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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Japan gets soft pitch of 'Pearl Harbor'

 •  State shows its aloha for military
 •  Advertiser special: The Pearl Harbor Story

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer

Executives at Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group are hoping that paring down images of Japanese aggression in its "Pearl Harbor" marketing and instead boosting the film's universal appeal as a love story will help propel it to box office success in Japan.

"Pearl Harbor" distributor Touchstone Pictures is unveiling the $140 million epic July 14 in Japan, well after its U.S. opening next Friday and long after the film opens in other major international markets, including cities elsewhere in Asia.

In addition, trailers and posters released to the Japanese market thus far are clearly different from those in the U.S. and other markets.

The two trailers playing in Japanese theaters stick closely to one aspect of U.S. trailers — promotion of the film as a story of love, friendship and heroism set against the backdrop of the attack.

But conspicuously absent from Japanese trailers are scenes of a Japanese officer mapping out the attack and pilots donning headbands with the rising sun symbol as they prepare to board planes.

The single scene depicting someone of Asian ancestry in Japanese trailers is a tight facial shot of a surveillance photographer snapping pictures of the harbor. It's not in American trailers.

Instead of American trailers' radio voice-over "warning of Japanese aggressive movements," a narrator in the Japanese trailer tells viewers that "this fight took lovers away and ripped apart the friendships of men."

The single Japanese poster for "Pearl Harbor" offers an orange-tinted sunrise scene of three sinking U.S. warships, with smoke billowing and flames raging against a backdrop of open ocean rather than a harbor. The ships and a couple of nondescript fighter planes are placed in the extreme background, while the foreground is left empty.

Text in the Japanese poster describes the film as "the drama of the century dedicated to hearts throughout the world." It evokes a morning "when in an instant the blue of sea and sky was stained deep red" and declares that "only love was the final paradise left to young people."

In contrast, an array of darker gray- and silver-hued American posters and those intended for other international markets show ominously clouded skies teeming with Japanese fighters. The virtually text-free posters place exploding warships, a Japanese Zero or a civilian woman hanging wash squarely in the foreground.

Japanese trailers emphasize romance with shots of lead characters embracing or cavorting in the Hawaiian surf.

The industry newspaper Variety estimates that almost 65 percent of total box office for Hollywood films comes from international markets, with Japan traditionally accounting for 25 to 30 percent of that. An estimated $225 million of "Titanic's" billion-dollar-plus worldwide gross was from Japan. "Pearl Harbor" director Michael Bay's last Touchstone film, 1998's "Armageddon," collected $115 million in Japan.

Selling a film based on an attack barely alluded to in Japanese classrooms ensures that Disney's international marketers will have their work cut out for them in Japan.

"We've approached (our Japan campaign) from a standpoint of looking at the movie as a big epic romance set to the backdrop of World War II," said Mark Zoradi, president of Buena Vista International, which is distributing the film overseas.

"The love story between the three main characters is central to the campaign. The human drama has been put up front and the war aspects, though certainly important, have been secondary to it."

Japanese moviegoers are bracing for a one-sided view of history.

"People know a Hollywood movie doesn't show reality," said Rinako Kunisawa, a 28-year-old Tokyo office worker and film enthusiast. "I'm sure it will twist history from the U.S. side."

In Uwajima, Japan, the trailer for "Pearl Harbor" was met with shock and dismay. The town is still mourning the death of nine people killed in February when the submarine USS Greeneville collided with a Japanese fisheries training vessel and sank it nine miles south of Diamond Head.

"Why are they coming out with this movie now, just three months after the accident?" asked Fujiko Shigaki, 28, who runs a coffee shop in the town. She saw the "Pearl Harbor" trailer at a showing of "Hannibal."

"It is going to be tough on the families of the victims," Shigaki said.

Zoradi said the Japan marketing campaign for "Pearl Harbor" was designed entirely by Buena Vista International's Tokyo-based marketing team, which is "100 percent staffed by local Japanese people (who) had the luxury of seeing the U.S. campaign and all the materials done here and then taking and adapting those to the sensitivity of their own marketplace."

Of the excised scenes that showed Japanese troops, Zoradi said: "I think (their elimination) probably was a matter of putting in more romance ... more human drama. We certainly didn't try to eliminate the Japanese from the trailer. They're certainly there."

Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling said the movie is correctly being sold as a romance rather than a classic war film.

"Buena Vista is doing the right thing by pitching 'Pearl Harbor' as a love story," he said. "They couldn't sell it as a war film here. Nobody would go to see it for that. The pitch has got to be to dating couples and teenagers."

Noting the obvious differences between the action-oriented posters distributed in the United States to promote "Pearl Harbor" and the more subdued single print intended for Japan, Schilling said a poster with a Zero flying prominently in the foreground would alienate moviegoers.

"It would tell the Japanese audience that this is a film for war nuts," says Schilling. "It would appeal to maybe 1 percent of the audience Disney wants to appeal to."

Zoradi said Disney's Japanese marketing would be targeting male and female moviegoers older than 14. Especially important would be Japan's lead target audience of young females.

He declined to divulge Disney's revenue estimate for "Pearl Harbor" in Japan, but was confident that the film would be a "substantial success" there "because it treats the Japanese soldiers with a level of respect."

"You do get an insight into why Japan did what it did," Zoradi said. "... It deals with the whole issue in a fair way."

Advertiser staff writer David Butts contributed to this report.