Four Questions: Films as Mediators, Medicine and Memorials
Nathaniel Smith, UA assistant professor of East Asian studies, discusses film as a medium through which history can be explored and discussed across cultures.

UA Office of Research, Discovery & Innovation
Nov. 8, 2016


A conceptual painting by Robert McCall for the film "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
A conceptual painting by Robert McCall for the film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Photo courtesy of the UA Museum of Art)

Films often are viewed and discussed through the lens of entertainment.

But when watching films about history, or films from foreign countries, should audiences be looking beyond entertainment value in search of cultural insights?

Nathaniel Smith, a University of Arizona cultural anthropologist specializing in Japan, believes they should.

Smith argues that by discussing the meaning of a film and its interpretation of a particular historical event or personage, audiences can gain a sense of community — and a new perspective.


This month, Smith has been leading and moderating a series of film screenings at the UA, which are free and open to the public. With the screenings ongoing, and as the UA prepares to dedicate the USS Arizona Mall Memorial on Dec. 4, Smith answered some questions about how films offer opportunities to explore historical narratives.

Q: How do cultures collectively gain a stronger understanding of — and appreciation for — historical events through cinema?

A: Cinema is one place where competing ways of understanding history get hashed out. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was an immensely expensive film, but it also came out at a critical juncture for Japan. The film wrestled with how to reflect upon World War II and deal with ongoing issues in the U.S.-Japan relationship in the midst of a new U.S. conflict with Vietnam. The film also came during the rise of baby boomer youth — at the time, student activists — who wanted nothing to do with either.

Q: Following the destructive events — on a very human level — of World War II, how could the relationship between Japan and the United States heal and evolve over time? What has been your experience?

A: It's a really complicated relationship, even to this day. Defeat came after our use of two atomic bombs and the destruction of nearly every major Japanese city. A large portion of the civilian population was dead in Okinawa. Japan was occupied by the United States for seven years after the end of World War II and Okinawa was held until 1972. And yet, today, both countries view each other with mutual respect and are very close allies.

When I was a sophomore in college, I decided that I wanted to study abroad in Japan my junior year. I told my uncle and my grandfather what I wanted to do. My uncle, who had worked for Japanese electronics companies in the 1980s, said: "Go to Japan and enjoy yourself, but they'll never accept you. You'll always be a gaijin — a foreigner." I bristled at the idea that that would be true.

When I went to Tokyo the next year, I made lots of friends. Some of them later visited California and I brought them to meet my grandfather. He had been an officer in the U.S. Navy, experiencing the Pacific War firsthand. When I brought this group of Japanese friends to meet him, my grandfather looked at them with tears in his eyes and he said, "Thank you so much. I am so sorry." He didn't put this into words, but I always felt he was saying thank you to us as a younger generation that had moved so far beyond what things were like when he was young, and I think he was saying sorry for his own contribution to conflict. That's something that always gave me pause. Even though my own relationship with Japan has always been one of appreciation and interest, there had been a vast amount of change over the course of my grandfather's lifetime.

Q: A lot of us are used to having short, simple conversations among friends after seeing a film, mostly focused around whether we liked it or not. What's the value of having a deeper dialogue about foreign films and historical films?

A: I think it is worthwhile to think about what a movie means for an audience that is different than your own, and to try to imagine what people in other places think about when they see a film. It's easy for us to live within our own cultural bubble, so a chance to flip one's perspective around is not just useful personally, but can help us to understand historical issues. It can create community and open up a dialogue. 'Tora! Tora! Tora!" was a joint U.S.-Japan production that strove for neutrality and attempted to humanize people on both sides of the conflict. It has been critiqued for being too in the weeds and myopically focused on Pearl Harbor at the expense of events leading up to it, but its docu-drama style was part of a successful strategy among war films at the time. 

Q: In that regard, can a film be a kind of memorial?

A: I think that it can be, and the latter two films in our series exemplify that idea. A lot of what memorials accomplish is giving people a chance to enter into the lives of people who came before us — providing a space where we can think about an event and contemplate what it meant for those who experienced it. In many cases, that means feeling things that you otherwise wouldn't in your day-to-day life.

Each of the films we're screening for this series have functioned in that way for audiences. For Japan, war film was often framed in terms of reflection on the kind of sacrifices that led to postwar success, or as a lesson for how not to repeat the past. For Americans now, particularly students, it can be sobering to think about times of conflict where a draft drew young people from every walk of life to serve. Each film in this series gives us a chance to think about the Pacific War, consider perspectives we may never had imagined, and reflect on how far the U.S.-Japan relationship has come over the last 75 years.

Extra info

"Four Questions" is an occasional feature in which UANews asks experts from the UA for their perspective on current events or pop culture.

The UA Department of East Asian Studies is partnering this month with the University Libraries to screen major movies that capture the World War II conflict between the United States and Japan. The screenings will be preceded by a short talk and followed by an audience discussion moderated by Nathaniel Smith.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" has already screened, but two additional events are planned, both of which will be held at Gallagher Theater in the Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E. University Blvd. at 6 p.m. They are: 

  • Nov. 14: "Flags of Our Fathers" is a 2006 film directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood and based on the book of the same name written by James Bradley and Ron Powers. The film details the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath.
  • Nov. 21: "Letters From Iwo Jima," also a 2006 film directed and co-produced by Eastwood, portrays the Battle of Iwo Jima through the experience of Japanese soldiers. The film is meant to complement "Flags of Our Fathers."