Covert dissent in wartime cinema?

Peter High peterbhigh2004 at
Sat Nov 5 22:08:11 EST 2005

 Sincere thanks to Messrs. Jacoby and McCaskey for their kind remarks about me and my book. In all honesty, however, I must point out that I really don't deserve the "most knowledgable in the world" kudo proferred by Alex. First there is Makino Mamoru, the proprietor and custodian of the most complete of archive of documents on Japanese cinema (books, scripts, magazines and so on) in the world. Not only did he collect his archive, he has spent the better part of his life mining it for a staggering number of authoratative and original  articles. He is truly the most knowledgable of all of us. What is more, he has labored mightily to get books and magazines from bygone eras into reprint so that they will be available to future gereations of scholars. When he talks, he not only has unfathomable depths of erudition to draw upon, he has this astounding ability to parse up the subject under discussion into logical units ("There's four different ways we can interpret this matter," !
 he would
 say, "First...")--a truly marvelous intelellect. Then there is Tanaka Masasumi, who's just put out a string of authorative but perfectly readable works on Ozu, drawing on hitherto largely untapped resources. Reclusive and shy, where Makino is affable and a true lover of intellectual company, I have long since learned to hold my peace when Tanaka  decides to lecture me on one of the many facets of wartime cinema I had no knowledge of. I don't hold a candle to either of these gentlemen. Fortunately (yes, fortunately!) I had almost no personal aquaintance with either of them when when I was writing the Imperial Screen--I would never have had the temerity to even start, let alone actually publish, the project.
In reference  to Alex's points of disagreement--all of which are well taken and give me pause, I might add--I'd like to essay a few counter arguments.
But first, I need to adjust the noose around my neck and pull it a little tighter... by actually bolstering one of Alex's arguments! 
His invocation of Shimizu Hiroshi (Makino Mamoru claims evidence that Shimizu was of Korean anscestry incidentally) reminded me of his 1942 (43?) documentary "Keijo" which I saw at the Yamagata Documentary Film festival about six years back. In at least one extended segment, his camera slowly moves past a line of storefronts in a Korean city, paying special attention to the signs which are all in hangul. 
Its a little like the now-famous tour  Kamei Fumio takes us on in "Pekin" (Beijing). The difference, however, is that Kamei's traveling shots come alive with with street sounds, including snippets of conversation in Chinese caught as we pass by. In my recollection--which admittedly has become somewhat faded with the passage of time--Shimizu's traveling shots feature no such ambient sounds (certainly no Korean conversations) and may have been silent. At that time, one must recall,  the official fiction was that Korea had become absorbed as an integrtal part of domestic Japan and that Koreans had largely converted to the language of the "hondo"  (the Japanese motherland). Shimizu's lingering, but uncommented-upon, shots of the hangul shop signs dramatically undercut that fiction and could plausibly be put forth as an example of "dissidence" on the part of the director.
Vitiating this line of argument, however, is that the following year, Imai Tadashi's  "Suicide Troops of the Watchtower"--a "Beau Geste"-like action piece set in northern Korea with all the hallmarks of a stridently National Policy film--actually foregrounds the politics of language and features many scenes of Koreans speaking their own language when they are together and of their Japanese "colleagues" relying on translators to communicate with them. In other words, the official fiction of the demise of the Korean language was not set in stone and was, in all likelihood, in retreat by the time Shimizu made his documentary. Proof of this comes from several directions. First is the fact that throughout the entire wartime era the major ministries were in constant internecene conflict (over terrain [kankatsu] and over who should set and/or interpret policy), as were the army , the navy and the Kenpeitai. All but the most basic policies essential to succesful pursuance of the war!
 were fair game for dispute. Since the "official fiction"  described above flew in the face of  reality and actually was relatively ancillary to war effort as such, cooler heads in the various policy circles would have been critical of it and may well have been amenable to its subversion. The fiction seems to have been the brainchild of the Education Ministry which was often in mortal conflict with the Foreign and the Home Ministries, as well as the Cabinet Information Bureau. The second proof follows logically from the first. In 1941 a Korean-made film, "Angels Witout a Home"  was distributed in Japan as an "Education Ministry Recommended Film."  When bureaucrats from the Home Ministry pointed out that all the dialogue was in Korean--in direct contradiction to Education's own policy-- Education attempted an obvious sleight of hand, affixing to all advertising posters a small-print "proviso" suggesting that the film had originally been made in Japanese and that the Korean la!
 version was was not the one they were recommending. By the time of Shimizu's documentary the "official fiction" was clearly in such dissaray (and its authors so completely wrong-footed) that his unverbalized demonstration that the Korean language was alive and well on the peninsula would have re-opened a can of worms no one, especially the Education boys, would have wanted to deal with. By the time Imai's "Suicide Troops" came out, the  "fiction" was clearly all but dead@and part of the subtext of the film was a depiction of how incomplete Korea's transition to the Japanese language actually was.
The point I am driving at here is that instances we may wish to focus on as "dissent" or "resistance" could well have been nothing more than instances of the reality principle ineluctably raising its head.
 Such instances actually--paradoxically--serve as a form of oxygen therapy for for a bureaucracy chronically in the throes of asphyxiation from the fumes of its own "fictions." Reality-denying, as we see in the Bush administration, has a tendency of subverting, over a period of time, the  most vital interests of the denyer. In the above instance, those vital interests would have been securing and maintaining popular support on the peninsula for the Japanese war effort.
In fact, Shimizu's film came at a time when cinema policy toward China was undergoing similar re-tuning on an almost revolutionary scale. In additon to a Home Ministry/Johokyoku directive  reorienting depictions of China away from the image of it as a battleground and toward an emphasis on the "China rebuilds" motif, brighter minds in the bureaucracy and in the film world itself began emerging (mostly, but not exclusively, in the film magazines) worrying about the deleterious influence on Chinese public opinion of such films as the Hasegawa Kazuo/ Ri Koran feature, "China Nights"--films which, while patriotically self-gratifying to Japanese audiences, presented such a distorted, caricaturelike image of the Chinese as to make them anethma among audiences on the mainland. Thereafter ensued the great "chugokujin wo egake!" (depict the Chinese [as they really are]!) campaign resulting in (at least half-hearted) attempts to present a more psychologically realistic portrait of Chi!
 subjectivity and their experience of the war.(Amakasu's reorientation of Man'ei entertainment features targeting Chinese audiences also came at this time). In this context,  many of the "problematic"  (read here "dissident"/"subversive") portions in Kamei Fumio's 1939 docuimentary "Fighting Soldiers" can be seen as early harbingers (too early, as it turned out) of just this policy.
 As a documentarist Kamei's metier was the re-presentation of reality. Common sense told him that the stony-faced crowds watching the Japanese troops entering Hangchou represented a dire threat to the war effort and to Japan's ultimate policy goals on the mainland. The film can, and perhaps should, be viewed as a before-its-time epiphany of the reality principle in service to the nation and even to the state. The early sequences of the film, which strike so many of us today as arrant, anti-militarist subversion of national policy at that time, can be seen as an early attempt to introject the situation of Chinese subjectivity in the face of the devastation the war had brought to their lives and property. It was an antidote to the self-deception inherent in the images of victory-drunk, cheering Japanese troops waving flags atop the gates of the various metropolitan citadels. "Depict the Chinese!" and take a more realistic approach to the pursuance of Japan's real, ultimate war
 goals--in other words, avoid counter-productive imagery (i,e, show the masses of Japanese troops as "tired," rather than ebulliant) and make a concerted effort to "win the hearts and minds" of those stony-faced crowds. What could be more patriotic, more war-supportive than that? And subsequent policy shifts toward greater realism proved hKamei right, a prophet. "But," as the poet says, "humans can endure very little reality." Just as Rush Limbaugh excoriated the outrage over Abu Ghraib as "nearly treasonous," discourse in the law enforcement arm of the Home Ministry was often (but not always) dominated by knee-jerk anti-realistic passions. which tended to confuse the realistic, commonsensical warnings of the loyal opposition with "treason" or subversion. You don't have to be against the Iraq War to be outraged and deeply alarmed by the hideously counterproductive propaganda of the Abu Ghraib atrocities. Kamei, who was arrested, jailed  and (for a time) expelled from the film
 industry, was the victim of a Rush Limbaugh mentality which tended to dominate the prosecutorial agencies of the Home Ministry. It was in fact the most spectacular of their remarkably few inroads into the film industry. The top echelons of the "thought control" apparatus, however, was staffed by eminently realistic administrators.These latter focused on their real goal--eliciting the "free" collaboration of talented creative minds in the war effort--and tendced to abjure "oppression" in favor of "persuasion" in the form of ego-massages and in dandling before the eyes of the convicted "thought" felon the option of rejoining the fold as a productive member  of wartime society. In the case of Kamei, they eventually won out and some twenty months after his arrest, Kamei was back making films on the domestic front for the war effort.
Within the bureaucratic establishment, the ebb and flow between hard-headed, goal-oriented realism and passionate, counter-productive, Limbaugh-like pigheadedness continued throughout the war.One might characterize it as the Scowcroft faction versus the Libby/Rove faction. In the final stages of the war (after the fall of Saipan), the "Scowcroft" pragmatists won out (how they did this is fascinating history, but irrelevant here).The film industry, especially those eager to put their considerable creative talents to use for the nation in its hour of crisis, were keenly sesitive to this ebb and flow. On the surface,the directives the Control Bureaucrats sent down sounded almost draconian and ineluctable, but everyday wisdom told the practitioners of moviemaking that these would inevitably be watered down or even forgotten, if not actually countermanded (that happened sometimes, too). Reading the will-the-wisp vagueries of the policy-makers and trying to devine when and how tre!
 nds would
 shift became a semi-science (like weather forecasting before the satellite age) in the executive boardrooms of the film companies. Film directors, on the set and in the cutting room, also had their fingers lifted to the wind. Sometimes they misread the air currents with dire consequences (meaning that their film was either riddled by the censors or had to be shelved entirely). A classic case in point is, again, Kamei Fumio, whose "Kobayashi Issa" (1941) was put into evidence along with "Fighting Soldiers" as crypto-Communistic propaganda. In all likelihood, he made his film--ostensibly about the home region of the great haiku poet, but actually a treatise on the continuing poverty and semi-feudal conditions of the contemporary farming villages of the area--believing that such a treatment was acceptable in terms of the national policy of encouraging emmigration from overpopulated, soil-depleted rural areas to the "New Paradise" of Manchuria. Only a year before,  at the same !
 (Toho),Toyoda Shiro had made "Ohinata Village,"  set in precisely the same region as "Kobayashi Issa," with a dark and depressing documentary prologue which actually skewered local capitalists for literally "exploiting" the peasantry.In almost precisely the same vein, Kamei's documentary gave a distinctly non-revolutionary depiction of class conflict, against a background of visuals suggesting that the situation had been brought about more by the inhospitability of the nature of the region (frigid winters and spring crops destroyed by sudden frosts sweeping down from the nearby mountains) than by any inherent flaw in the social situation. The sum effect seemed to suggest that the stolid courage of the farmers was no match for cruelties of local nature. One suspects that Kamei had other fish to fry in the film, however, completely unrelated to its natioanl policy-themed cover. In one extended sequence, which somehow reminds one of Eisenstein's ridicule of religion in "Octobe!
 r,"  he
 implies criticism of the richly garbed, patristic local Buddhist clergey. Without any actual proof, I would guess that it was the iconoclasm of this one sequence (probably betraying privately-held, long-suppressed opinions--which as long as they remained unexpressed constituted no sort of crime during the wartime regime--about the exploitative mendacity of organized religion) which triggered the wrath of the inquisitors among the Home Ministry prosecutors. They put two and two together (the other "two" being his almost year-long sojourn in Soviet Russia as a film student in the twenties) and came up witjh their first cinema world "thought criminal." After that, they used a hostile hermeneutics to backtrack through his previous work (principally "Fighting Soldiers" which had already irritated them with its critical pragmatism and which they had suppressed)..Kamei reports that he was "flabbergasted" by his arrest and the charges brought against him.
Now, turning more directly to Alex's points of disagreement:
a.) Alex begins by stating, "I  don't think things are quite so clear-cut. " 
Of course nothing in history is "clear-cut" and we historians must ever be ready for both the occasional "devastating new evidence" and the more common phenomenon of the gradual accumulation of new material which puts strains on our theoretical paradigms,  eventually causing them  to become untenable. But that's what makes the practice of history so exciting. In relatively new areas of historical research, such as our own, the production of "clear-cut" theses is in my opinion the best way to go forward. As the Good Book puts it, "In the Beginning...all was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Ours is the task of an initial "separating of the waters from the waters, "   which we do by generating forcefully stated theses, based on all available evidence. These latter become the focus of counter arguments which, if they have any merit, animate the subject, breathing life into what was once mere dark matter. Yes, there are personalities in our fiel!
 d who
 seek to turn their theses into a form of orthodoxy--empire builders who follow in the ways of Ozymandius ("Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair!"). But that is foolishness and in utter contradistinction to history's eternally delayed candidacy as a form of "science." In all honesty, I wrote the "Imperial Screen" by swinging from one frail tendril of evidence to another, (conscientiously) making assumptions which could well prove wrong and staking out theses which I actually hoped would draw critical attention--and some few  have already. After the book was published, several key films which I had assumed lost forever came to light. And Makino Mamoru issued reprints of all the editions of the magazines  Nippon Eiga and of Eiga Junpo. There can be no doubt that future scholars, using evidence unavailable to me at the time of writing, will be able to poke holes through some of my theses and to reduce others to a shambles. I wrote the book in the knowledge that, at best, i!
 t would
 provide a springboard to deeper and better-informed inquiry. What a great honor that would be! 
And so I will contiunue to put forward clear-cut theses in the full knowledge that, as Alex so rightly protests, things are never "that clear-cut."
2.) Moving on--Alex goes on to write: "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 [in the early and mid thirties], some studios and directors were producing work not exactly to the taste of the authorities. If everyone had been toeing the line, repeated tightening of censorship would not have been necessary."
As a matter of fact, with some rare exceptions, the film industry almost never satisfied the "authorities." I put the last word in quotes because "authorities," with its monolithic connotations, has become one of my bugaboo words when applied to the wartime situation. It should be confined to the back cover blurb of books on the era and banned from the text. My study of the mechanics of wartime policy leadership gives me the impression a polyphony of voices, some validated for a time by the bureaucratic position of the speaker (before his inevitable fall from power) and some emerginmg from the woodwork as it were, like the critic Tsumura Hideo who virtually hijacked film policy in the last years of the war. Agencies vied with one another and in each agency policy tended to coalesce around strong personalities--with correspondingly strong ideosyncracies in style and content-- who, because of their prominence, generated opposing factions dedicated to undermining their policies!
 . In
 terms of the film world--and probably across the broad spectrum of creative expression--this resulted in a proliferation of demands, often wildly contradictory. In the early days of the "China Incident," a powerful Home Ministry official called for "inspirational films which *realistically* [italics my own] depict our fighting men." A year later Tatebayashi Mikio of the Home Ministry--who at the time was the closest thing there was to a "film policy czar"--openly called for the "spiritual [religious] conversion" of fimmakers to the cult Japanism. After he was reassigned to a high position in the regional police bureaucracy, his place was taken by Fuwa Suketoshi and then by Kawazura Ryuzo, both of whom put forward the "push-button" theory of cultural mobilization. All the while, the Education Ministry, the Army and the Kenpeitai, the Thought Police apparatus as well as  a kaleidescopic welter of extra-official (but authoratative) individuals pulled at the shirt sleeves of the
 industry. So who was there to "satisfy"?
Needless to say, this caused confusion and an anxious senmse of oppression throughout the film world--with the severe psychological dislocations described in detail in my book. 
Alex's invocation of the "repeated tightening of censorship " as a form of negative evidence for the existence of broad-based--or at least frequent-- dissent within the filmmaking community is, at best, only partially correct. In the early thirties, Japan was just beginning to evolve out of the relatively mild and liberal Taisho era intellectual climate.The main"ideological" conflict at the time was a three-way affair between the purveyors of "modernism" (and what a plethora of definitions that was producing!), the rear-guard exponents of bourgeois liberalism and the growing, polyphonous 
discourse on the cultural right (nativism, communitarianism, agrarianism and "fascism"--and what a plethora of defintitions this latter term was also producing!).
 Indeed, for a year or two after the Manchurian Incident,  even the Communist affiliated Purokino movement continued to be active .
In other words, the thirties started out with no consensus on a national film policy and no single agency (or combination agencies) to carry it out. The "policing" of films was, quite literally, a police matter and their (censorship) guidelines were all phrased in the negative: No disrespectful mention of the Imperial Household, etc. The final suppression Purokino, accomplished by early 1934, was NOT a film policy issue, but a pure police matter authorized by the Peace Preservation Law[(s), as part of the general extirpation of Communist activists.
The the energizing concept of the discourse which eventually coalesced into a push for a Film Law and a "national policy" for films was that the "negative leadership" provided by the police was inadequate. The potential of film had to be harnessed "positively" in service to the state.This opened the way to the cacophony of opinions about what the "positive" role of film should be. Therefore--looping back to my description above of the scene starting in 1937--it was in response to the various abstract proposals for a positive approach to film loeadership that the "teightening of censorship" (Alex's phrase) took place; it was NOT a response to dissent within the film world. Only after the "positive" guidelines were set (and they never really were set...) could dissent occur. Bureaucratic "dissatisfaction," was an ex post facto phenomenon, based on how poorly Japanese cinema measured up to the newly formulated ideals of the various administrators. Allow me to repeat myuself her!
 e: the
 tightening of censorship (along with the first emergence of a "film policy") was the product of NEW thinking, new ideals, new demands. Once the "positive leadership" ballgot rolling, it took on a momentum of its own.Censorship, for the first time, took on a prescriptive (as opposed to simply a PROscriptive) function. And, very quicky, the "teightening of censorship" became a means of introjecting new content notions into films.
In other words, I think Alex gets the cart before the horse.
Anyway, Alex, sincere apologies for using you as my straw dog to further elucidate (to myself, anyway) what I think about the "dissent" issue. I look forward to seeing your article when it comes out (where, incidentally?).
And most definitely, I look forward to further reactions to my "thesis."

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