Covert dissent in wartime cinema?
amnornes at umich.edu
Sun Nov 6 13:15:38 EST 2005
On Thursday, November 3, 2005, at 12:40 PM, Peter High wrote:
> 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?
I've been reading this string of messages with great interest, waiting
to see how it played out and wondering when I should step in. I'd like
to take that ginger step with a word or two about Kamei---the
conversation has already demonstrated how useful he is for thinking
through these problems.
The first time I saw Fighting Soldiers was at the Film Center in 1990
during the prep phase for Japan/America Film Wars (Nichibei Eigasen) at
the Yamagata Festival. This was the first time that the Film Center had
cooperated with a film festival and they were letting us see all sorts
of documentaries from the war, films that had probably never seen the
light of a projector since the war. Before that day when FS was
scheduled, we had also seen quite a few films in Washington. After so
many mind-numbing propaganda documentaries, we were thoroughly blown
away by Kamei's film. I vividly remember watching it, and walking back
to the train station from the Sagamihara archive. It was so similar and
different at the same time, but clearly (we thought) anti-war in its
As I learned more about Kamei over the years, read the criticism of his
work from the period (someone like Sawamura Tsutomu loved Shanghai!),
saw how the myth of "anti-war filmmaker" was constructed over the
years, and saw his last wartime film upon its rediscovery (its a
straightforward propaganda film), I constantly had to rethink Kamei and
the issue of "dissent" or "dissonance".
I came to a couple conclusions that might be worth inserting here.
First, as Peter spells out so impressively, there was plenty of play in
what was possible to do in film.
And second, it was evident that words like "dissent" and "anti-war"
were less than helpful. They leave only two positions
available----you're either with us or with the enemy. It makes far more
sense to assume there were many reactions to, and positions regarding,
the war. This would be particularly true for those travelers who had
personal access to that reality behind the principle Peter points to.
In any case, what initially impressed me as an anti-war spirit and sly
subversiveness in Kamei's Fighting Soldiers ended up looking more like
a very human response to the brute reality of China and war. At the
very least what we seem to see in films like FS and Peking (and those
few moments in Shanghai) is a reorienting of the film's enunciative
position. Thanks to the play in the system (the changing censorship
regulations/strategies, the developing codes of documentary realism)
Kamei's represent both China and the war in a novel way. His is an
aesthetic of pain (in FS) AND an invitation to spectators to think from
the position of the Chinese subject (in both films).
Calling his work "anti-war" in his particular context in the China and
Pacific Wars is too simplistic. It simply doesn't fit the category, so
it's no wonder that he rejected the term in postwar interviews.
Unfortunately, no one ever seems to have attempted to pin him down on
what exactly he thought he was doing. Certainly not furious flag-waving
like so many other documentaries of the time, but probably to represent
a very human response to what was before him and in as creative a way
So my response to Sam is, Peter's substantially right. I'm not sure
what point there is to playing the films backwards. However, at the
same time, it is highly unlikely that all filmmakers and the entire
population of spectators had an equally monolithic relationship to
total war. If you accept that, then as an historian you may ask if (or
when) it was possible to build a spectrum of political positions into
films, or (to avoid the language of intentionality) respond to the
current situation in ways that exceed pro-war / anti-war. If you think
it might be possible, again depending on the moment, industrial
context, the staff, etc. etc., then you have some texts to work with.
The other challenge is to think about how that spectrum of
position/response works in the reception context. There are some routes
to this, but unfortunately the archive for Japanese film is so thin!
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