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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Royal foibles on parade

Recent works expose two very different paths to preserving regal dignity

Special to The Japan Times

Back when Princess Diana was still alive and causing heartburn for the House of Windsor, an editorial in The New York Times addressed the question of whether or not Britain should retain the monarchy. Speaking from a characteristically American viewpoint, the paper said, "Of course they should keep it -- for our amusement."

News photo
Queen Elizabeth II (played by Helen Mirren) enjoys greater popularity following the film "The Queen."

This weekend, the Oscar-winning movie "The Queen" arrives in Japan, thus providing an opportunity to compare the level of amusement that the British royal family provides with that offered by Japan's own royal family. While Japan's royals are not nearly as accessible as their British counterparts, we are fortunate to have in Ben Hills' controversial new book, "Princess Masako," an artifact that makes the comparison a little easier.

Around the time Dame Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar in late February for her performance in "The Queen," there were reports in the entert- ainment press that she had been invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the woman she portrayed, Queen Elizabeth II. The film's director, Stephen Frears, and its screenwriter, Peter Morgan, were supposedly also invited. There was even an announcement from a palace official that seemed to confirm the invitations.

Weeks later, however, Mirren told Fox News that she never received such an invitation. "And I wouldn't tell you if I did," she added.

The confusion over whether the palace ever really asked Mirren to tea adds an extra layer to the irresistible aura surrounding "The Queen": Here's a film that its makers admit is speculation about what went on during a very public crisis in the very private quarters of a monarch who is still on the throne. Though she dedicated her Academy Award to the 80-year-old queen in her acceptance speech, Mirren is said to be a republican, and she told Fox News that she's glad she wasn't invited: What would they talk about?

Well, they could discuss the movie. But there's another unknown: Has the queen seen "The Queen?" Palace officials say she hasn't and doesn't intend to. As with Mirren's snippy aside, the queen might never admit to viewing the film even if she had. Whatever concessions the royal family has made to modern media realities, protocol says you do not acknowledge things like "The Queen."

That's the whole point of the film, which focuses on the week following the death of Diana in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. The royal family saw it as a private tragedy, but the queen's subjects, moved by new Prime Minister Tony Blair's eulogy describing Diana as the "people's princess," turned against the Windsors for not openly mourning with them. The royals resisted as long as they could because they felt it was unbecoming to make a public spectacle of Diana's death. But more importantly it wasn't in their job description.

The greatest irony is that, according to The Daily Mail, the film has boosted the queen's image among her subjects. No one was as surprised at this development as Morgan was. "As far as I am aware," the screenwriter told the paper, "I wrote about a cold, emotionally detached, haughty, difficult, prickly, private, uncommunicative, out-of-touch bigot."

Despite the tenor of those adjectives, Morgan is confident that no one who sees the movie will think it's "a hatchet job," a term that Japan's Imperial Household Agency would probably use to describe Hills' book.

Unlike Buckingham Palace, which tries not to comment on such things, the IHA has vented its spleen, accusing Hills of gross disrespect toward the Imperial family and the Japanese people. The fact that Morgan's script is classed as fiction and Hills' book as journalism is not the distinction here. The distinction is in the reaction. Palace officials understand that any recognition of the movie under- mines the royal family's position. They must remain above that sort of thing. The IHA, however, sees public relations as its chief bureaucratic mandate, and inherent in that mandate is defending the Imperial family -- and itself -- from anything that smacks of lese majeste.

The IHA's reaction to "Princess Masako," however, was overblown. The agency has accused Hills of exaggerat- ion, insult and fabrication, citing more than 100 "mistakes" in his re-creation of Masako's rocky road to reclusiveness, and it has demanded an apology.

Hills' response has also been overblown. In the free Tokyo English-language weekly Metropolis, the Australian writer explained how the IHA had tried to censor the Japanese-language edition of the biography, which publisher Kodansha has since abandoned. He compares his fate to that of "The Rape of Nanking" author Iris Chang, whose original Japanese publisher also succumbed to pressure and dropped the translation.

Regardless of the IHA's heavy- handedness and disregard for freedom of speech, the topic in question seems unworthy of such an extreme analogy; the problems of one depressed princess seem hardly comparable to the slaughter of tens of thousands.

Though not hack work, "Princess Masako" displays all the hallmarks of tabloid journalism: a breezy, conspiratorial tone and conclusions based more on speculation and the opinions of others than on corroborated facts. Even the subtitle is unmistakably lurid: "Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne: The Tragic True Story of Japan's Crown Princess."

Hills wants to show that Masako Owada, an ambitious young woman with a promising career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was fooled into thinking she could somehow make a difference by marrying Crown Prince Naruhito -- when in fact all she was expected to do was produce a male heir. When she didn't do that, she was bullied by the IHA and driven to depression. These are not startling revelations to most Japanese people, even if the details have never been presented in such a clear, systematic way.

The fascination people have for celebrities is based on the paradoxical pull between schadenfreude and sympathy. We delight in Britney Spears' public breakdown while at the same time deriding the media's stalking tactics. Because most of the world's royalty no longer have any practical purpose except as symbols of state, their only interest to us is as arbitrarily privileged individuals on whom we project our hopes and fears. Diana wasn't the first royal to generate tabloid headlines, but more than any of her peers and predecessors, her candor tested the ability of her handlers to navigate the choppy waters of public relations.

"The Queen" basically shows how the Windsors finally gave in to the tabloid aspect of their existence. When she died, Diana had already divorced Prince Charles and was thus no longer a member of the royal family. Thanks to Diana's ingenious manipulation of her tabloid fame, however, the public still considered her royalty, at least in their hearts, and after her death forced the queen to acknowledge her as such.

The Imperial family's tabloid exist- ence is slightly different. The IHA keeps the Emperor and his brood on such short leashes that nothing compelling about their lives is revealed in the mainstream media. It's not so much that the public believes it when the weeklies suggest Masako suffers from clinical depression, or that the Crown Prince's younger brother likes to make whoopee when he goes to Thailand to research catfish, but there's nothing much else about the royals to engage their attention.

The most contentious aspect of Hills' book, as far as the IHA is concerned, is his assertion that Princess Aiko, Princess Masako's only child, is the product of in vitro fertilization, a conclusion he reaches deductively. But there are many more nominally scanda- lous theories about Aiko's birth touted by housewives who claim their intelligence is just common knowledge. Gossip is what you get when you give people nothing they can reasonably believe.

If the IHA has, as Hills put it, "shot itself in the foot" by making a big thing out of "Princess Masako," that untoward attention has also blown the book's importance out of proportion. It's a fast but dull read. Unsurprisingly, Hills did not speak to the principals of his story, but he talked to people who have been close to Masako, her family or the Crown Prince, and they don't have much to relate. In chapters about Masako's time at university, all the interviewees say the same thing: she studied hard and didn't have a social life. Naruhito comes across unsurprisingly as naive and colorless. At least with the Windsors you get titillating human foibles: Prince Philip is a pompous windbag and Charles a cry baby. Even in tabloid terms, the Imperial family is a boring bunch. The only interesting thing about them is their victimization by bureaucrats, and, given their standard of living, that's only interesting for a minute.

Both "The Queen" and "Princess Masako" imply the irrelevance of royals in a world where people gain more spiritual sustenance from pop stars and reality-show contestants than they do from symbols of unity and tradition. If "The Queen" is a more entertaining and thought-provoking work, it's because it's more straightforward in this regard.

"Freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters," is how one Labour Party worker describes the Windsors in the movie. The outburst may be disresp- ectful, but at least it demonstrates a definite emotional engagement with the subject. The strongest feeling you take away from "Princess Masako" is a kind of shrugging pity.

For a film review of "The Queen":
Interpreting a right royal mess

See Friday's Film page for Giovanni Fazio's review of "The Queen."

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