Why you should care

Because this isn’t the first time Hollywood has had to fight for its right to make you laugh.

Once upon a time, at a certain Tokyo press conference, the question on every American correspondent’s tongue was: Would the film industry choose free expression or would it cave to the national interests of an Asian nation?

Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve followed the hullaballoo over 2014’s most controversial movie, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview. But today’s fuss, for some, is a case of serious déjà vu. Back in 1989, about two weeks after Japan’s Sony Corp. bought Columbia Pictures for almost $5 billion, anxiety was in the air: The Japanese corporate icon, like a Kong-zilla mutant, had gobbled up, as Newsweek put it, a piece of America’s “cultural soul.”

All this during a sour period in American-Japanese relations. Industrial Japan had just spent two decades beating up on the American auto industry. Washington faced a ballooning trade deficit with Tokyo — then the world’s largest lender nation. A 1988 Newsweek poll, published before the Soviet bloc crumbled, found that most Americans felt even more threatened by Japan’s economy than by the Soviet military. And the salt in the wound: American movies marked, then and now, the heart of America’s global exports. In the year leading up to the Sony purchase, U.S. theatrical releases and videos had grown 20 percent, counting for $8.58 billion. The Japanese footprint looked to be stomping on Columbia Pictures’ logo, an iconic torch-bearing woman.

In Japan, the whole thing looked like a bucket of racism and yet another revival of the “yellow peril” fears of bygone eras.

So, the American reporters trooped in to an upscale eatery in Sony’s Tokyo headquarters, primed to grill their host, Akio Morita, Sony’s legendary co-founder. Where would Sony’s loyalties lie, in cinematic free speech or in its homeland’s national interest?

The worries were, to many Americans, very real. The takeover came shortly after Morita published The Japan That Can Say No, a book that many in the States interpreted as U.S.-bashing. Which raised concerns that films full of “propaganda,” as The Washington Post argued, would soon flood theaters. The upshot: unnecessary hysteria. Japan, hardly a film-making mecca, wasn’t cranking out cinematic misinformation. Nor had Columbia Pictures ever unveiled a slate of stinging exposés of Japan.

So in Japan, the whole thing looked like a bucket of racism and yet another revival of the “yellow peril” fears of bygone eras. Morita’s response: Why did America intern Japanese just a few decades before?

It didn’t help that Sony bungled the news. The company first announced the acquisition to a Tokyo press conference restricted to Japanese reporters. Morita only belatedly submitted to the interview by American correspondents. But truth be told, Sony was probably the ill-fated victim of a hysterical misreading. Its Columbia Pictures purchase was more corporate strategy shift than underhanded nationalism. The numbers made good business sense: Sony gained a library of 2,700 movies and 23,000 TV shows, furthering Morita’s prescient vision of anywhere, anytime media. He wanted to deliver it through Sony portable devices — compact disc players, videocassette recorders, Video Walkman, high-definition television.

Ironically, though, Morita was an internationalist at heart, a man with a grasp of American identity and appreciation of the nation’s “special affinity with the movie industry.” He tried to reassure reporters that Sony didn’t intend a “Japanese invasion” of Columbia Pictures. Sony would retain the American management face on its U.S. possession, Morita pledged.

But reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major outlets didn’t let it go: What if, came one purely hypothetical question, producers at Columbia Pictures were to greenlight an unflattering biopic of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, examining, for example, his order to Japanese citizens during WWII to opt for suicide over surrender to U.S. forces?

“We would have no objections,” the Sony visionary said. “Maybe the Japanese people and the Japanese government would not want to show it here. But if Columbia’s management believed the story was good, then we make the movie.” A markedly different response than the one we imagine North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would give today — if he were ever to talk to a room of American journalists.

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