View From City Road: Japan-bashing slips quietly out of fashion

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The Independent Online
With an inflated yen crippling Japanese car sales in North America, billion-dollar investments in Hollywood studios and New York property going awry and economic and political crises at home, it's hard to conceive of a market for a movie whose main premise is the Japanese takeover of the US economy.

In Times Square this week, however, amid the huge neon billboards for Sony, Minolta and Fuji that so distressed some people on Wall Street only a few years ago, Rising Sun opened to full houses, though with considerably less fanfare than did this summer's other Michael Crichton film. For whereas Jurassic Park is a clever parable about Hollywood - a fantasy land dominated by dinosaurs that survives on computer effects and merchandising tie-ins - Rising Sun is a heavy-handed caricature of Japanese business that has aged badly in its 18-month shelf life.

When the novel was released in December 1991 - the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is worth noting - the New York Times compared its call to arms against the Japanese with the anti-slavery message in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Crichton himself warned of Japan's 'adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out competition' and encouraged readers to verify the inflammatory claims of his Detective John Connor (Sean Connery in the film) by consulting recent works by some of America's best known Japan-bashers.

Among those recommended by Crichton were Pat Choate - the author of a paranoid fantasy about lobbyists working to give Japan 'effective political domination over the US' - and Clyde Prestowitz, the Reagan-era trade negotiator who believes that Japanese business is diminishing America's power and quality of life.

But in a review at the time Robert Reich, now President Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, found no fewer than 35 works of supposed non-fiction with similarly bellicose titles. He might also have included a series of antagonistic TV advertisements by Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler chief executive, and the 'warrior's diet' urged on General Motors workers by Jose Ignacio Lopez, at the time the US car maker's secret weapon against the Japanese threat.

With this kind of advance billing, one might have expected American film audiences this week to have reacted with almost Rambo-like patriotism to the undoing of the villains of the piece, the ruthless Japanese corporate warriors and particularly the treacherous Americans in their pay, a spineless US senator and a smarmy yuppie 'facilitator'.

But film critics report the crowds are far more animated by Rising Sun's murder and sex scenes, Ferrari car chase and nifty electronic gadgets - even in cinemas in the Rust Belt, where car workers were smashing the windscreens of Toyotas only three years ago.

The explanation for this, suggested by Mr Reich 18 months ago, is that Japan-bashing has little to do with Japan's trade and investment behaviour. 'What makes Mr Crichton's book seem such a crude, simplistic fable about the Asian threat to America's economic security isn't so much the nature of the villains as the nature of its heroes,' the Wall Street Journal wrote last week.

Detective Connor, who is said to have lived in Japan for years, and his side-kick are supposed to embody the qualities that will enable the US to turn back the Japanese invaders - an understanding of their devious ways unpolluted by liberal free trade propaganda, good old American innovation and an unwavering belief in America's transparent system of commerce.

In the movie the Japanese have not changed. The heroes have - director Philip Kaufman wisely toned down their Japanese-bashing - but, more important, so has the audience.

Electing a government with a clear technology policy may have allayed some of the strategic fears raised by Rising Sun, but key US industries that once seemed threatened - chip- making, biotechnology, aerospace - have reasserted their primacy in their own right. Detroit's recovering share of the car market may have as much to do with exchange rates as with building better cars, but 're-engineering' has been embraced across the range of US manufactures.

Perhaps this new-found self-confidence among American business will prove short-lived. But it is much harder to make the case, as Detective Connor does in Rising Sun, that US industry 'is playing that most American of games, catching up'.