The American Historian
Still from the film 'Unbroken'

Unbroken and World War II Memory

Robert Fleegler

Angelina Jolie's solid film Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand's book of the same title, depicts Imperial Japan's brutal treatment of American POWs during World War II. The mistreatment of POWs is an aspect of the "Good War" that the American public is largely unaware of because both the United States and Japan shared a common interest in avoiding discussion of these crimes for most of the postwar period. Combined with the greater examination of Nazi crimes since the 1960s, attention gradually shifted way from Japanese wartime atrocities in favor of a clearer focus on the Holocaust.

In Unbroken, Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who competed in the infamous Berlin Games in 1936, is serving as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater in 1943 when his plane crashes during a mission. After surviving 47 days waiting for rescue, the Japanese capture him and his comrade. Transported to a POW camp near Tokyo, Zamperini experiences years of brutality at the hands of his Japanese jailers.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Imperial Japanese regime promoted an ideology of racial superiority and the Japanese code declared that opposing soldiers who surrendered were cowardly and unworthy of respect. This toxic combination of beliefs inexorably led to the horrific treatment of Western POWs, as many died of starvation or exhaustion during the infamous Bataan Death March of 1942. The military paid little heed to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. "I was taught that the POWs had surrendered, and this was a shameful thing for them to have done," recalled Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, Zamperini's chief tormentor, in 1995. "I knew nothing about the Geneva Convention. I asked my commanding officer about it, and he said, 'This is not Geneva, this is Japan'" (Hillenbrand, Unbroken, p. 393). Largely due to this attitude, over a third of American POWS died while in Japanese hands (Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, p. 813).

Though popular culture has focused on the European theater since the war, American anger was primarily directed toward Japan rather than Germany during the conflict. As historian John Dower demonstrated in his classic War without Mercy (1986), the melding of anti-Japanese racism and the fury over Pearl Harbor led to Pacific combat that was more brutal than that seen in the European theater. While American propaganda distinguished between the Nazi leadership and "ordinary" Germans, the Japanese were depicted as a homogenous foe with animal-like characteristics.

With the revelations of the concentration camps at the conclusion of World War II, public attitudes began to shift toward viewing Nazi Germany as the defining enemy of the war. Though discussion of the Holocaust remained relatively limited in the United States and Israel until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, a culture of remembrance gradually emerged. In the prelude to Israel's overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, fear of the destruction of the Jewish state revived memories of the genocide. In 1978, NBC aired Holocaust, a television miniseries that drew blockbuster ratings in the United States while also garnering significant interest in Germany. Hollywood made several films about the Shoah, culminating with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List in 1993. The United States Holocaust Museum opened in Washington, D.C., in the same year. By the end of the century, discussion of the Nazi atrocities had become widespread and Nazi Germany had become the symbol of 20th century barbarism.

For a variety of reasons, Imperial Japan's crimes remain far less known to the general public. After initially enacting far-reaching reforms during the American occupation, General Douglas MacArthur and other policymakers shifting to building up Japan as an anticommunist bulwark against the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. To accomplish this end, war crimes trials only focused on a relatively small number of Japanese so some right-wing anticommunists associated with the wartime regime could assume key positions in the new government. As the end of the film notes, "The Bird" himself was among those pardoned.

Given the changing images of the Axis Powers, the Nazis have served as the stock bad guys for Hollywood for years, running the gamut from the real-life malevolence of Schindler's List to the cartoonish villainy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Conversely, postwar films such as Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) portrayed the Imperial Japanese military in a somewhat sympathetic light. Few movies have focused on their atrocities.

Unbroken, however, portrays the Japanese government's inhumane treatment of Zamperini and his fellow POWs in unrelenting fashion. While Jolie certainly doesn't employ the World War II–era stereotypes of Japan promoted by American propaganda, "The Bird" and his fellow torturers are clearly the villains of the film.

While postwar Germany engaged in a far-reaching reckoning about Nazi crimes, Japan continues to remain in a state of denial regarding its wartime behavior. The government often minimizes or outright denies major crimes such as the Rape of Nanking of 1937 in China as well as the fact that Japanese soldiers exploited Korean women as "comfort women." As a result, these atrocities remain a serious source of tension between Japan and its Asian neighbors as China and South Korea frequently protest the omission of these crimes from school textbooks or visits by Japanese leaders to shrines where some of those responsible are buried. The incumbent Abe government has been particularly provocative in this regard.

As a result, Unbroken is an extremely controversial movie in Japan and many conservative nationalists have called for its boycott. The strong box office showing of the film in the United States, however, is shedding light on a historical subject with which most Americans born since 1945 are unfamiliar.

Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).