role in their own raid." The Japanese are not pictured in a film about their attack on the United States until over thirty minutes into the picture. Their absence in the film is the filmmakers' way of averting possible Japanese discontent over their portrayal, but by leaving out the Japanese, was not a huge portion of the story left out? Viewers learn little about the Japanese motivation behind the attack, except vague references to their need for oil. Admiral Yamamoto says, "War is inevitable... The Americans cut off the oil that is our lifeline." World War II was not fought over oil, and for the filmmakers to simplify the attack's background to this extent is reprehensible from a historical perspective.

[3] Not only was the historical background to Pearl Harbor ignored in the film, but the real, however grim it may have been, aftermath was noticeably left out as well. In a breathy narration at the film's end, Kate Beckinsale tells about how the attack brought America together and reflects upon the many lost lives. She tells of the award given to Dorie Miller, "the first black American to be awarded the Navy Cross," but she does not mention the serious international repercussions of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She does not mention that in February of 1942, "approximately one hundred twenty thousand Japanese Americans were imprisoned in a direct government response to Japan's attack" (Lee). She does not mention this because in the years after these wrongful imprisonments, "this mass internment" has been compared to "Europe's concentration camps" (Lee). To remind moviegoers of this sordid part of America's history would be to embarrass and disgust Americans and remind the Japanese of the terrible wrongs done to Japanese Americans. History is much more entertaining when the truly gruesome parts can be left out, isn't it?

[4] Filmmakers also saw the dramatic potential of the Doolittle Raid, where the friendship medals from Japan are symbolically tied to the bombs and sent back. As the American pilots bomb Japan, the camera does not follow the bombs to watch the lives lost as they hit their targets. Instead, viewers lament as Danny steps in front of the firing Japanese to save his best friend, Rafe. Approximately fifty Japanese civilians were killed by the Doolittle Raid, but audiences do not see or hear about those casualties (Dower). Nor did writers include any mention of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which together had a death toll "nearly one hundred times that at Pearl Harbor" (Dower). Any risk of viewers perceiving America negatively was averted by intentionally recreating only certain aspects of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

[5] While filmmakers deliberately left out certain parts of the attack on Pearl Harbor, they also intentionally included others. The character of Dorie Miller was significant enough to be mentioned by Evelyn in the ending narration, but his story is given little screen time during the actual course of the film. Critic Geoffrey Macnab suggests that Miller appears as "a token presence," which explains his minute screen time. Much like the limited scenes of the Japanese, Miller was included in a weak attempt to present a racially accepting view of Pearl Harbor. Critic Chisun Lee says, "In keeping with the Disney tradition, Pearl Harbor's America glows with sunshine. Winning an interracial boxing match spells triumph rather than trouble for the black victor." Disney shows the bravery of a black man but avoids showing much of the realities of racial discrimination during this period in America. Miller is allowed to briefly express his disappointment and anger about being limited to the job of cook, but to counterbalance this, Disney includes Miller bravely shooting down enemy planes during the attack. Miller is given no connection to any of the film's major players. He is included, like the Japanese, to give audiences the impression that the film is politically correct.

[6] Maintaining their politically correct front, the filmmakers arranged that when the Japanese do appear in the film, they are not villains, or murderers, or criminals. In fact, there is very little by which to characterize them. If they must be characterized by anything, the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is notably admirable in his noble proclamations, such as "A brilliant man would find a way not to fight a war." Besides Admiral Yamamoto, few Japanese men speak in the film, and when they do, they speak in short, concise sentences, offering utmost deference to their superiors. "They state facts but do not emerge with personalities or passions" (Ebert). The American pilots are allowed to revel in defeating "those Jap suckers," but before the Japanese pilots fly, they pray and look at pictures of their loved ones. In attempting to avoid the discrimination demonstrated in previous American films about war, the filmmakers were excessive in their mild portrayal of the enemy. This was an attack in which Japan killed or seriously wounded over 3,500 Americans, yet the enemy cannot be displayed negatively out of respect for past discrimination? Or was it more likely, out of "canny marketing strategy"?

[7] Despite the watered-down version of Japan's role in the war, even more precautions were made before sending the movie to Japan. "Producers are cutting potentially offensive sections from versions headed overseas, especially to Japan" (Lee). In deciding to make this film, Bay and Bruckheimer adopted the huge responsibility of recreating an event with enormous significance to many people around the globe. Unfortunately, rather than respect those whose lives were lost at Pearl Harbor by showing what really happened, the biggest concern for this film was ensuring it would have the greatest commercial success possible. Japan is the world's second-largest box office, and Disney Studios needed to make 100 million dollars in profits in Japan in order "to balance the production books" (James). With numbers as large as these, it does not come as a shock that the Japanese were portrayed in the manner that they were.

[8] Disney Studios took extreme precautions not to offend the Japanese and even took the precaution of creating "a manual advising Japanese theatres on how to cope with right-wing action or other protests" (James). Interestingly enough, when the film was released in Japan, there was no backlash whatsoever. The Japanese response and subsequent box office numbers were described as "satisfactory" (James). Disney Studios got their money and avoided a potentially problematic uproar, but was it worth it? Can we, as Americans, stand by and watch our history be rewritten to provide actors, producers, and film companies with a bloated paycheck? (see comment by James (Alec) Murphy)


James (Alec) Murphy 7/24/12

Burke really hits all the major points concerning the construction of this movie. It is completely and totally commercial -- 110 %. As a result, Burke's list of the choices made by the production staff comes as no surprise. This was a high-budget film, with major stars of the time period, and, as such, all of the writers and therefore the audiences focus and emotion is bound to revolve around the actions of the three stars, who create the love triangle, which honestly drove this film from the producers' standpoint, as well as, the viewers' standpoint. Let's be honest with ourselves, people who were going to see Pearl Harbor knew that it wasn't going to be a history lesson, nor that it was going to document the action of that day to inform its worldwide audience of the ins and outs of trauma that occurred. No. Pearl Harbor was made for money, for every female from age 11-35 to drool and cry over. And personally, for me, as long as no major lies are told, the manipulation of a historical event for the sake of entertainment is okay. This is the type of movie that MUST be viewed with the understanding of the context in which it was made -- it is not a documentary. And as far as the question "can we, as American's, stand by and watch our history be rewritten to provide actors, producers, and film companies with a bloated pay-check," I think the 200 million dollar gross at the American box office can answer that question. Pearl Harbor served in entertainment value what it lacked in historic stick-to-itiveness. Entertainment value puts millions of people in seats of the theater, millions of people who are not expecting a documentary. Viewers and producers alike were relatively pleased by the entertainment value of this film, and it was essentially only critics and historians, judging the film based on its historical miscues, who were displeased.

Dower, John W. "The Innocence of ‘Pearl Harbor'." New York Times 3 June 2001.

Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Pearl Harbor, dir. Michael Bay. 25 May 2001.

James, Victoria. "Japan Snores Through Pearl Harbor." New Statesman 23 July 2001.

Lee, Chisun. "Romancing the Republic." Village Voice 12 June 2001.