Covert dissent in wartime cinema?

Alexander Jacoby a_p_jacoby at
Fri Nov 4 06:02:10 EST 2005

Dear Sam,
At the risk of taking issue with Peter B. High, who clearly knows more about this subject than almost anyone else in the world... I don't think things are quite so clear-cut. Particularly if you're considering the early and mid thirties (ie, the period of empire-building on the Asian mainland, rather than just the Pacific War). Peter's book outlines the gradual tightening of censorship during the period - the introduction of guidelines for scriptwriters in 1938, the Film Law in 1939, the invention of the concept of kokumin eiga in 1941; it follows that it became gradually more and more difficult to make films critical of or counter to the prevailing ideology. But the fact that this increasing codification and extension of censorship was necessary sort of demonstrates that before this, and during the period when Japan was already at war in Asia, some studios and directors were producing work not exactly to the taste of the authorities. If everyone had been toeing the line, re!
 tightening of censorship would not have been necessary.
I'd like to point to Hiroshi Shimizu's thirties work - particularly, the treatment of Korean and Chinese characters in Mr Thankyou and in Forget Love for Now. Now, nowhere does Shimizu explicitly say (he couldn't, of course, even if he thought so): It's a bad thing that we should be in Korea and Manchuria, and let's get out. On the other hand, the portrayal of the foreign characters is in both cases sympathetic, and particularly in Mr Thankyou, he stresses the powerlessness of the Korean labourers, about to be sent off to Shinshu at the whim of their overseers. I wouldn't claim that this is radically subversive. It's just possible, however, that it might have had some effect in reminding intelligent and sensitive viewers at the time that Koreans were human beings too, and that - just maybe - they weren't being treated with great benevolence by their Japanese masters. Not that this had any chance of reversing the course of history (since when did art achieve that, anyway?) bu!
 t I still
 think it was a decent thing to do, and it's worth discussion as a subtle expression of opposition to the prevailing ideology.
A general issue is that censorship usually protects certain sacred cows more than others. In America, for instance, it was possible during the era of the Hays/Breen Office for Hollywood to produce numerous films which were progressive in terms of their sexual politics. Hollywood feminism had its limits, but feminist attitudes seem not to have been so subversive as to require repression. Capitalism was more stringently protected, though it's still possible for some films (eg Capra's) to be critical of unscrupulous business practices. Religion was almost unchallengeable. These facts tells us quite a lot about the censors' scale of values, about what they assume it is most vital to defend. A corollary of this fact is that it's usually extremely difficult for filmmakers to be subversive in certain ways, and much easy for them to be subversive in other ways. If you are going to proceed with your essay, I'd think about what elements of the dominant ideology were more and less impo!
 and which, therefore, it was possible for certain filmmakers to subvert.
Even if "no one" (for which, in reality, read very few people) noticed subversive elements in films of the time, I think Peter's comment about spitting in the soup of a hated customer is unnecessarily belittling. Surely, trying to maintain one's personal integrity in the face of adverse circumstances doesn't deserve to be characterised in such terms.
I should admit to a personal interest in this, since my soon-to-be-published essay on Shimizu's Ornamental Hairpin is about the strategies available to dissenting filmmakers in the period of militarism. I don't, by the way, argue that the film is radically subversive, only that it's subtly opposed to certain aspects of the prevailing ideology. And this was a film made as late as 1941. Peter will no doubt disapprove of the project; I hope he won't mind that I've quoted his book a few times...
Re Toyoda - I've never seen Crybaby Apprentice - but I don't think Toyoda's politics (the politics of his films, I mean) are very coherent in any case. This is because he was a kind of cinema du papa figure who was happy to turn his hand to any literary adaptation. For clarification of this in the late thirties, compare the treatment of Christianity in Young People and in Winter Lodging. I don't really think his fifties work is any more coherent, either in ideological or stylistic terms.

All the best,

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