Covert dissent in wartime cinema?

Peter High peterbhigh2004 at
Thu Nov 3 12:40:54 EST 2005


At the risk of seeming to straight-arm a long time "lurker" who has finally summoned up the temerity to enter the fray, I feel I must respond to Sam's query with a@rather brusque "fergeddit!"  But don't worry, Sam, you're not the first and are unlikely the last to stray into this particular sand pit. It's an issue I've addressed before--in the intro to "The Imperial Screen," most recently--but you've gotten me to thinking about it again and , hopefully, I may be able to come up with a reformulation of my thinking. So here goes...

But wait.Before launching into a general discourse on the puerility of attempting to devine "covert intentions," maybe I'd better begin by polishing off the candidates you profer in your last paragraph. a) "Earth": Even contemporary critics marvelled at how the Uchida Tomu film had de-fanged the bitter social criticism of Nagatsuka Takashi's original, "naturalist" novel. As for Uchida, himself, we can find no apparent war resistance in any of his wartime features. b)"Crybaby Apprentice": I'm not quite sure what you think you've found there on your own (and for heaven's sake pass on whatever insights you've achieved to the rest of us! ...seriously), but  I must point out that with the opening of the "China Incident," the author of the original, Hayashi Fumiko, turned into a rhapsodic war hawk, a la Phylis Schafly, if not exactly Anne Coulter. c) the "tendency" films petered out soon after the Manchurian Incident of 1931 (i.e. long before the commencement of the Incident), and!
 often sneered at by contemporary observers as "socialist-capitalist photo-plays."  To top things off, two of their best-known directors quickly (within  two or three years) went on to direct blatently pro-militarist documentary features while taking on very prominent positions in the bureaucratic "control" structure.


First off we must recognize that after the demise of the Purokino movement in the early-mid thirties, there was virtually no celluloid samizdat activity in wartime Japan. If there was, we should have heard of it by now. There were no Michael Moores secretly circulating overt, in-your-face, anti-state exposes.Anti-state cinematic activity would have had to have been  carried out in a most serruptitious manner, deeply coded into an otherwise politically conformist film.Any code  discernible as a kind of roman-a-clef would have been instantly busted by the censors, who knew a thing or two themselves.

This being the case, what is a modern researcher to do so long after the fact?

 I would like to propose that looking for resistance/dissent in japanese wartime features is like playing rock songs backward to discover secret (usually satanic) messages or trying to find "number correspondences" running through the 9-11 event. I choose these two instances because  both exercises have in fact turned up eerie phantoms that, to those inclined inclined to a belief in communications from an occult beyond, suggest something more meaningful than mere coincidence. But "meaningful" to what? The problem is the context.  In the first instance, the backward "messages" were found and served up by people who were committed to proving that rock'n roll was all part of, literally, a hellish cabal to bring the world's youth to damnation. The second had/has meaning mostly to those  who see the world as undergirded and moved by pararational forces.  To the rest of us, they're mere anomalies tweaking our curiosity and sending a satisfying chill down the spine--and then, witho!
 ut any
 meaningful context for us, they are allowed to pass off as "just one of those things"--mysterious but without any significance we can fathom 

Similarly, tweezing out covert messages of dissent, usually in the wartime works of directors whose postwar reputations were grounded on their impeccably "progressive" posture (and who therefore somehow needed to rationalize their wartime collaboration), became a cottage industry of the Aka Hata (Red Flag--the party organ of the JCP) crowd.This is what they did for Yamamoto Satsu and most especially for Imai Tadashi, who was indeed a fine social critic in his postwar work but who during the war turned his talents to some of the most egregiously blatant (evil, in fact)  propaganda projects of the time--his last film, which mercifully was suspended on August 15 1945, was an attempt to seduce Korean youths into the cockpits of kamikaze planes.

In other words, searching for such secret messages is usually an activity of those who already have a stake in finding, almost inevitably (mirabile dictu!) they do.

"Ah!" you say, "but that doesn't disqualify the objective, unaffiliated researcher from trying his hand, does it? Surely there is something to be found!"

Well, Sam, maybe there is. But how do you go about finding it?  The principals--the writers and the directors themselves, along with their trusted, usually much younger assistant directors--are almost all dead.  Yes, some of them did make claims of secret resistance before they passed on. But surely we can't swallow such self-serving statements at face value.

Then there is the most renowned case of "covert resistance"--Kamei Fumio, of "Fighting Soldiers" and "Kobayashi Issa" fame. Both works were used by the Interior Ministry policeinvestigators as evidence  of "seditious propaganda" during the war in order to throw him into the "pig box" (jail). And indeed when we look at "Soldiers" in particular there are numerous scenes filled with--how shall we say?--apparently anti-war aporia, But...BUT, on at least two occasions Kamei explicitly stated he was not consciously making anti-war statements..."quite the contrary." Well, what are we to believe?

Similarly, the famous send-off scene at the very end of Kinoshita's "Army"--which makes us weep even today and apparently ired not a few especially zealous guardians of the national war spirit at the time--was applauded by others as a magnificent portrayal of a courageously selfless Militarist Mother (gunkoku no haha)--"inspirational," in fact. 

So what are we to believe? What we want to, of course.

Now for those really, really covert messages--the ones extractable only through the hermeneutic cunning of the modern-day researcher; the one's so cleverly fashioned as to slip by the dull witted censors. First off, those censors were far from dull witted. Almost all of them had a far more sensitive and critical eye than any but the tiniest nano-fraction of the film-going public (indeed some went on to become film scholars after the war!).

Anyway, let's say Director "A" did manage to slip in an anti-war/anti-establishment message--in fact film critic/historian Fujita Motohiko makes a fairly convincing case for such a message micro-dotted into Inagaki Hiroshi's "Umi o Wataru Sairei.." What possible significance could it have? It would have to be beyond subtle, indeed almost invisible, to get past the censors, right? And believe me, there would be career-ruining hell to pay if the company management got wind of it. The only significance would be self-gratification, not unlike a chef who serruptitiously spits into the food he is making for a patron he despises.And what are we to think of such an act, one which have gone completely unobserved by almost anyone in the audience.

Finally, if there was indeed a sub-raza, covert message capable of being communicated to an audience, we would have heard of it by nnow. Within weeks of the fall of Communism in the various Iron Curtain countries we began getting accounts of the samizdat culture there (in fact we were hearing about it for decades before). As far as I know, there are no testimonials by contemporary film goers claiming toi have been a part of a select cogniscenti who could "read" anti-state messages implanted in wartime films. None.


So, Sam, what's my final suggestion? Try running the films backward. Just maybe...


Peter B. High




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