Michael S. Shull - The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-1945 (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 93-94

Peter B. High. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-1945. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003 586 pgs; $60.00

Victimized Nation?

The Imperial Screen is the first scholarly work in English to systematically analyze Japanese wartime cinema. As the full title indicates, High's book not only covers the relevant films released throughout the entire period of aggressive mid 20th century Japanese militarism, but also the political-cultural influences of this period upon the artistic responses of Japan's filmmaking establishment. Furthermore, this comprehensive study provides close readings of virtually all the key pertinent fictional full-length films, as well as investigating the documentary and animated genres—usually based upon the author's screenings, but also incorporating reconstructions of important lost films.

The scope of this engaging text is beyond impressive, as it skillfully interweaves general contextual information, the dynamics of Japan's film industry (including intellectual debates), and the growing regulatory intrusion of official government agencies upon the political content of wartime films.

The book's introduction does an excellent job of contextualizing recent Japanese scholarship in the field—much stimulated by the first edition of The Imperial Screen, published in Japan in 1995. In addition, there is an informative discussion about the continuing propensity of the Japanese to avoid frankly engaging their responsibilities as wartime aggressors, preferring in most instances to cast themselves in the more comfortable collective role of a victimized nation.

A compact prologue provides important information on Japan's cinematic precursors to the 1931-1945 period, most particularly their response to the 1904-05 war with Tsarist Russia. In light of what would later occur during the horrific "war without mercy" with America between 1941 and 1945, it is interesting to note how the white Russian enemy was not demonized on Japanese movie screens.

A great deal of space in the book is devoted to examining how most of the generally liberal filmmaking establishment (prior to Japan's July 1937 full scale invasion of China) was inexorably and with little open resistance converted—the so-called tenko, or "reorientation" concept—to actively supporting the ideology of the pro-militarist government. Spearheaded by the formal constraints of a Film Law, there was also the gradual regulatory removal of the "menacing" influences of foreign films —both aesthetic and political—leading to the creation of a pure Japanese cinema that portrayed the new national "spirit."

This new Japanese film "reality" was enhanced by the industry's belated conversion to sound and the emergence of a war drama genre reflecting government policy regarding the officially designated "China Incident." This national spirit was most evident in combat films, portraying the loyal familial group, invariably a small military unit, engaging a usually faceless Chinese enemy, in which one or more heroic types make the ultimate self sacrifice—represented by such classics as Five Scouts (1938) and Mud and Soldiers (1939), but reaching their zenith in the "Human Bomb" patriotic films. And in just a few years one is led to conclude that these cinematic representations would considerably contribute to the nationwide self-destructive (1944-45) spirit of the Kamikaze.

Surprisingly, the notorious December 1937 Panay Incident, in which a U.S. Navy gunboat on China river patrol was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft, is not mentioned by High. A major turning point in Japanese-American relations, Japan's formal apology was well documented at the time—and even recorded on newsreels released in the United States. Was this entire incident treated as a domestic non-topic by the Japanese government and film industry?

The expanded "Pacific War" following Japan's near simultaneous December 1941 assault upon the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor and western colonial possessions in south Asia and the Pacific radically altered the wartime film dynamics — from the pathetic Chinese enemy to the inclusion of hateful barbaric white spies, or decadent and cowardly imperialists, as the preferred cinematic Other. These devilish Others were literalized in many film cartoons as the one-horned "oni" demons, such as the hysterical American naval officers who appear in Japan's full length animated recreation of their triumphant raid upon the "Demon Island" (Pearl Harbor), Momotaro, Eagle of the Sea (1943).

It would have been helpful for the readers' ability to fully conceptualize the extent of topicality in wartime Japanese cinema had there been included figures on the overall yearly number of Japanese films released during the period, statistically matched with those films identified as containing overt war content. It would also have been useful to indicate whether distinct rhetorical patterns regarding the national spirit were detected by the author. Likewise, although briefly alluded to by High, this reviewer would have preferred a more extended discussion concerning the insertion onto film soundtracks of such ubiquitous wartime martial tunes as the "Battleship March."

Although there is some discussion by the author about patriotic activities at movie theatres, and often detailed analyses of [End Page 93] why and how certain films were censored or banned from distribution, the reviewer would have wished to have been able to read more about spectatorship, particularly the popular response to the political content of specific wartime films. Nevertheless, it cannot be overemphasized that High's The Imperial Screen is a paragon of current historical film scholarship.

Mount St. Mary's College

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.