TOKYO -- A major Japanese movie studio has rehabilitated Japan's World War II prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, in a film that shows the convicted war criminal as a misunderstood hero who was made a fall guy by the U.S. occupation force.
The movie, called "Pride -- The Fateful Moment," opened last weekend in 145 theaters -- 50 years after Tojo was hanged for war crimes.
The Japanese studio that produced the film, Toei Co., said it was made "to correct mistaken perceptions about General Tojo." Its advertising promoted the movie as a struggle between Tojo and America, "a solitary battle for the pride of the Japanese nation."
China and North Korea have officially denounced the film as a historical whitewash, but it was hailed by conservative factions in Japan that have long argued that the country's militarism was a self-defense mechanism to thwart Western imperialism.
Tojo headed the Japanese government when the decisions were made to attack Pearl Harbor and to invade other Asian nations, where Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for brutal treatment of war prisoners and civilians. He stepped down in 1944 with the fall of Saipan, which put U.S. bombers in range of the Japanese islands.
The movie starts with Tojo reading the declaration of war against the United States, Britain and other countries on Dec. 8, 1941. After a few minutes of other scenes from 1941, the movie jumps ahead to 1946 as the camera screen fills with images of a beaten postwar Japan and the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.
Although the film runs for nearly three hours, there are no scenes of Japan's 1937 invasion of China, the Pearl Harbor raid in 1941, nor the battles fought by Japan in the Pacific that led to the deaths of tens of millions of combatants and civilians.
These omissions led to charges of selective memory from nations that fought Japan in the war.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and North Korean official media denounced the film.
"We felt shocked and indignant over the fact that some people in Japan produced such a movie to whitewash aggression and sing the praises of Hideki Tojo," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhu Bangzao. "Such an act is bound to be strongly condemned by the people who face up to history and love peace, including the Japanese people. Hideki Tojo was the chief criminal of that war of aggression."
His comments were featured in the lead story of a Chinese national television news program.
North Korean official media also protested what they called Japan's distortion and denial of its military invasion of Asia. They said the movie was an attempt "to embellish the past war of aggression."
And a union at Toei criticized the producer for glorifying Japan's militaristic past.
The international furor apparently surprised Toei.
"We have never had a film that has been the subject of protests from foreign governments," a studio official said.
Toei spent about $11 million to make "Pride," about three to four times the cost of a typical Japanese movie. Toei is planning to take the movie overseas but may have a tough time selling it because there is something in it to anger just about everybody.
American audiences will probably bristle at a scene of Tojo getting a good laugh out of the Pearl Harbor raid.
Audiences in several Asian countries may find it tough to swallow the movie's claim that Japan's invasion of their homelands was done for their protection.
The people most pleased with the movie are Japanese conservatives, who have argued for years that the Allied nations provoked Japan into war. The right wing in Japan has fought to prevent the government from issuing any apologies for the war and has denied that Japan committed wartime atrocities.
Nor are these sentiments from the political fringe.
Twenty-seven members of the conservative, ruling Liberal Democratic Party have praised the film. One of them, former Justice Minister Seisuke Okuno, said after a screening: "The Tokyo war crime tribunal verdict was wrong."
For years, Japanese governments have censored history textbooks and toned down various aspects of the war. For example, the Rape of Nanjing, in which more than 100,000 Chinese were killed during a spree of Japanese Imperial Army brutality in 1937-1938, is referred to as the "Nanjing Incident" in most textbooks, and the scale of the atrocities is played down.
The movie is based on the writings of Tojo's 60-year-old granddaughter, Yuko Iwanami. She broke the family's long-standing silence about speaking on Tojo when she published a book in 1992 that praised her grandfather.
Conservative businessmen, such as Isao Nakamura, who controls East Japan Housing Co., helped finance the film. Veteran Japanese actor Masahiko Tsugawa, who is a dead ringer for Tojo with his shaved head and horn-rimmed glasses, plays the lead. The foreign cast includes U.S. actors Ronny Cox ("RoboCop," "Total Recall") and Scott Wilson ("G.I. Jane").
Some Western as well as Japanese historians have argued over the years that Tojo never had the power or the personality cult of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini -- or that the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was based more on revenge than on principles of international law.
In "Victor's Justice," his book criticizing the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, historian Richard Minear wrote: "The view that World War II had been a dark plot against civilization emerged from the Allied reaction to the acts of Nazi Germany. But Japan was not Germany; Tojo was not Hitler; the Pacific war was not identical with the European war."
But even in Japan, Tojo is not exculpated for his wartime role. A number of Japanese newspapers have criticized the film.
Hisaki Ina, an editorial writer for the sober financial daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, said that although the legality of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal can be debated, there is no question of Japan's responsibility for its military aggression.
"There is a saying that it is possible to forgive the criminal but never forgive the crime," Ina wrote. "The problem with this movie is that it does not show Tojo and his motivations and it does not show the crimes."
The final say for "Pride" will come at the Japanese box office, where Hollywood films dominate theaters. The opening weekend grossed $1.32 million, and Toei said it was satisfied with the figure.
"The movie is not going to be a blockbuster, but we believe it will be a hit," a studio spokesman said.
Most of the audience consisted of people over 40, but the spokesman said that many high school and college-age youngsters also attended.
Pub Date: 5/30/98