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From Propaganda To Reflection: How Japanese Cinema Has Dealt With World War II

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 10:18 PM by leakbrewergator

Japan entered World War II as a nation that had not been conquered in its entire history. In fact, at the time of the Battle of Midway in 1942, Japan had gone nearly 3 and a half centuries without a single defeat. Not since the Japanese retreat from Korea in 1597 had Japan’s military been repelled. Japan had been at war since its occupation of Manchuria in 1928.For nearly 14 years, Japan’s military had enjoyed staggering success in its quest to create a Pacific Empire.


Of course Japan’s success would not last for very long. After the Battle of Midway, and with America’s “Island-hopping” campaign in the Pacific, Japan suffered defeat after defeat. The atomic bomb brought a sudden and dramatic end to Japan’s quest for Empire. Japan now had to deal with something that it had never had to deal with before: defeat.



Japanese cinema has not dealt with World War II in the voluminous manner that most Western nations have. Nevertheless, the film industry of Japan offers a great deal of variety when it comes to World War II cinema. The cinema during the war was, of course, entirely propaganda. The films were usually commissioned by political leaders and were used to hide the mounting losses of the war to the Japanese people. The post-war (Showa) period of Japan focused on separating the present from pre-1945 Japan. After the Showa period, Japanese World War II films can be divided into two distinct categories: that of anti-war films and films that show Japan as a heroic combatant that was unmercifully bombed into submission with a new and terrible weapon. This incredibly fascinating blog post will discuss the transition of Japanese cinema throughout these periods.



Japan during the war years was a very rigid hierarchical society. Highly restrictive institutions were established to keep a populace in check during a period that saw Japan’s entrance into the war as well as a tremendous depression. The sole purpose of schools during this period was to indoctrinate children to a militaristic society that was wholly devoted to the service of the Emperor. These teachings would gain even more significance after what is internationally known as the “Manchurian Incident.”



The Manchurian Incident involved the Japanese occupation of Manchuria after a mysterious bombing of a railway in the Chinese province in 1928. This incident along with the Japanese invasion of Indo-China set Japan on a collision course for war with America.




The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 officially made Japan and the United States combatants in the war. Pearl Harbor was an absolute success for the Japanese military machine. This success would be used in a purely propagandist film a year later in a movie entitled,
Hawai Mare oki Kaisen (1942). The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay, as is its English title, was directed by Kajiro Yamamoto. The film was made to commemorate the one year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film showed the complete destruction of American ships by Japanese dive bombers and was the pinnacle of Japan’s propaganda films. Despite the film’s subject matter, Yamamoto put together an exquisite combination of real footage and battlefield reproductions using miniatures. Yamamoto’s film would be used in the later years of the war as a means of boosting public morale.




Taking into account Japan’s political climate during the war, it is not surprising that the first anime film to ever be created in 1945 was a propaganda film. Matsuyo Seo’s
Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei or Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors was the first propaganda film geared towards children to be made during the war in any nation. The anime glorified Japan’s occupation of Asia. The movie went along with the official government’s statement that Japan was “liberating” its Asian neighbors from harsh colonial rule. Divine Sea Warriors followed a group of animals dressed as Japanese pilots as they traveled through their newly conquered lands. The entire film was set to an eerie chorus of children singing throughout the background.




Both
The War at Sea and Divine Sea Warriors are exemplary films, albeit entirely propaganda. Both of the films would be shown repeatedly throughout Japan until the American occupation of Japan at the war’s conclusion. The American occupation itself ushered in a new period of Japanese film making and the way filmmakers dealt with World War II as a topic. This period is known as the Showa Period.


The Showa Period in Japan is marked by political uncertainty and tremendous social change in the archipelago. Despite the political and social upheaval, the Japanese film industry continued to produce films about the war. As was discussed earlier in this essay, the Japanese felt that the films of post-war Japan should distinguish themselves from those of pre-war Japan. This was due to the fact that the Japanese believed that there was a need to separate their current situation from the “polluted” past.




Contrary to the propaganda films of the war years, the post-war films showed the Japanese as victims of the war. They were victims of subtle Allied aggression, Chinese nationalists’ attacks, and most importantly, themselves. This latter victimization is known as “self-victimization.” The Japanese people felt that they had fallen victim to pre-1945 militarism and that their military had been dragged into the war by an elite few who would benefit from the war. This theory can be seen in many popular movies later in this period.
Yamamoto Isoroku (1968) and Okinawa Kessen (1971) were among the most popular of these films.





Both of these films portrayed the Japanese as “good, sincere people who were forced to go to war.” These films also showed that the Japanese people suffered greatly as a result of the decision to go to war. Both of these films were also popular because they contained great visual effects for their time and they all focused on famous battles during the war.
Yamamoto Isoroku was directed by Masuyama Seiji. The film starred Toshirō Mifune as Admiral Yamamoto. While the film was more of a biography of the much admired Yamamoto, the apex of the movie was a vivid account of Pearl Harbor. Okinawa Kessen is considered to be director Kihachi Okamoto’s greatest masterpiece. The first half of the film is dedicated to the planning and build up of the Battle of Okinawa. The second half of the film gruesomely portrays the actual battle itself. Perhaps no film of this era has ever captured the suffering of Japanese civilians as Okinawa Kessen. Many later anti-war directors would use Okamoto’s film as a template.


Many directors used World War II and Japan’s defeat as a means to scrutinize Japanese society as a whole. This can be seen in Kunio Watanabe’s
Meiji tennō to nichiro senso (English Title: The Emperor Meiji and The Russo-Japanese War) (1958). This film drew a comparison to the Russo-Japanese War of the early 20th century and World War II. The Russo-Japanese War was portrayed as Japan’s “Good War.” On the other hand, Japan’s involvement in World War II was portrayed as disastrous and ill-conceived. Emperor Hirohito was even portrayed as a less than capable leader. This is something that would have been inconceivable just a few decades earlier.


Another film that scrutinizes Japanese society and its involvement in the war was
Storm Over The Pacific (1960). Storm Over The Pacific follows Lt. Koji Kitami played by Yosuke Natsuki throughout most of the war. Kitami is a pilot aboard the aircraft carrier Hiryu. Kitami remains loyal to his belief in the leaders of Japan’s military throughout the rousing successes of the early Pacific War. However, after the Battle of Midway, Kitami’s faith becomes incredibly shaken. Director Shūe Matsubayashi does a tremendous job of portraying post-war Japanese sentiment about the war through Kitami’s thoughts and dialogue.


One theme that was established in Japanese World War II films during the Showa Period that would be repeated often in later films would be that of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb became the most powerful symbol of Japan’s defeat during this period.
Japan’s Longest Day (1967), directed by Kihachi Okamoto shows the internal struggle that took place among Japan’s leaders on the issue of surrender after the atomic bombs. The film shows that the only reason why the side favoring surrender won out was because of the advent of these new and devastating bombs. Horikawa Hiromichi’s Gunbatsu (1970) also relied on this theme. The film itself was a crude biography of General Tojo that would later be used as a template for modern Japanese “Heroic” World War II films. The film shows that General Tojo was forced to accept Japan’s decision to surrender only after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.




The atomic bomb would play a pivotal role in later Japanese films. Both anti-war films and Heroic Japan films would use the atomic bomb as a mechanism to further develop their stories.



As I have mentioned earlier, Japanese World War II cinema after the Showa Period can be divided into two distinct categories. There are movies that are entirely anti-war. These films argue that the cost of lives and human suffering do not outweigh the potential gains of the war. The fact that Japan lost the war adds more strength to these films' arguments. On the other side of the spectrum are the films that I have defined as “Heroic Japan” films. These films tend to focus on the brave individuals who fought in the war and not the war itself. The “Heroic Japan” films also tend to point out that Japan was only defeated by a devastatingly terrible weapon and not an invading army. The “Heroic Japan” films are usually met with strong public opinion and controversy. However, they tend to achieve greater critical acclaim than their anti-war counterparts.



Anti War films in post Showa Japan have one major common characteristic. They show the plight of all those affected by the war. Perhaps no film has captured this better than the
Human Condition trilogies. This trilogy is entirely anti-war and used the experience of one Japanese soldier to point out the evils of war. Kaji is the main character of the trilogy. Director Masaki Kobayashi sets the tone in the trilogy’s first film, No Greater Love when Kaji refuses to follow orders and abuse helpless Chinese prisoners. Kaji continues to see the worst of human kind as he faces hopeless battles and eventual capture throughout the next two films of the trilogy: Road To Eternity and A Soldier’s Prayer.





Another major focal point of the anti war films is the atomic bomb. The devastation and mass suffering that the two atomic bombs caused is often used as a vehicle for anti war films to drive their points home. Two films in particular have captured this thought brilliantly.
Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and Black Rain (1989) both captured the suffering caused by the atomic bombs in very vivid detail.




Grave of The Fireflies,
Japanese name Hotaru no haka, is an animated film directed by Isao Takahata. This film focuses on the atomic bombs as well as the firebombing of Tokyo. The film focuses on two children that have lost their father in the military as well as their mother in the firebombing of Tokyo. Grave of The Fireflies is the epitome of an anti war film. Takahata refused to glamorize the war as a heroic struggle. Instead, he showed the war as a horrific experience for normal civilians that lived in Japan at the time.


One year later, director Imamura Shohei released his masterpiece,
Black Rain (1989). Black Rain is a black and white film about the bombing of Hiroshima. The film follows a group of survivors that lived on the periphery of the explosion. Instead of focusing on the bomb itself, Black Rain shows the devastating long term effects of the weapon. A group of survivors stumble their way through the rubble of a destroyed Hiroshima helping rescue workers look for other survivors. The film derives its name from the black tears that one of the survivors produces when she begins to cry. It is later learned that the tears turned black due to her exposure to the vast amounts of radiation in the city. Black Rain also shows the plight of the rescue workers who suffer from their exposure to the radiation. Shoei’s filmis still considered the greatest “horrors of war” film to have ever been made.


The second type of Japanese World War II cinema in recent years can be classified as “Heroic Japan” films. These films tend to focus on the individuals in World War II and even go as far as justifying the war in some instances. One such film that focuses on one very controversial figure is
Pride (1998). This film depicts Japanese wartime Prime Minister, General Tōjō Hideki as a heroic leader that is vengefully hounded and executed by the conquering allies.




The interesting aspect about
Pride is that the film reverts back to the propaganda films that dominated Japan during the war years. Pride was funded by right-wing ideological interest groups that sought to restore Japan’s past glory as a military power. The film argued the viewpoint that Japan should have been exonerated from its war with China at the onset of World War II because they were provoked into war by Chinese Communists. Pride was met with very stiff public protests in Japan as well as in China due to its controversial subject matter.


The “Heroic Japan” film has dominated the recent releases with the World War II genre in Japan. Two recent films that I have classified in this category are
Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean (2005) and For Those We Love (2007). Both of these films did tremendously well at the Japanese box office despite being met with protests overseas.




Lorelei: Witch of the Pacific Ocean
was directed by Shinji Higuchi and released in 2005. The film features a fictional Japanese submarine that successfully thwarted a third atomic bomb attack by the United States. Lorelei was heavily criticized for its glorification of Japanese exploits during the war. The movie also rekindled an old Japanese notion that the Axis powers were in fact victimized by the war. The notion that the Allied powers were willing to drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo was another aspect of the film that invited heavy criticism. This was used to further illustrate the film’s point that the Japanese were indeed the victims. Despite the film’s controversies, Lorelei uses an impressive combination of special effects and story telling that made it a huge success in Japan.


Taku Shinjo’s
For Those We Love was released in 2007 amid a tremendous amount of protests from Australia. The film was the first feature film to deal with the infamous kamikaze pilots of World War II. Shinjo did a masterful job of showing the kamikaze pilots in a very humanizing light throughout the film. For Those We Love often showed the pilot’s dilemma of dying in the service of their Emperor, whom they loved, and surviving the war to be with their families, who they obviously loved as well. The film’s controversy begins when the kamikaze pilot’s actions are often glamorized throughout the film. The pilot’s suicidal plunges into Allied warships are shown as being very courageous and honorable. On the other hand, the film portrays the Allied forces as brutal aggressors with no honor or sense of service.


With the recent success of these “Heroic Japan” films, there is no reason to doubt that they will continue to be produced even in the face of foreign criticisms. Often times these films have higher budgets and attract better directors and more well known actors. There are still dozens of World War II films that can be made for Japanese audiences. Perhaps there will be a new found appreciation for these films so that there will no longer be a dearth of material available for those who wish to study World War II films in Japan.



As one can see, Japanese cinema has portrayed World War II in many different fashions. First, Japanese World War II films were entirely propaganda. This was necessary due to the circumstances surrounding the war at the time. The films of Showa Period Japan attempted to separate Post-War Japan from its Pre-War society. More recently, Japanese cinema has been divided into two distinct categories. That of anti-war films, and those films that portray Japan as being heroic and honorable throughout the war. All of these films show a great deal of how Japanese society as a whole chooses to deal with World War II and the Japanese role in it.
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  1. Old Comment
    Wow!!! Congratulations and a million thanks for sharing with us this superb review; IMHO the best essay I have read so far in Historum.

    The perception of this war by the Japanese during and after the war itself to this very day has always been a great enigma for yours truly.

    As a minor observation, I couldn't help but notice that you wrote(SIC): [quote][SIZE=2] Horikawa Hiromichi’s [I]Gunbatsu [/I](1970) ... was a crude biography of General Tojo ... The film shows that General Tojo was forced to accept Japan’s decision to surrender only after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[/SIZE] [/quote] Hideki Tojo resigned as Prime Minister and retired to seclusion on July 18, 1944; was this a mistake from Hiromichi?
    Posted May 8th, 2011 at 12:58 AM by sylla1 sylla1 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    leakbrewergator's Avatar
    Thanks for the kind words sylla. It means a lot!

    I wouldn't say it was a mistake by Hiromichi. There were a few errors in that film that were done on purpose. The film glorified Tojo immensely and often placed him in historical places that he was not a part of. That's why I called it a "crude" biography.

    Thanks again for the feedback, sylla!
    Posted May 8th, 2011 at 07:16 AM by leakbrewergator leakbrewergator is offline
  3. Old Comment
    HammockHank's Avatar
    From what I've read and watched of the video's it looks like a really fine job. I noticed that you wrote this bit and have to question it's accuracy though;

    In fact, at the time of the Battle of Midway in 1942, Japan had gone nearly 3 and a half centuries without a single defeat. Not since the Japanese retreat from Korea in 1597 had Japan’s military been repelled.

    If you mean that Japan had not lost a war then I guess it's yes but if it's a battle then you should update that. Japan lost at least two engagements against the USSR in 1939; the most well known is the Nomohan battle. Against China in at least two cases the IJN was thrown back by Nationalist forces at Changsa. Against the Us the first invasion of Wake Island was defeated as was the invasion of Port Moresby at the battle of the Coral Sea. Oh, and go Heat ;-)
    Posted May 20th, 2011 at 02:59 PM by HammockHank HammockHank is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Lawnmowerman's Avatar
    I saw a film a while back about Japanese soldiers in the Phillipines. They eventually resorted to eating there dead and othe depraved acts. Do you know the name of the film????
    Posted June 2nd, 2011 at 07:44 AM by Lawnmowerman Lawnmowerman is offline
  5. Old Comment
    leakbrewergator's Avatar
    How old was it? It sounds like it could be Fires on the Plain.
    Posted June 2nd, 2011 at 08:09 AM by leakbrewergator leakbrewergator is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Woofinator9's Avatar
    two words interesting yet weird
    Posted November 13th, 2012 at 05:37 PM by Woofinator9 Woofinator9 is offline
 
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