The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-45

picture: The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-45
2 June 2009


I'd imagine there's a fair few Midnight Eye readers out there who won't be too familiar with the type of films made during the fifteen-year period that marked Japan's attempts at militaristic expansion across Asia up until the country's surrender to the Allies in 1945. Subtitled DVD releases of wartime films are negligible and overseas screenings of the more bombastically propagandist works are incredibly rare. Unsurprisingly, both the cultural agencies who provide the funding necessary to promote older titles to foreign audiences and the major film companies who were active in producing these films at the time, such as Shochiku and especially Toho, aren't particularly keen on airing their dirty laundry to the outside world. Then there's the question of how many of these films are still in existence, and whether there's many in the West particularly interested in looking at the other side of the conflict, through the eyes of the enemy.

Peter High's invaluable The Imperial Screen has undoubtedly found itself overlooked due to these factors, not helped by the fact that it was published in 2003, a year when the world was emotively divided amongst the pro- and anti-war camps following the invasion of Iraq, with the majority of people during this fervent period possibly not interested in a sober analysis of where propaganda begins and ends and the mechanisms by which, over a period of time, the State can incrementally commandeer the media for its purposes. Still, there's no specific references to nor analogies drawn with the global "War on Terror" within its hefty 586 pages, perhaps unsurprisingly given the years High must have spent researching and putting together the book, which was originally written and published in Japanese back in 1995.

I'll say it straight away, The Imperial Screen is a monumental achievement, and an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in not only film history, but general history too. Beginning with Japanese audiences' first exposure to war on screen, with the newsreels of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) providing early producers such as M. Pathe and the Yokota Company with their most popular material, and following Japan's near-bystander role in the First World War, the narrative unfolds primarily after the Manchurian Incident of 1931, looking at the "mass tenko" (ideological conversion) of the nation's educated elite, its writers, filmmakers, artists and other public intellectuals, and how this had a trickle down effect among the general public. This is revealed to have been an incremental process, although occurred in conjunction with the sudden saturation of the media into everyday life, with the arrival of radio broadcasting in 1925 and the rapid expansion in print journalist leading to a number of 'Phantom Events' - "scandals, "sensations," rages and eerie bouts of mass hysteria" - such as the "Lover's Suicide Rage" of 1932-33, in which a single reported incident became reworked out of all proportion, leading to a number of copycat suicides and at least one immediate film, A Love that Reached Heaven (Tengoku ni Musubu Koi) directed by Heinosuke Gosho for Shochiku in 1932. Other news flare-ups from the period include the Manchurian Incident itself, and the Abe Sada Incident of 1936, which provided the inspiration for a number of later films, most notably Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses in 1976. (I sit here writing this in the midst of coverage of the 'swine flu' pandemic, reflecting upon, as many others have done, the role of our 24-hour rolling news culture on, among other things, the current global financial crisis.)

On the other hand, there were the authorities' attempts to control what made it out into the public arena. Early attempts at controlling cinema's content and exhibition practices were overseen by the Metropolitan Police, before becoming increasingly centralized after the first national law pertaining to film censorship was issued in 1925 by the Home Ministry, paving the way for later developments such as the nefarious Film Law of 1939 and its subsequent revisions. High details other relevant developments outside of the world of film too, such as Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 due to criticism of its annexation of Manchuria and how the pamphlet "The Essence of National Polity" was issued by the Ministry of Education in 1937 decreeing that the divine origins and genealogy of the Emperor should be taught in schools, to give context to the shift in style that occurred around this time, from "humanist", war-is-hell-type dramas to "spiritist" war films eulogising the Japanese spirit (Yamato-damashii) and its traditions of loyalty, austerity and self-sacrifice.

Things took another dramatic turn following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought Japan into direct conflict with the West. The final years of the war, in which production plummeted due to a shortage of film stock and other resources, are particularly poignantly described. With many of the cinemas in the nation's largest cities destroyed in America's fire-bombing campaign, "special solace" showings were arranged in areas where no screens remained, the films projected onto sheets suspended on the side of buildings. How much "solace" some of the films would have provided is another matter. The fall of Saipan in 1944, which saw Japan's defeat become a quite possible reality, coincided with a new 'kamikaze' genre, with releases of loathsome 'recruitment' films including Kajiro Yamamoto's Torpedo Squadron Moves Out (Raigekitai Shutsudo, 1944), the documentary Army Special Squad (Rikugun Tokubetsu Kogekitai, 1945) and Tadashi Imai's Love and Vows (Ai to Chikai, 1945). This last, now-lost title, which was aimed specifically at recruiting Korean youths to sacrifice their lives for the empire, represents a particular blot on the copy book of its director, later celebrated for the leftwing humanism of his postwar works. There were more lighthearted works too, however, such as the films of the diminutive comic Enoken (Kenichi Enomoto).

Aside from fictional works (both contemporary and period dramas), there's also due focus on the culture film (bunka eiga) documentaries, which became a major fixture on the nation's screens following their mandatory screening under the Film Law. Other areas covered include the film companies set up by Japan in its overseas colonies, such as the Manchuria Film Association which made an unlikely star out of Yoshiko Yamaguchi (see our interview with author Ian Buruma); analyses of portrayals of the enemy 'other', in other words the ABCD adversaries (America, Britain, China, Dutch), and the Asian colonial subjects of the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea etc.; and the doomed collaborative attempt with Nazi Germany, The Daughter of the Samurai (also known as The New Earth / Atarashiki Tsuchi, 1937), with its two versions of the same story, credited to Dr Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami respectively, featuring, among others, Ozu's "eternal virgin" Setsuko Hara and Hollywood's first major Japanese star, Sessue Hayakawa.

Aside from looking at the films themselves, many of which are lost (there's an interesting passage describing Toho's attempts at destroying all their prints and negatives when they learnt of Japan's imminent defeat, in order to avoid recriminations from the Occupying forces), one of the crucial draws of the book is High's description of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the main companies of the era under their presidents, several of whom were subsequently indicted for war crimes. There's too few writers working in the field of Japanese film at the moment who remember that cinema is first and foremost an industry, whose primary concern is profit, and as such is run by businessmen, not filmmakers. It is to High's immense credit that he manages to detail in such a lively fashion the processes by which what was originally seen as a decadent, frivolous and unruly milieu was co-opted into the war effort. And let us not forget, the period not only shaped the careers of so many established filmmakers, such as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but also provided a springboard for a new generation, including Akira Kurosawa and the special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, whose impressive recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (Hawai-Mare Oki Kaisen, 1942) prefigured his lavish scenes of destruction in the Godzilla films. Animation also received a boost, with Japan's first feature-length work in the field, Seo Mitsuyo's Momotaro, Eagle of the Sea (Momotaro no Umiwashi, 1943) made possible due to financial backing from the navy.

There are obvious lessons to be learned here, as High explains in the closing pages, but also a sense of sympathy for those caught up in the maelstrom: "After stripping away the hokum of postwar rationalizations - of having been misled, of madness, or of having to work under the gun - one thoroughly convincing motivation remains: the desire to keep working and thereby redeem one's worth from the remorseless flood of time. Who among us today could say we would not have done the same thing under similar circumstances?"

The above is just a cursory overview of the fascinating and thought-provoking material contained within The Imperial Screen. Exhaustive yet never exhausting, High's cogent historical analysis is certainly THE book when it comes to this murky period in film history. A riveting read.


The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-45

picture: cover of 'The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-45'
Peter B. High
University of Wisconsin Press (2003)