PEARL HARBOR: Hollywood Vs. History -

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PEARL HARBOR: Hollywood Vs. History

Actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa provides an alternate view of the "Day That Will Live in Infamy."

By Steve Biodrowski     July 05, 2001

Pearl Harbor uses historical events as a backdrop for a love triangle.
© 2001 Buena Vista

We all know that Hollywood likes to rewrite history in order to make movies. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a long tradition of "dramatizing" and "fictionalizing" real world events that dates as far back as Shakespeare (e.g., RICHARD THE III) and should probably include the Gospels, which offer four different perspectives on the life of Jesus. But it's important to keep in mind that you are getting an interpretation told from a particular point-of-view, often with a thematic or political agenda.

The latest Hollywood blockbuster to take on a major historical event in this way is PEARL HARBOR, which seeks to use the "day that will live in infamy" as a pretext for a romantic love triangle played out against a backdrop of impending tragedy (much like TITANIC). Whatever one thinks of the characters and their love story, they do push into the background the political and historical elements related to the surprise bombing of the U.S Naval base on Hawaii; consequently, the film does not examine those events in a critical way, except to suggest that U.S. military intelligence should perhaps have done a better job of predicting the attack.

In a way, this is a good thing. The Japanese fleet approaches Hawaii with all the inevitability of the iceberg in TITANIC. Having thus depersonalized the enemy into a historical force, the film cannot work up much hatred for them; in fact, the scenario goes out of its way to avoid this. Nevertheless, when the bombs start falling, and our American

Japanese plains approach Pearl Harbor.

heroes take to the skies to defend liberty and justice for all, you can't help slipping into that old-fashioned "us vs. them" mentality that asks you to root for the good guys as they blow the bad guys away. So, once again, we end up with a Hollywood film that, with all good intentions, must inevitably present a Hollywood view of history, tailor-made for mass consumption by American viewers.

Of course, there are other interpretations of the events leading up to and including the attack on Pearl Harbor. And who better to seek out for a broader perspective than actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who plays Commander Minoru Genda in the film? Tagawa has had roles in such films as MORTAL KOMBAT, THE PHANTOM, JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES, and the upcoming remake of PLANET OF THE APES. But more to the point, he grew up after World War II in somewhat unusual circumstances: his mother was an actress in Japan during the war, and his father was a U.S. soldier.

"He was in Honolulu when they bombed Pearl Harbor; my mother was in Tokyo when Doolittle raided Tokyo," Tagawa explains. "My mother said the family was Imperial Navy, and none of those guys came back. So certainly within my blood, the war is in there. Both of them having gone through the experience and then me being born five years after, I feel like I had to take the responsibility for the war! That made it a subject that I chose to study quite a bit. I watched every black-and-white documentary available. So I got, of course, a very one-side perspectivethe American perspective."

Because of his personal feelings about the war, Tagawa had concerns

Actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

when he was first offered the chance to appear in PEARL HARBOR.

"I had apprehensions. I did not want to do the movie," the actor admits. "When I heard 'Pearl Harbor' and 'Michael Bay,' I said, 'Forget it. No way this has a chance of being anything that I want to be a part of.' Having read the script, I was pleasantly surprised. Then to work with Michael Bayyou know, he has such a bad reputation about being a screamer, but he was very compassionate and listened to our ideas. He did make some changes, and they weren't necessarily anything reflecting racism, but simple things that someone who doesn't know Japanese culture might do. He was very open to hearing about that.

"So ultimately it was a good experience," Tagawa continues. "It was very emotional. We did have a vet[eran] that showed up at the U.S.S. Lexington [set]which I found out later was the most decorated ship in the War and was sunk in the Coral Sea. He was yelling and screamingthis is what I heardand when he started saying, 'I'm going to kill those Japs!' they had to take him away. It was sad. He lost three brothers in the war. That's why I sayalthough it was never fun living through itas I have gotten older, I have forgiven anybody that had any racist feelings. For anybody to go through that sort of experienceand I'm glad to say that I haven'tyou can never really be judgmental about people who have emotions that run high. That's a part of their life; that's how they chose to live. It's not on me to change that. So I would just say very clearly: I wasn't responsible for the war! I wasn't there!"

Personal feelings of responsibility aside, what does Tagawa think of the film's perspective on the real events? He believes we are "coming toward a moment" in history when ill feelings will start to fade, and he hopes that PEARL HARBOR will help that process.

"I believe it didwith dignity and honor, so that it doesn't bring up racist feelingsat least versus the films that I grew up watching! I think they paid great attention to the detail, to make sure that that didn't happen."

No Hawaiians are in site as the bombs start to drop.

Still, there is only so much detail that can fit into a movie, even one with a running time of over three hours. One noticeable omission is the absence of native people on the Hawaiian Islands. Tagawa breaks into a smile when I point this out.

"Thank you!" he says. "And you're not even from Hawaii! I thought they were bombing California!"

The on-screen population of the island isn't just a matter of quibbling over the casting of a few extras. Portraying the island as wholly occupied by American citizens perpetuates a blind spot in our historical memorynamely, that Hawaii was not one of the United States at the time of the attack, and would not be until years after the war. In fact, one couldperhaps not unreasonablymake the argument that the American forces were the equivalent of Imperialist invaders, occupying the territory by force of arms.

"Absolutely," says Tagawa, when presented with this theory. He then elaborates, based on his own knowledge, "It was in 1898 that it was made a territorywhen it was stolen from the Hawaiians, so we're not talking about some place that was legally, like you said [part of the United States]. But even more so, it does point out a key element of our perspective about that whole period. Basically, Japan was an island that, without its navy, was not able to have toilet paper and oil. When the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905 and sank their fleet, the Western nations had a reason to fear Japan. They didn't want to let Japan in on the Imperialistic Club! Certainly, at that time, that was the order of the day: go take somebody else's land. Everywhere that Japan went back intothe Philippines, Singapore, Vietnamthey were all conquered countries. It wasn't like that [territory] was America, either; it wasn't Great Britain; it wasn't France. This was a natural outcome of not being allowed in the club.

Day of Deceit posits that the U.S. manuvered to provoke the Japanese attack.

"In fact," Tagawa continues, "there's a book called DAY OF DECEIT, THE TRUTH ABOUT FDR AND PEARL HARBOR[by Robert B. Stinnett], which says they very clearly knew [what would happen]. In February of 1940, a naval intelligence officer born in Japan, the son of a Baptist Minister, came to Roosevelt with an eight-point plan, which said, 'Do these eight things; Japan will attack.' One of themand people don't realize thisis the fleet was not based in Pearl Harbor; it was always based in San Diego. That was one of the eight points: bring your armament closer to Japan, in the middle of the ocean. All the other pointseverythingthey did."

What Tagawa is saying is not new. Conspiracy theories regarding how much Roosevelt knew before the attack have been around since the War (his Republican opponent used these charges against him in the next presidential campaign). The film sidesteps this issue and adopts the politically correct party line: U.S. intelligence had cracked Japan's diplomatic codes, but not their military codes. Therefore, the U.S. government knew that the Japanese ambassador's had been ordered to break off diplomatic relationswhich suggested that an attack was imminent, but gave no indication of when or where it would occur.

To date, no one has found the smoking gun that would definitely prove otherwise, but there are some suggestive bits of evidence; for example, the new aircraft carriers were ordered safely out of the harbor shortly before the attack, leaving behind the outdated battleships that ended up being sunk. The film does mention this in a rather odd manner: While American intelligence officers listen on a phone tap, an Asian-looking barber looks out his shop window and tells the voice on the other end of the line (presumably a Japanese spy) that he doesn't see any of those "flat ships" in the harbor. The reference is so oblique as to be almost funnyonly those looking for it will notice.

Whether or not the case against Roosevelt can be proved, I would like to suggest that this would have been the perfect opportunity to

Jon Voight (sitting) plays FDR.

plead "dramatic license." This excuse has been used so often to include dubious details that provide happy endings and easy resolutions, so why not use it as a justification to include a conspiracy theory as a last-reel plot twist? Imagine the devastating impact: After all the patriotic fanfare fades, after the call to arms has sounded and been answered, our characters learn that it was all a set-up; their government knew about the impending attack but said nothing, in order to shake apathetic Americans out of their isolationist stance. Unfortunately, although this sort of dramatic revelation could have worked, it's not in keeping with the "feel good" structure of the story, in which the bombing of Pearl Harbor is rendered less as a tragedy and more as a brief setback that leads to ultimate victory. I guess that's Hollywood.

Tagawa, on the other hand, is not so concerned about the film's focusing away from such details. He sees the film in different, emotional terms that overshadow any historical shortcomings.

"We bend a lot of things, but history means 'His Story,'" he philosophizes. "Japanese have their version, and everybody has their version. But the good news about PEARL HARBOR is...there's only one reason to make a war movie, and that's to make an anti-war statement. Certainly, the love-story aspect made it very clear that life is more important than death. Although the Japanese believe death was more important than lifefor the samurai and for the pilots in the military!"


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