in the weeks before the opening of Rising Sun, some Japanese living in the U.S. feared the start of another round of Japan-bashing and lodged protests with the studio producing the film, Twentieth Century Fox. Their sentiments not only echoed the concerns of Japanese business leaders, who were wary the film might spark another blast of "Buy American" xenophobia, they also struck a chord within Hollywood, where Sony and Matsushita have become major players.
The fuss over the film, an adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel about Corporate Japan's attempts to take over U.S. companies, boils down to image. And image, for both American and Japanese companies, translates into dollars in the U.S. market. "Films do have a tremendous impact on the way consumers view things," says Jack Sansolo, president of Los Angeles-based Point A Consulting. "Look at the summer: The country is dinosaur crazy." Jurassic Park has pulled in $400 million so far at the box office, and in addition has earned a heap of cash through marketing tie-ins with companies like McDonald's, which pay hefty fees to sponsor Hollywood blockbusters.
Rising Sun hit bookstores in February of 1992, just as then-President Bush and leaders of the Big Three automakers were barnstorming through Japan. It was the final episode of '80s-style Japan-bashing, and the novel and its portrayal of Japanese business practices in the U.S. proved a volatile conclusion. The firestorm continued when Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes were lined up to star in the film, giving Rising Sun a high-profile buzz around the film industry.
The anxiety among Japanese businesses is understandable even in the best of times. But by the time the film opened this summer, Japanese companies were beset by a soft economy at home, an unstable political situation in Tokyo and a strong yen that pushed up prices and pulled down sales in the U.S.
Rising Sun's debut earlier this month did little to allay the concerns of the Japanese community. It made $15.5 million in just three days and was the No. 1 box-office film for the weekend. The take has since topped $31 million. While Sun's box office won't reach dino-proportions, one New York film and media studies veteran, a Japanese national living in the U.S. for more than a decade, is still bothered that large audiences are seeing outdated stereotypes and hopeless misrepresentations of both Japanese culture and Japanese business customs. "All the Japanese characters are unsympathetic," she says. "They're either sneaky business people, gangsters or sexually perverse. In that sense it is very unbalanced. The film was not interested in portraying the accurate image of the Japanese, but the American image of what it is to be Japanese."
Even before Rising Sun, the debate among Japanese-owned firms with a presence in this country has been whether to address or ignore such xenophobia. Some companies, like Honda, have developed entire ad campaigns to counter just those sentiments by tolling U.S. consumers their products are built in America by Americans. Toyota is spending heavily right now on its leadership print campaign, which highlights the contributions of local citizens.
Could Rising Sun undermine that carefully conceived image with its cast of questionable Japanese characters? Ed Mintz, whose CinemaScore tests the likes and dislikes of moviegoers, doubts it. "Response to the film was average, B-minus, which means most people were disappointed," says Mintz, "When there are best sellers involved, at least 50% of the audience on opening weekend will claim to have read the book and that's why you had such a massive opening. After that it's word of mouth."
Most agencies that handle Japanese clients believe U.S. consumers, perhaps with the exception of those who live in the U.S. automotive heartland, have a generally positive attitude about Japanese products that will be hard to shake. "Consumers may not like Japanese businessmen," says one advertising executive, "but they like the quality of their products."
Jon Steel, general manager of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, concurs. "If the Japanese heritage has done anything, it's been on the positive side." From his position at a shop that handles both Isuzu and Sega, Steel says he has even begun to see a shift in attitude, a sort of softening among American consumers toward Japanese companies and their products.
Japan's recent difficulties are part of the reason for that change of heart, says one ad industry observer, who believes the sudden vulnerability of Japanese firms has made the culture more accessible in the eyes of U.S. consumers. "We may be years away from achieving a trade balance," he says, "but we're getting much closer to a cultural detente." And that is good, he suggests, for the bottom line.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)