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More than two weeks before its release, Angelina Jolie’s World War II drama Unbroken is already the focus of political sniping and debate.
The film tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian who survived 47 days at sea — and four years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp — after his bomber goes down over the Pacific Ocean. The torture he endured at the hands of a young Japanese officer known as The Bird was brutal; it included regular canings, extreme starvation, and, at one point, being punched in the face 200 times by fellow POWs forced to take part in the beating.
Miyavi Ishihara, the Japanese rock star who plays The Bird in Unbroken, told Yahoo Movies that he was reluctant to play the role until speaking with Jolie about her intentions.
"I wasn’t sure I was going to do this until I met Angie in Tokyo," he recalls. "She said she wanted to make something meaningful and it could be a bridge between America, Japan and other countries in conflict. This story could happen anywhere.
"We didn’t want to have a caricature of a typical villain who is one-dimensional," the actor added. "We wanted more depth, more sensitivity."
Japanese audiences have yet to see the film, but that hasn’t stopped conservative nationalist groups from objecting to its release and protesting its content.
Hiromichi Moteki, of the Japanese nationalist group Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, calls some of the most extreme claims of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book about Zamperini — and by extension the film — “pure fabrication.”
"If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims," Moteki told the UK’s Telegraph. ”This movie has no credibility and is immoral.”
Hillenbrand’s book describes, among other things, treatment that included prisoners being “beaten, burned, stabbed or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism.”
Jolie’s film, which will open nationwide on Christmas Day, includes plenty depictions of brutality but has no scenes of medical experimentation, cannibalism, or beheadings.
Miyavi Ishihara and Jack O’Connell in Unbroken
Matthew M. Burke, a reporter with Stars and Stripes in Japan, has reported extensively on the legacy of Japanese prison camps and is the grandson of a Marine who transported POWs when the war ended. He tells Yahoo Movies that, while he is reluctant to engage with comments made by Moteki’s group, there is no doubt that horrendous and inhumane treatment was a fundamental part of Japanese camps.
"Anyone who refutes the overall horrific treatment of Allied prisoners by the Japanese during the war is not being honest with themselves, or they don’t know their history," he says.
Burke notes that there were several Oskar Schindler-types in Japan who worked in secret to aid enemy soldiers, but that cruelty to POWs was rampant: Soldiers were massacred, others forced to dig their own graves or allowed to starve to death while suffering from diseases like dysentery and pneumonia.
Nonetheless, there has been in recent years a movement among some conservative organizations, like Moteki’s, to strike a more positive tone about Japan’s role and conduct in WWII. Miyavi, who is 33, described his own education about WWII as lacking any details about the horrors in the prison camps.
"We learned the history of war, what Japan went through, but I didn’t know about this history, this story," he said. "And that’s why I was hesitant."
It’s clear that Universal, which did not comment for this article, will have to sell the movie carefully in Japan. Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Jeff Shell told the LA Times last month that the company would release the film later in that country, with a specialized promotional strategy. Few films depicting Japanese misdeeds during the war have succeeded there, as the country's culpability is still a hot button issue, with debate about whether Japan should apologize for soldiers taking Korean and Chinese women as sex slaves during the war.
Whenever the film comes out, Miyavi thinks that it can deliver a positive message.
"It’s still tough to watch this film. You don’t want to see anything of the dark side of the history," Miyavi said. "But the footage at the very end, Louie running with local children at the Nagano Olympics in his '80s, he came back to the country where he struggled and suffered and traumatized, but everyone was smiling. That’s the message that we wanted to deliver to the audience… This film is not about the war, it’s all about forgiveness."
Watch the Unbroken trailer below: