October 22, 2012

Victory in Defeat

The title of a five-part biopic about Shigeru Yoshida, Japan's prime minister during the American Occupation. An ambassador to Italy and the United Kingdom during the 1930s, he was a product of the Meiji era and an old-school imperialist, and came to see the war as inimical to his "Japan-first" philosophy.

That got him thrown in jail, a fate that confirmed his anti-military bona fides which, combined with his fluency in English, made him an ideal counterpart to MacArthur. He would push back hard against MacArthur's sweeping reformist agenda and see his views vindicated during the infamous "Reverse Course" years.

The middle ground carved out between the two formed the political foundations of modern Japan.

NHK labels the series "historical fiction," and it starts on a firm footing. The following scene occurs in the first episode almost exactly as it's described here on The American Experience:

Yoshida later revealed to his daughter that the American paced theatrically back and forth while delivering one of his sekkyo, or sermons, prompting Yoshida to laugh, as he imagined being caged with a pacing lion. MacArthur asked what was so funny, Yoshida told him, and MacArthur glared for a moment before laughing along with his guest. The ice broken, the two established a good working relationship, and met many times in the coming years.

Unfortunately, the taut political drama is too often interrupted by attempts at more "Micheneresque" scenes of invented melodrama that range from the maudlin to the vaudevillian. Soap opera history is bad enough. Histrionic soap opera history is excruciating.

These types of productions too often feature "Americans" who are Caucasians first--sometimes not even speaking English as their first language--and actors second (or third or forth). The Japanese actors, likewise, are rarely as fluent in English as their characters are supposed to be.

This time around, that criticism doesn't apply to the leads. Ken Watanabe is Yoshida, down to the permanent grimace and the pince-nez. And having cast one heavyweight, NHK went the extra mile and got David Morse to play Douglas MacArthur.

But another problem is the English lines being translated by somebody with no ear for dialogue, and then spoken by "foreign" actors who are simply reciting what's written on the page. Sure, there's the occasional clunker here and there, but Morse and Watanabe have the acting chops to make their scenes come alive.

It also helps that Morse is six-foot-four, so he does physically tower over everybody as MacArthur would have.

But when Morse is on his own without Watanabe to play against, as in scenes that try to create a character arc revolving around MacArthur's presidential aspirations, the dialogue falls too flat for him to rescue. And conspiratorial subplots involving his staff come across as rejected West Wing scripts.

I'd like to see the series cut down to around four hours (from almost eight), eliminating most of the scenes that don't have Watanabe in them, and filling in the gaps with stylistic flourishes, such as montages of newspaper headlines with radio news voice-overs. Or interviews with historians, Ken Burns style.

The American Occupation is a one of the most fascinating episodes in modern history, a successful projection of American power that engaged everything from constitutional to agricultural reform.

And from which the entirely wrong lessons were learned. Just as the onset of WWII did not prove that "Keynesianism works" (sans a massive world war, at least), the occupations of Japan and Germany did not prove that "American democracy" can be spread by force of arms (sans a massive world war, at least).

For that reason alone, it deserves a lot more attention in the west. A good place to begin is John Dower's Embracing Defeat.

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