As this year's Oscar race goes into the home stretch, Universal is preparing to roll out its top contender, the highly anticipated World War II epic "Unbroken." But as it looks ahead to the movie's wider release worldwide, the studio is facing a complicated and rather delicate situation in two of its most critical foreign markets: Japan and China.
In Japan, "Unbroken" is bound to meet considerable resistance due to its depiction of the brutality of Japanese POW camps. In China, which was occupied by Japan during the war, it will likely be welcomed with open arms — for just the same reason.
Adapted by director Angelina Jolie from Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction bestseller, "Unbroken" hits American theaters on Dec. 25. It chronicles the remarkable life of Olympic runner turned war hero Louis Zamperini, who survived the crash of his B-24 bomber in the Pacific, spent 47 days adrift on a raft and then endured 21/2 years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps before finally being liberated by U.S. forces at the end of World War II.
In the book, Hillenbrand depicts the treatment of Zamperini and his fellow prisoners at the hands of the sadistic Japanese Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe and other prison guards in unflinching and harrowing detail. In Japanese prison camps, she writes, "to abuse, enslave, and even murder a captive or POW was considered acceptable, even desirable."
While Universal is still developing its strategy for the film's Japanese release, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Jeff Shell acknowledges that selling the movie there will be a challenge.
"Obviously, the content of the book is a difficult one in the Japanese market," Shell said during a recent visit to China. "So we're probably going to wait a little bit and release it later in the year there than in the rest of the world. We're going to delay it a little bit so we can have a different kind of launch there."
A lot of money is riding on how Universal positions the film in both countries. China represents the second largest film market in the world after the United States, and Japan is No. 3. In China, American tent-pole films that win one of the coveted release slots under the government's quota system can often earn upward of $100 million, though the studios collect only 25% of the grosses. (This summer's "Transformers: Age of Extinction" earned a record-setting $301 million at the Chinese box office.) In Japan, the numbers are not as big, but they're still substantial, with Hollywood blockbusters routinely pulling in tens of millions of dollars.
Although "Unbroken" is not the type of big-budget, CGI-packed action spectacle that tends to draw the largest audiences abroad, Universal, after investing $65 million in the film's production and millions more on its promotion, hopes to maximize its box office receipts everywhere it can. And with the studio having released only one film in China in 2014, "Despicable Me 2," "Unbroken" offers a chance for Universal to improve its performance in that crucial market, where it recently launched a new Beijing office and announced plans to open a $3.3-billion theme park.
Though the movie has not yet been approved by the government for release in China, it is poised to find an enthusiastic audience there. Hillenbrand's book has been translated into Chinese and earned largely positive reviews there, and WWII movies like "Pearl Harbor" and "Saving Private Ryan" have performed strongly at the Chinese box office. Jolie also has a large and enthusiastic following in the country.
Most important, given the history of deep animosity and conflict between China and Japan, Chinese audiences have long embraced films and TV series with an anti-Japanese bent. In China, anti-Japanese films constitute a veritable industry unto themselves; in 2012 alone, more than 200 were made by Chinese studios, most to be shown on television.
"The government looks very favorably on anti-Japanese dramas," said USC professor Stan Rosen, an expert on Chinese film.
Wu Renchu, a well-known film blogger based in Shanghai, said it was premature to predict the box office potential of "Unbroken," but he added that "any movie that shows Japanese people doing bad things is likely to have a market in China. But how exactly marketers will leverage this remains to be seen."
Given that some of the very qualities likely to help "Unbroken" in China could hurt its prospects in Japan, the answer is likely to be: very carefully. The last thing Universal wants is to be perceived as exploiting anti-Japanese sentiment.
Though Zamperini, who grew up in Torrance and died at his home in the Hollywood Hills in July at age 97, has long been celebrated in America, his story is essentially unknown in Japan. "Unbroken" has been translated into 29 languages since its publication, but it has never been translated into Japanese.
Nearly 70 years after the Japanese surrender, WWII remains a highly sensitive chapter in the nation's history. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative government launched an initiative to inject a more patriotic tone into Japanese textbooks, many of which largely gloss over the war. Indeed, the country's role in World War II remains a hot-button subject in many parts of the world.
The Japanese parliament, known as the Diet, has resisted calls for Japan to apologize for the mistreatment of an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women from Korea, China and other countries who were forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. In August, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking removal of a Glendale statue honoring these so-called comfort women.
Over the years, Japanese moviegoers have often embraced Japanese-made films that depict the country's involvement in the war honorably or that focus on the suffering of ordinary citizens in U.S. air raids and the atomic bombings. "The Eternal Zero," for example, which offered a sympathetic depiction of kamikaze pilots, was one of the highest-grossing films of 2013.
Though Hollywood movies about World War II have only rarely been released in Japan, Clint Eastwood's 2006 film "Letters From Iwo Jima," which looked at the conflict from the Japanese perspective, proved a major hit there, holding the No. 1 spot at the box office for five weeks and grossing nearly $43 million.
Films showing Japan's role in the war in a critical light, however, have been few and far between, and "Unbroken" will face an uphill climb in winning over Japanese audiences, said Timothy Tsu, professor in the school of international studies at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan and co-editor of the forthcoming book "Chinese and Japanese Films on the Second World War."
"The Japanese audience for movies that are critical about the war is really very small," said Tsu. "There is an exhaustion and a revulsion about war apologies." As far as "Unbroken" is concerned, he said, "My guess is that not too many people would want to see it."
In marketing the film to Japanese audiences, the studio is likely to emphasize the movie's themes of hope and resilience of the human spirit and downplay the portrayal of the Japanese soldiers and prison guards as often ruthless torturers.
"The Japanese part is only one-third of the book," Universal's Shell said. "The story's really about Louis Zamperini surviving not just in a Japanese prison camp but on the raft and in his earlier life. The story is not about Japanese being bad; it's about persevering."
From the outset, Jolie sought to humanize the film's central Japanese character, Watanabe, who was nicknamed "The Bird" by his prisoners. "He's described [in Hillenbrand's book] as this beautifully crafted monster," Jolie said recently. "He was very well educated and a very complex person. It was very important to us that this was not going to be a stereotype of a Japanese bad guy."
For the actor tasked with playing Watanabe, Japanese rock singer-songwriter Miyavi, the decision to take on the role was a difficult one, given the controversial nature of the war in Japan.
"To be honest, I wouldn't have tried to do this if the script was all like the story of the book," said Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara), whose large fan base in Japan will be an asset to Universal in selling "Unbroken" there. "But the film is focused on the unbroken spirit of Louis Zamperini, how strong you can be as a human being. In the end, he came back to Japan and showed his love and his heart to the Japanese people. Even Japanese people can respect how he survived and he forgave in his life.
"In the country which lost the war, everything is bad — everything is their fault. But we need to look at this fact directly. We can't avoid it or run away."
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report