Week 3: Cinema of the Japanese Empire

This post takes the place of our regular Zoom meeting for Feb. 18, which has been cancelled due to uncertain weather conditions

1. Some Historical Context

As we discussed in our first class meeting, Japanese colonization was motivated in large part by a desire to assume equal footing with the great colonizers of the West: Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and (especially by the end of the 19th Century) the British Empire. But it also served Japan’s goal of rapid modernization, particularly when it came to accessing natural resources (especially oil and iron for the production of battleships and other military hardware) that were unavailable within the Japanese archipelago.

©2012 Encyclopedia Britannica (click on the image to enlarge)

Prior to the secession of Taiwan to Japan in 1895 – coincidentally the year the Cinématographe premiered to the French public – Japan had colonized islands closer to home, including the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is the largest, in the period between 1874 and 1879. Taiwan came under Japanese rule as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) that ended the first Sino-Japanese War, and its value to Japan was less as a source of natural resources than as part of its gradual southward expansion. It’s important to note that while Taiwan, both in the 1890s and today, is largely culturally Chinese, the island has an indigenous population that historically has had a contentious relationship with Mainland China. Even the ethnic Chinese people who migrated there over the centuries often had an ambivalent-to-oppositional stance towards the Mainland government. As such, when the Japanese arrived as colonizers, opposition to them (such as it was) was less a matter of political and/or cultural alliance with Mainland China, and more about local autonomy. Moreover, when the ruling Kuomintang (KMT – “Chinese Nationalist Party”) was defeated by the Communists led by Mao Zedong in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek they established a harsh authoritarian government that alienated Taiwanese (both aboriginal and ethnic Chinese) further from the Mainlanders. One inadvertent result was to lend the Japanese era of colonization a certain nostalgic aura. In the minds of many Taiwanese, Japanese colonization had not only produced a number of tangible benefits (modernization and industrialization chief among them), but compared to life under the authoritarian Kuomintang, they had also ruled with comparatively little incident.

This is, of course, in stark contrast with what happened in both Korea and Mainland China, whose treatment was partly a matter of resources, but also very much a matter of relations between the three territories going back hundreds of years. As late as the mid-1800s, China was still considered to be the cultural, political, and military center of East Asia in Japan and on the Korean Peninsula. However, China’s repeated losses against the British in the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, when they attempted to halt Britain’s aggressive importation of opium in exchange for silver, as well as the subsequent Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, which saw the Qing imperial government – already in a weakened state – pitted against the “Eight-Nation Alliance” of Great Britain, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. While China had something akin to a modern military, the battleships it had imported from Europe were woefully out of date, and military leadership was weak at best. Among the effects of China’s defeat in the Boxer Rebellion was the divvying up of bits and pieces of Chinese territory by the victors, including its cities (map of Beijing below)

(British territory: yellow/French territory: dark blue/US territory: green & ivory (orange)/German territory: red (pink)/Japanese territory: light green)

and the country – largely along the Chinese coast – as a whole.

©2017 SY

If it seems like we’ve gotten mired in historical context at this point, keep in mind that all of this had repercussions not only for Japanese cinema, but inter-East Asian cultural, political, and military relations to the present day (emphasis on cultural). We’ll get to those in a moment, but to wrap up this part, note in the map above that as of 1900, Russia was in control of Dalian, a city on the Liaodong Peninsula and home to Port Arthur, so named for the British naval officer who first surveyed the land in 1860. Port Arthur was of particular strategic interest to Japan and Russia both, both militarily and for trade, and Japan initially took control of the port and peninsula following the first Sino-Japanese War. However, they ceded it back to China when pressured by Russia, Germany and France in the “Triple Intervention” of 1895. Subsequently, Russia took over the peninsula – an act which led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 which ended in Japan’s first victory over a European power and gave them unfettered access not only to the Liaodong Peninsula, but to the Korean Peninsula and, from there, to Manchuria, which was rich in the iron ore needed to build battleships and other military equipment.

So that, as of 1905 we have a Japan which has become a modern state and military force to be reckoned with by international standards in the space of about 40 years, give or take. It’s gone from being a vassal state of the ruling Chinese dynasty to the most militarily, politically, and technologically advanced (by Western standards) in the East and Southeast Asian region. China, in contrast, has lost not one, but two wars to the Japanese, and the government is rapidly descending into chaos as regional warlords battle amongst themselves and parts of the coastline are carved away by encroaching Europeans. For its part, Korea at this time was only just beginning to make moves in the direction of becoming a modern, Western-style nation-state, consolidated in 1897 as the Korean Empire by Emperor Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty, a vassal state of the Chinese Qing Dynasty since the late 14th Century. By this time, Japan had already asserted its strength over the Qing in the Sino-Japanese Wars, and only the Triple Intervention had kept it from assuming control of the Korean Peninsula prior to the Russo-Japanese War. With Japan’s victory in that war, the Korean Empire became first a protectorate of Japan in 1905, and then was annexed (colonized) by Japan in 1910. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to Manchuria, which also came under Japanese control in 1905.

In contrast with Taiwan, which didn’t hold a particular cultural significance for most Japanese, the conquests of both China and Korea were not only strategically important, but also highly symbolic. Japan had been in the shadow of China for centuries, and various Korean dynasties had exerted their own influences on Japanese language, politics, and culture. Moreover, the only foreign invasions of Japan of any note prior to World War II – the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281, led by Yuan Dynasty emperor Kublai Khan – both had launched from China and the Korean Peninsula and were ultimately unsuccessful only because of fortuitous typhoons (kamikaze – lit. divine winds) that significantly diminished the attacks and blew ships back from Japanese shores.

Against this backdrop, we can see how the Japan of 1905-10 would have been riding pretty high on its own accomplishments. It had modernized along Western lines in less than half a century where its neighbors had failed to do so. It had defeated not just China in war, but Russia, and it was increasingly (if unevenly) part of international coalitions such as the Eight-Nation Alliance and, during World War I, an alliance with Russia, France, and Great Britain against Germany. The sense of superiority that these things collectively produced lent itself to the idea of Japan as the head of an Asian coalition they ultimately termed the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

This terminology is significant, insofar as it suggests how Japan was attempting to present itself to its (distant) Asian neighbors, and where European colonization (or, in the case of Taiwan, Chinese political domination) had been especially pronounced, this idea of a regional East/Southeast Asian community that could stand up to the West was comparatively well-received, particularly prior to the onset of WWII. That said, Japan’s closest neighbors, China and Korea, had a far different experience of Japanese colonization – one that was more brutal and, in the case of Korea, involved what was effectively the attempted eradication of Korean culture.


So, let’s say it’s 1939, and Japanese colonial rule now encompasses the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, the more southern coastal city of Nanjing (in a particularly brutal attack), and they’re engaged in active combat against Chinese Kuomintang forces representing the Mainland Chinese Republic of China. The Japanese occupy parts of Shanghai (although so do the British, French, and Americans, among others), and they are active in the flourishing Shanghai-based film industry. What film industries exist in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria come largely under Japanese control, and they’re fairly active in producing not just outright propaganda, but Japan-friendly narrative films that are intended to invest colonial subjects with a sense of shared purpose and willing submission to Japanese rule. I’ll leave aside talking about Tuition (Choi In-Kyu, 1940) here, since that’s the subject of your discussion board prompt for this week; instead, let’s look at some other films that reflect in different ways Japanese priorities in colonial films.

In Korea, the use of Korean language (written and spoken) in films was permitted through 1942, at which point it was banned as part of Japan’s intensifying efforts to effectively eradicate Korean culture (not that I plan to spend ALL semester talking about my in-laws, but there’s a reason my Korean mother-in-law spoke fluent Japanese with her partly Japan-raised Japanese/American husband – it’s also the same reason her own Japanese father-in-law didn’t acknowledge her existence or speak to either of them until they had been married for eight years). Even so, the traces of Japanese cultural influence in colonial-era films are still felt through Japanese subtitling of Korean dialogue, as well as entire sequences performed in Japanese, as in these two scenes from the 1941 film, Spring of Korean Peninsula/반도의 봄 (Lee Byung-Il, 1941). In the first, the two characters both use Korean and Japanese (the subtitles along the right-hand side of the screen are in Japanese); in the second, the characters speak entirely in Japanese, and the woman even refers to the man by his ‘Japanized’ name, Ei’ichi (Kor: Young-Il/英一):

While such films were also made in Taiwan, there we also see evidence of the kinds of ‘soft’ propaganda intended to strengthen a sense of shared purpose between colonizer and colonized. The well-known Taiwanese-Japanese film Song of Sayon/サヨンの鐘 (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1943) is based on the true story of a young aboriginal girl, Sayon, who was reported to have drowned while seeing her Japanese teacher off to the Chinese front during a storm. As Chiara Caporuscio writes in this post,

In 1939, a 17-year-old Atayal girl called Sayun Hayun from Nan’ao village, Giran district, Taihoku Prefecture, Taiwan went missing. After some research, the police concluded that she had drowned while she was helping her Japanese teacher Masaki Takita, who was departing for the Chinese Front, to carry his luggage.

The story created a lot of empathy and commotion amongst both Taiwanese natives and Japanese colonizers, who interpreted Sayon’s death as an act of devotion toward her Japanese teacher, and therefore towards Japan itself. The Governor General in Taipei ordered to build a magnificent bell in her home village, and to inscribe it with her name. The story inspired songs, novels and movies.


Why was Sayon’s story so powerful? The Government wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous people had been fully converted to imperial subjects. At the same time, they needed to convince natives to fight for Japan against the Chinese army: for this purpose, they needed to give them a heroic, self-sacrificing example, and to reassure them showing that Taiwanese martyrs would be remembered and honoured as much as Japanese martyrs.

Caporuscio, “Sayon’s Bell

To drive home this unity of purpose between the Japanese colonizers and their Taiwanese subjects, the film features Sayon, played by an actress who went in this film by the name of Li Xianglan (who we’ll be talking about more in a couple of weeks), singing the (Japanese language) Song of the Taiwan Army of Japan as she and her fellow villagers send off Taiwanese troops to the battlefront for Japan.

Song of Sayon/サヨンの鐘 (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1943)

Among the most overtly propagandistic studios in the Japanese empire was the Manchurian Film Association, or Man’ei, headed by Masahiko Amakasu from 1939, and Li Xianglan – also known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi (and other names) – was one of its top stars. This 10 minute video gives a really nice overview of Japanese colonial influence in Chinese film during this time:

©2020 Lunar Rabbit on YouTube

Li/Yamaguchi’s film career didn’t end with her repatriation to Japan at the end of World War II, as we’ll see when we watch House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955), and this makes her a particularly interesting illustration in our discussion of Japanese cinema in its many global contexts.

3. Back on the Home Front

Japanese involvement in the film industries of Taiwan, China, and Korea, not to mention more fledgling industries in parts of Southeast Asia, wasn’t all about propaganda. For many of the producers and filmmakers who worked in Japan’s colonial territories, it was about creating a larger market for Japanese films and exchanging creative and technical expertise with filmmakers outside Japan. Similarly, Japanese domestic filmmaking was also not solely dedicated to the imperial cause nor, after the onset of the Pacific War (roughly dated as beginning in 1937 with the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War), the war effort. This is not to say there weren’t overtly propagandistic films: one particularly interesting example is the first feature-length animated film in Japan, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors/桃太郎 海の神兵 (Mitsuyo Seo, 1945):

But as Darrell Davis writes in the excerpted reading for this week from his book, Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film (1996), pre-war and wartime Japanese filmmaking was particularly concerned with creating a sense of “Japaneseness” in and through film that ran counter to accepted (and default Western) modes of filmmaking. This idea reflects to a certain extent the question I posed in the Week 1 discussion; namely, what value might there be in thinking of Japanese film as a ‘national’ film tradition/industry? There are, as you all suggested, many ways to answer this, but the idea of Japanese cinema as embodying specifically Japanese aesthetics as part of its larger project of solidifying a clear sense of Japan within a gradually shrinking political, economic, and military world.

To conclude, this video gives a really nice overview of both the (far) historical background and filmmaking context of the Kenji Mizoguchi film, The 47 Ronin/元禄 忠臣蔵 (1941/2), one of the quintessential films of Davis’s “monumental style.”