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New Movie Makes Tojo A Hero

China is outraged by it. North Korea has called it shameless. But a new film that depicts Japan's most famous World War II criminal as a hero is getting warm reviews at home.

Besides one small campaign against the film by a labor union, there have been no protests here against Pride, a Japanese movie about Gen. Hideki Tojo, which opens later this month at about 140 theaters nationwide. In fact, in preview screenings, the film has evoked Japanese pride and deeply moved some viewers, says Toei Co., the company that made the movie.

Pride taps into the belief, prevalent among some Japanese, that the country's war record is widely misunderstood by outsiders. For starters, the country's aggressiveness was mainly a defensive tactic, they argue, an effort to end white colonialism and preserve the Asian-ness of the region.

And Tojo, who served as prime minister from 1941 to 1944 and gave the go-ahead for the attack on Pearl Harbor, is a would-be savior rather than a bloodthirsty general, according to this argument.

One of the few newspaper ads that have appeared to promote Pride reads: "Tojo vs. America: A solitary battle for the pride of a nation."

Producer Masao Sato says that by portraying the human side of Tojo, through his family relationships and stoicism during the Allied war tribunal that ordered his execution, the film seeks to kindle a more nuanced debate about Tojo.

"It's not intended to be so black and white, about whether Tojo was good or evil," he said Friday in a telephone interview. "That's not what films are supposed to do."

Not all analysts and viewers share that view. To some, the movie whitewashes Tojo's role. To others, it's part of a right-wing effort in Japan to justify wartime atrocities.

Toei Co., which spent $11 million to make the movie three times its usual outlay for films has obviously taken great care with Pride. One review in the Asahi newspaper praised the "feverish" acting of Masahiko Tsugawa, who plays Tojo. Another, in the Sankei, lauded the authentic-looking sets.

But despite the timing of the film 50 years after Tojo's execution and the rising debate over Japan's wartime role, Pride has failed to generate a buzz in a country far more smitten with Hollywood fare than native films.

Pride may yet end up with a sizable following, given its unusually sympathetic treatment of Tojo, who was put to death in 1948 as a convicted war criminal and still viewed by much of the world as evil. In one scene, Tojo refuses to believe that Japanese forces carried out the 1937 "Rape of Nanking," which China estimates resulted in the deaths of 300,000 people, mainly disarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians. The filmmakers defend the scene as faithful to Tojo's personality.

The film's director, Shunya Ito, has certain aspirations for the film: that it will spark a resurgence of the sot of self-reliance he says vanished with Tojo's death. He notes what he calls Japan's overdependence on countries like the United States.

Actor Tsugawa has his own wish: that it will lead Japan's politicians to demand a retrial to clear the names of the Tokyo tribunal defendants.