Recently, I watched the 2012 Hollywood science fiction action film “Battleship,” which was about an alien invasion and the US Navy’s desperate attempts to stop it. While watching the film, two things caught my attention: The movie was set in Honolulu and it depicted friendship between the US and Japan.
Then, it occurred to me that perhaps “Battleship” could be a metaphoric reenactment of the Pearl Harbor surprise attack by Japan in 1941, which ignited the Pacific War between Japan and the US. Indeed, it was the retired “Battleship” USS Missouri operated by retired US Navy veterans that finally destroyed the invading aliens in the movie. USS Missouri was commissioned in 1944 and fought in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during the Pacific War. It was decommissioned in 1992 to Pearl Harbor. “Battleship” also seemed to touch upon the thesis: “What should the two nations do in the future?”
In “Battleship,” five alien spacecraft arrive at the Honolulu harbor in order to take over Earth and wipe out humanity from it. Interestingly, it is the allied forces of the US and Japan that fight and defeat the invading aliens. An American battleship, USS John Paul Jones, fights side by side with a Japanese battleship, JDS Myoko, against the alien spacecraft. In fact, the friendship between the two commanders of the sister ships, Alex Hopper, a US Navy lieutenant and Yugi Nagata, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force captain, plays an important role in stopping the formidable alien invasion. Initially, they hate each other and fight. Soon, however, they reconcile and become good friends. Together, they can defeat seemingly invincible aliens.
While watching “Battleship,” I was impressed by the admirable companionship between the US and Japan. Considering the Pearl Harbor attack and the ensuing Pacific War, the two countries could have been archenemies. Indeed, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor with its 353 aircraft and six carriers, the US casualties were quite heavy: Eight US battleships, three cruisers and three destroyers were either damaged or sank. A total 188 US aircraft were destroyed as well. Moreover, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 wounded. Later, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit by US nuclear bombs in 1945, approximately 226,000 Japanese were reportedly killed, most of whom were civilians.
Both Americans and Japanese are known to be people who do not forget the pasts easily. Indeed, I still see many Americans who display the photos of their family members or relatives who were killed at Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima, still remembering the tragic incidents. At the same time, however, they seem to have the magnanimity of forgiving their past enemies and building a friendship with them. By the same token, Japan, too, showed a clean surrender in 1945; no outstanding resistance against the US Army stationed in Tokyo was recorded. Both Americans and Japanese seem to have the capacity of forgiving past mistakes and burying the hatchet. Indeed, since the Pacific War ended, the two countries have been good friends and close allies despite their unpleasant past.
Watching “Battleship,” I brooded on the past and the present of Korea. What if Japan did a surprise attack on the Korean Naval Base, Jinhae, and killed 2,403 Korean Navy sailors? We would never forgive Japan for it. What if the US dropped nuclear bombs on our two cities and killed 226,000 civilians? We would not forgive the US either. They would be our eternal mortal enemies. We Koreans are known to be a people whose memory span is very short, and yet we seldom forgive those who inflicted pain on us in the past.
Now is the time that we, too, should be generous and magnanimous. We should be capable of forgiving our past enemies and embracing them. We do not need to be those who are constantly resentful and full of grudges. In the eyes of foreigners, we have completely forgiven North Korea these days, even though millions of people were killed during the Korean War caused by the invasion of the North. If it is true, why not extend such generosity to other countries?
If we cannot overcome the past grudges, we will not be able to be esteemed by other countries. In his graphic narrative, “Far Countries and Close Countries,” graphic novelist Rhie Won-bok writes, “There are quite a few wealthy countries and strong countries in the world. But few countries are respected by other countries. Korea should be the country that can earn respect from the world.”
Suppose you have a boyfriend or a husband who is obsessed with the past and doggedly digs in your past history of relationships with other men. Or suppose you have a boyfriend or a husband who does not care about your past and wants to move on toward a bright future with you. Which one is more charming and admirable? With whom would you want to spend the rest of your life?
Watching “Battleship” in 2019, I wished that we, too, could have the same generosity of those who could forgive and forget.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.