Friday, August 26, 2011

The Empire of Fantasies

Geishunka (迎春花,1943) Dir. Yasushi Sasaki

In 1923, the massive earthquake hit the Kanto area. Unprecedented in modern history of Japan, with more than 100,000 causalities, the large part of metropolitan area was burnt to ground. One of the horrifying events in this catastrophe was ethnic cleansing of Koreans by Japanese survivors. Vicious rumors were spread through the frightened people in the devastated area; Koreans were poisoning drinking water, torching houses and preparing for communist revolution. Vigilantes searched for suspected "Koreans" (whoever they considered Koreans) and lynched them to death. In reality, the vicious rumors were spread by Tokyo Police Department. It may sound incredible, but Matsutaro Shoriki, the head of the Anti-terrorism unit in TPD at the time, devised the scheme for ethnic cleansing. Shoriki went on to become the owner of Yomiuri News, the largest news agency in Japan, an Class-A war criminal, and a Congressman. Many pointed out that he used this opportunity to suppress Left-wing-Labor union activities. However, there is no practical clear reason for cleansing Koreans in this context.
The whole operation was supposed to be buried under the confusion of the earthquake and its aftermath. The perpetrators thought they could erase any trace of the massacre, until the Military Police also joined this violent campaign and murdered whole family of Sakae Ohsugi. Ohsugi, not a Korean, but the leading figure of the Socialist/Anarchist movement, was one of the real targets of political cleansing. Though the operation had been already considered outrageous by even those who knew, but this went too far. MP also murdered Ohsugi's nephew, a 6-year old boy. The killing of adults was one thing, but the killing of an innocent child was a different matter. This incident was no longer contained among groups of aggressors. The whole thing burst wide open. Lieutenant Masahiko Amakasu of MP was arrested for murder, sentenced to 10 years in prison and expelled from Army for his life. There were many indication that Amakasu did not commit the crime but was made a scapegoat for some high-ranking official in Military. The truth would never be known. 

After serving the sentence and spending some years in France on Army's money, he found his haven in the Northeastern China. Japanese Imperial Army was developing strategic invasion plan in the area and looking for someone to do dirty jobs, such as espionage, illegal transactions, kidnapping, opium trafficking and assassinations. Amakasu was the best for the job. For years, he and his henchmen were underground operatives working for Army. Japan established Machukuo, the puppet government, in the region. Amakasu was never an official personnel of Manchukuo until he was appointed the head of Manchukuo Film Association, ManEi, in 1939. 

ManEi was established in 1937 as a propaganda machine for the Manchukuo Empire. Manchukuo covered the vast area of Northeastern China, which required a balanced maneuver through a variety of ethnicity and races. Japanese officials considered its entertainment industry as a critical element of cultural "fabrication" for governance under their policy and allocated large budget for the enterprise. Amakasu was the best man for the job; he was a right wing Imperialist to his bone, the believer of Japanese race as a ruler of Asia and viewed himself as a military officer though he was expelled from Army. The fact that he did not understand art was not an issue. It's an entertainment industry built on propaganda. No one is looking for high art.

Usually the term "propaganda film" is used for films like "Jud Suss" or "Triumph of the Will" in Third Reich or "Why We Fight" series in U.S. This may be true for documentaries and news reels. However, especially under totalitarian regime, feature films are heavily coated with sugar of escapism, to conceal the poisonous layer underneath. The most successful films in the Third Reich were romantic melodramas of Zarah Leander such as "Die Große Liebe (1942)". Conceived as a propaganda institute, Man-Ei was the extreme example of this trend. It produced melodramas among Chinese and Japanese to promote "racial harmony". But it was always Chinese ladies submitted themselves to Japanese men because they realized Japanese men were gentle, caring and just. Of course, that is fantasy.

ManEi was a miniature cosmos of the Manchukuo Empire itself. Even though it was a mixed bag, the racial hierarchy was visible and discrimination was imbued in its structure. Japanese directors, actors and staffs were at the top, while Chinese staffs were there to assist them. Due to restriction on production in Japanese studios, some directors and actors sought their opportunities in this new Land. In order to save its face as a symbol of "five races as one", ManEi employed many Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Manchurians. ManEi's top starlet was Li Xiānglán, a beautiful Chinese lady who also appeared in Shochiku films opposite to Kazuo Hasegawa. However, she was actually a Japanese who spoke Chinese fluently; her real name was Yoshiko Yamaguchi ("Scandal"), a daughter of Machukuo Railway employee.

Amakasu was a mysterious man. He was a nihilist and kept at arm's length by the high-ranking elites in Japanese politics and military. Though many considered him as a ruthless Imperialist and a scandalous bureaucrat, he was also said to be a sincere, kind man at the same time. Yoshiko Yamaguchi remembered him as an "honest, caring gentleman". He raised salaries for both Japanese and Chinese staff (though there was a huge gap between them), brought back many technological innovations from Germany and tried to improve the quality of ManEi product. 

However, it did not mean its products were accepted by Chinese and other ethnic groups. They were to appeal anyone in the region but the production was simply below standard and horrible. In one occasion, Amakasu invited prominent critics and cultural elites from Japan to show ManEi's high-blow film. It was said they were boring and unwatchable to death. Few showed up in the ceremony for the after the show and Amakasu drank himself to embarrassment. I saw one of their "supposedly" popular ManEi movie, "Geishunka (迎春花, 1943)", but I must say, as a drama, it is very difficult to recommend it to anyone. It is quite interesting as a historical artifact though; you can see how Mukden looked like in 1942.

Amakasu took his own life on 20 August, 1945, five days after the surrender of Japan. He considered himself useless in the world without Japanese Empire. When he took cyanide pills, Tomu Uchida (Tuchi (1939), Chiyari Fuji (1955)) was in the next room. Uchida realized something were amiss and rushed into the room. Amakasu died in the arms of Uchida.

Geishunka, with Chinese subtitiles
 
 
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