Covert dissent in wartime cinema?

Mark Nornes amnornes at
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 
as possible.

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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