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Culture : ‘Rising’ Laughter : * Many Japanese are more amused than offended by stereotypes in the American movie. They’re treating the whodunit as a comedy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

That’s not the roar of anger you’re hearing from Japanese audiences finally getting their first glimpse of “Rising Sun,” the controversial film blasted as racist by many Asian Americans and other minorities in the United States.

It’s laughter.

Oops. Someone forgot to tell people here that the murder mystery, set in Los Angeles against a backdrop of U.S.-Japanese economic warfare and based on the novel by Michael Crichton, isn’t supposed to be a comedy. Crichton meant it as a serious warning to Americans to wake up to the way their behavior is imperiling their economic future, and his portrayal provoked passionate charges of Japan-bashing.

But to Tokyo moviegoers Chika Miyatake, Hideo Aoyagi and Akinari Matsumoto, the joke is on those funny little Americans, who have blundered again into making a film filled with such strained and outdated images of Japan as to be comical.

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How funny? As bizarre as a Japanese filmmaker making a high-tech business drama about the United States filled with cowboys and Indians, slaves and coolies, or happy little homemakers, circa 1950s Donna Reed and Doris Day--fine camp comedy perhaps, but with little relationship to modern reality.

“More than discriminatory, Japanese look at the film and think it’s unnatural,” said Matsumoto, a sales executive with the Hibiya Scala Theaters.

Geisha with faces painted in white rice paste, bare-chested taiko drummers and chop-sock martial-art performers were just a few of the stock characters the film trotted out to portray Japan--although all of them have become cultural rarities. In the Japan of today, miniskirts are more common than the kimono as de rigueur wear, techno-funk is far more prevalent than taiko and the hottest game in town is soccer, while karate, kendo and judo are all in serious decline.

“Most Japanese have never even seen a geisha in real life, and you don’t hear the sound of taiko much either. It makes you laugh,” Matsumoto said.

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All those Americans mangling Japanese, with the exception of Japanese native Mako, drew gales of laughter. (Sean Connery’s Japlish expression of anger--"I am verry verry okotta!"-- is “destined for TV comedy fodder,” the Japan Times wrote.)

Equally savored were scenes of Americans overacting cliched Japanese rituals such as bowing and exchanging business cards. A crowd favorite was Stan Egi’s overwrought apology as he gave Connery the missing computer disc at the police station; his contorted face and anguished “Sumimasen!” provoked howls.

Miyatake, a Tokyo journalist, snickered at the name of the high-tech firm that doctored the critical computer disc: Hamaguri Corp. Unbeknown to most Americans, that translates into “Clam Corp."--with a double meaning of the female genitals.

“At the screening that 20th Century Fox had, a lot of the critics were laughing at parts that weren’t supposed to be funny--whenever Sean Connery spoke Japanese, or the stereotyping of Japanese characters,” said Mark Thompson, Japan Times film critic. “The Japanese aren’t taking this as seriously as people thought they would . . . the unintentionally funny parts have undercut the so-called Japan-bashing.”

Indeed, in contrast to the United States, the film has not provoked one demonstration here--although Fox took care to consult with certain interest groups before the film opened. As a result, the firm dubbed out in the Japanese version two politically incorrect words: burakumin , used for outcasts, and ainoko, literally love child, or the product of an interracial couple.

Fox spokesman Toshio Furusawa said one reason reaction has been muted is that most Japanese, living in a nation that is 95% homogeneous, don’t have the sensitivity that Americans do about what is considered racist. Therefore, they do not offend as easily. In addition, he said, “Everyone is used to the stereotyping by Americans. A lot of Japanese figure most Americans don’t know anything about Japan beyond these stereotyped images, no matter how much time has passed.

Not so, however, for Aoyagi, 23, a college student raised in the era of McDonald’s and MTV, who said he always assumed America and Japan were closely linked in both commerce and culture. “To see Japan portrayed as such a unique and different country by Americans was a shock,” he said.

Still, he added that “Rising Sun” was a significant improvement in portraying modern-day Japan compared with the older fare of samurai, ninja or World War II enemy.

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And more than the Japanese, Aoyagi said, the group most unflatteringly portrayed was women--especially white women, who were made to parade around nude and reduced to little more than sex toys.

One insurance executive praised the film as accurate, saying it pointed out the positive aspects of Japanese business culture, such as company loyalty. And even the unflattering images of Japan as America’s economic enemy were, well, true, he said.

“Japan is in the wrong because we are too self-centered, only protecting our own country, as with the rice problem. We still have that isolationist island mentality,” said the 49-year-old executive, who declined to give his name because he was playing hooky from work to see the film.

Nagisa Oshima, the film director best known in the West for his erotic “In the Realm of the Senses,” defended Crichton’s work as being “adequately researched” and devoid of Japan bashing. Howver, he also wrote that the novelist might have examined Japanese culture in more depth.

Not that the film did not rile some people here. Nagaharu Yodogawa, the nation’s top film critic, criticized the images of “oily Japanese, taciturn Japanese, repulsive Japanese” and speculated that caricaturing them in that way was aimed solely at profiteering.

Others objected to the stereotypical yakuza (gangsters) and portrayal of Japanese men as sex fiends for white women. (No, Japan’s executives don’t routinely wear black loincloth and pluck sushi off the bodies of naked women, as the Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa character did, although that service is available at a few hot springs sex resorts.)

But the biggest public reaction so far may be apathy. After two weeks, the film has drawn only 125,000 people and $1.8 million in box office receipts--less than half of what might be considered a hit, Fox’s Furusawa said. In the Ginza, the Disney animated film “Aladdin” has outdrawn “Rising Sun” by more than 3 to 1 since opening on the same day.

“It doesn’t have much entertainment value,” Furusawa said with a sigh. “Unlike ‘Diehard’ or ‘The Fugitive,’ there’s not much action or suspense. It’s not sensational.”

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Times researcher Megumi Shimizu contributed to this report.


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