Thursday, August 7, 2014


"Tunnel Warfare" (1965) set the standard for Japanese villains with funny accents and bad mustaches

Chinese TV has been ordered to step up the airing of anti-Japan dramas

Just when it seemed that the genre of anti-Japan war dramas --some 200 of which were produced in the last year and which continue to play morning, noon and night on Chinese TV--  had reached such a point of overkill that even voices in the communist party were calling to cut back on such incendiary programming,  the Chinese government has ordered TV stations to increase the airing of "patriotic" product, of which anti-Japan dramas are exhibit number one. Beijing's Global Times reported on August 15, the anniversary day of Japan's 1945 surrender, that viewers can expect to see more and more "Anti-fascist" (code for anti-Japan War of Resistance) dramas to be aired during the next few months.

What's going on here? Is it a case of bad politics leading art, or has bad art infected politics to the point where appetites are primed for more of the same? The most recent spate of war dramas are so bad as to be worrisome to party authorities who fear history is being distorted, but maybe bad dramas are better than well-crafted ones if the purpose bombing the airwaves with them is to invoke patriotism and incite action against Japan.

China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes; mostly didactic good-versus-evil dramas drawn from the all-too-real and all-too-brutal war against Japan (kangri zhanzheng)  the war of liberation against the Kuomintang (jiefang douzheng) and the costly Korean War (kangmei yuanchao) in which America was the ultimate enemy. In the 1950's, when the US loomed large as an enemy, Korea was the hot topic for war films, while in the 1960's, an inward-looking decade marred by mass starvation and relentless political campaigns, few films were made. Of the handful of films produced just before the chaos of the Cultural Revolution when film production all but ground to a halt except for "yangbanxi" or revolutionary opera productions, a couple of well-crafted anti-Japan war movies stand out;  "Landmine Warfare" (1962) and "Tunnel Warfare" (1965). The PLA-produced classic "Tunnel Warfare" set during the war of resistance against Japan is considered to be one of the most widely-viewed films in the history of cinema, no doubt in part because it was deemed politically acceptable at a time when most films were banned for being too decadent or too foreign or otherwise politically doubtful. Chinese old enough to remember those days of privation are quick to recall the popularity of "Tunnel Warfare" because its sturdy dramatic narrative leavened with moment of humor about peasants combatting Japanese aggression at the village level was one of the few really watchable entertainments of the era.

"Tunnel Warfare" (1964) tells the story of a
village militia that outfoxes the Japanese
invaders by literally going underground.

"Tunnel Warfare" (2013) is a recent remake that
has come under fire for "distorting history"

As China emerged from the Mao-induced trauma of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970's, at that bewildering juncture when the disgraced, recently deceased PLA military commander Lin Piao was paired with Confucius as an evil figure to struggle against,  the limited palette of films on offer tended towards the didactic. Communist morality tales about the hard, victorious struggle for liberation were among the few productions that navigated the needle's eye of politically acceptability. Scant attention was paid to Japan, and US "crimes against humanity" from the Korean War period were brushed under the red carpet that greeted Nixon on his pathbreaking trip to Beijing. The decade closed with the political triumph of Deng Xiaoping and downgrading of the Maoists, while critics like Wei Jingsheng were thrown in jail as a reminder that a kinder, gentler China was not without a new political line. The decade closed in the cinemas with a Japan wartime drama "Anxious to Return" (1979).

In the peaceful and increasingly prosperous 1980's, by and large a tranquil decade during which the population, still in recovery from an overdose of political chaos, could celebrate the non-political joys of everyday life. In those days, now regarded as "golden years" from the point of view of contemporary China,  nostalgic films, nuanced dramas and feel-good films dominated the market, with some notable exceptions in the second half of the decade.  Zhang Yimou's brutal anti-Japan war drama "Red Sorghum" (1987) brilliantly shot by master cinematographer Gu Changwei, was a visual feast and a melee of the mind. It left censors scratching their heads and not a few film viewers uncomfortable, but it signaled a triumph for artistic freedom.

Two notable international co-productions dealing with the Sino-Japan War made during the same time period, when the leftist campaign against spiritual pollution failed to rouse a still politically exhausted populace were the "Last Emperor" (1987) and "Empire of the Sun" (1987). The two co-productions, the first filmed in Beijing, the second in Shanghai were unprecedented in scope, scale and access afforded to foreign filmmakers. Both films had Japanese actors in speaking parts, though large formations of Japanese soldiers were played by Chinese extras in uniform.

The "Last Emperor" had a brief tussle with political censorship, not at Beijing's behest but in Tokyo. Brief but brutal archival newsreel scenes from the Shanghai Incident and Nanjing Massacre were cut at the insistence of the Japan film distributor who threw down the gauntlet to producer Jeremy Thomas at a time when Japan was the largest ancillary market in the world. Not unlike the attitude increasingly apparent in China today, self-styled patriots in Bubble-era Japan reckoned that economic power gave them some say, or at least the right to say no.

Both films were generally unflinching in their treatment of sensitive historic issues and would probably be impossible to make today, the former because it required trampling on heritage sites such as the Forbidden City, the latter because of it offered more Japanese characters worthy of emulation than Chinese ones. Given the Japan-admiring idiosyncrasies of JG Ballard's childhood memoir on which "Empire of the Sun" was based, accentuated by the aviation-obsessed director Steven Spielberg who manages to portray a kamikaze pilot in a soft focus and a kind light, and you have an eclectic product sufficiently sympathetic to Japan that it would be impossible to make in China today.

The hinomaru lends itself to artistic appropriation

In the 1990's Chinese television drama serials started to come of age and began to offer real stay-at-home competition to the neighborhood movie theatre. Less than a year after the Tiananmen debacle, CCTV launched the studiously apolitical "Kewang"(1990) which CCTV lauded in its in-house coverage and earned mention on NHK.  The title means "Yearning" and the result was a 51-episode CCTV family drama about tentative hopes and dreams for the future. Around the same time, still chastised and sanctioned by the West, China drew on its Sinitic cultural capital to engage Singapore, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora. This was a period that saw the growth of independent Chinese film while Asian co-productions, especially with Hong Kong, also proliferated. Wartime film, "Steel Meets Fire" (1991) starring You Ge, was followed a few years later by the 1995 Hong Kong co-production "Nanjing 1937" This withering look at a tragic chapter of history that has never been forgotten by overseas Chinese but was so broadly ignored as to be a non-issue during the Mao years, can be seen as a gesture of solidarity with ethnic Chinese and furthermore as a brick in the edifice of a  reconstructed, unifying nationalism in the post-Tiananmen period when belief in the party was at an all time low. The Hong Kong involvement not only brought cash and modern special effects, but served to locate Hong Kong, which was due to revert to the mainland in just two years time, firmly in the China camp, historically speaking. This film, tapping the reserves of pan-Chinese anger at documented Japanese abuses during the war period anticipated the revival of popular interest in the events of December 1937,  a trend that would be further codified and spurred on by Iris Chang's influential 1997 book "Rape of Nanking."

The year 2000 saw the Anti-Japan War back on the big screen, this time treated as black comedy in Jiang Wen's irreverent "Devils at the Doorstep" (2000). Japanese soldiers, the eponymous devils, were the ostensible enemy but the film upset the censors for its lack of a didactic line, being more about human frailty, cruelty and humor than national identity and ultimate victory in war. It was followed by Feng Xiaoning's film "Purple Sunset" (2001) which is set on the eve of Japan's surrender in 1945.  The PLA-produced "Mountain of Taihang"(2005) draws on the heroic war movie tradition of the early days of the People's Republic to tell the story of Communist legendary commander Zhu De and the exploits of Eighth Route army in its fight against Japanese troops in Shanxi Province.

"Guizi laile" aka "Devils on the Doorstep"

"Flowers of War" with "Empire of the Sun's" Christian Bale
The dark, documentary-style massacre epic "Nanjing, Nanjing" (2009) directed by Lu Chuan was a rare sober film that capped off a largely frivolous film decade dominated by corny comedy and zany drama. It was followed two years later by Zhang Yimou's flawed "Flowers of War" (2011) based on a novel by Yan Geling, which used the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre to show Chinese courage, chivalry and fortitude under stress. The cool feats of a superhuman Chinese sniper, seemingly a dramatic add-on that was undoubtedly pleasing authorities, and perhaps the popular audience, as a show of Chinese strength, cuts down Japanese marauders one by one, winning small bullet-ridden victories in the midst of an unstoppable massacre. The lone sniper was sufficiently skilled in sharp-shooting to satisfy the pent-up and frustrated desire for revenge denied by the cold facts of the actual historical event.

"Cold Steel" (2011) a Hong Kong movie built on the winning formula of a "good" sniper in action, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai, pit a Chinese sharpshooter against the Japanese. The shooter's POV action flick found an audience and was sufficiently successful enough to inspire a remake on the mainland.

"Nanjing, Nanjing" by Lu Chuan

Sniper film "Cold Steel" (2001) (Biandi Langyan)

"Jiawudahaizhan" (2013) is an unusual epic film about a key turning point in East Asian fortunes, namely China's humiliating loss at sea in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Although Japan comes out on top in this chapter of history, the communist party, which has beefed up coverage of this short, sharp war for the 120th anniversary this year, finds in the 1894 conflict an urgent lesson about the importance of preparedness and willingness to adopt the latest technology, especially when dealing with Japan. The Chinese naval men are portrayed as heroically as possible within loose historic confines, but they lose and everyone knows they lose, but it's the lesson that counts. The film has been criticized for exploiting the contemporary Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, which was a non-issue in the First Sino-Japanese War, by conspicuously inserting the words "Diaoyudao" in its posters, as if to suggest the next battle at sea is China's to win. The populist ad campaign, poorly-conceived at best, also makes mention of Iwo Jima for some inexplicable reason, and the Spratly Islands too, ostensibly in reference to current maritime tensions.

Currently contested "Diaoyudao" is anachronistically included in the PR for "1894"  

Ever since Sino-Japanese tensions at sea erupted to a feverish pitch due to the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict of 2010, one can detect in Chinese war dramas the clumsy hand of politics influencing art, as the posters for the 2013 film about battling Japan at sea demonstrates. Before that, despite periodic flare-ups, such as the 2005 Beijing anti-Japan demonstration about revisionist textbooks,  Sino-Japanese war films were mostly idiosyncratic choices of independent-minded directors interested in exploiting history for dramatic purposes rather than state-orchestrated works designed to score political points. Directors such as Zhang Yimou and Jiang Wen didn't flinch in dramatizing Japan's historic ravaging of China, but their work was individualistic and nuanced enough to disconcert the authorities at the time. Such "classic" films get considerable play on television now, however, so much so that it seems that programming authorities tempted to read them as anti-Japan works, even though they are more emphatically films about the folly of war. Both directors have gone on the record to insist that singling out the Japanese was not their aim in making such films.

"Zi Ri" or "Purple Sunset"

"Purple Sunset" (2001) directed by Feng Xiaoning, is a film seemingly at odds with itself, given its insistent nationalism despite the emotional bonding of its cross-cultural cast. It tells the story of the sole survivor of a Japanese firing squad, rescued at the last minute by Soviet Army intervention, who goes on to save a Japanese woman who then betrays him. Full of bloody scenes and mass suicides, this dark film has enjoyed a second life on TV during the most recent upswing in Sino-Japan tensions.  

For all the innovative special effects, celebrity casting, and clever plot twists, very few films in the anti-Japan genre show up as box office leaders, a point driven home by a 2009 visit to a large Beijing multiplex for a viewing of "Nanjing, Nanjing." There I waited on a long line to buy tickets, only to discover the theatre was empty. The crowds were packed in to see the latest smash-em'-up smack-down from the "Transformers" franchise in the theatre next door. The sound for the more popular film was jacked up loud enough to overpower the soundtrack of the Nanjing film playing in an almost empty hall.

While Chinese audiences in the past were no strangers to war-against-Japan dramas, which on average appeared at the cinema every two or three years, and later years got regular replay on television, there has been no time like the current media cacophony of competing, overlapping provincial stations putting similar product on air all at once. It is now possible to view dozens of anti-Japan dramas every day, day after day, on free-to-air and public cable TV in China. Even allowing that provincial viewers enjoy fewer channels than the average viewer in Beijing,  there is clearly a glut of such material on the market.

Over one hundred anti-Japan films and about 70 drama series were turned out in 2013, according to a Reuters report that estimates the Japan war genre to hold as much as 70% of the drama market. More of the same continues to be churned out on a large, assembly-line basis. Cheap formulaic films that are explosive, exploitative variations of the time-tested, government-approved anti-Japan theme are the hallmark of ambitious new studios, where business bets on sure winners. At the gargantuan Hengdian Studios in Zhejiang Province, the economy of scale makes it not only possible, but economically expedient to "kill" hundreds of Japanese in a day's work.

The sheer volume of such schlock drama being dumped on the market raises the question of how such tripe might influence popular attitudes. Does the anti-Japan overload play a role in shaping popular perceptions about Japan? Or has thoughtless over-production made the genre a mockery of itself, rendering it into inert cultural garbage not worth taking seriously?

Popular reception, though hard to gauge, appears uneven at best. The kang-ri-ju genre is subject to regular mockery by savvy netizens on social networks. In 2013, China's state-run mainstream media itself began a push-back, presumably because some high official somewhere was not amused by the degradation of the genre. There was enough of a groundswell against the sex, violence and exploitative excesses of the genre that even China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which encouraged and enabled the production of the faulty product in the first place, felt compelled to join the critical bandwagon, accusing some of the dramas for "distorting history."

In a pattern reminiscent of the dynamics behind the periodic anti-Japan demonstrations that convulse city streets only to vanish as fast as a flash mob, the authorities gave a wink, if not a green-light for the public to run with an intemperate and borderline toxic topic, but then got worried about things getting out of control, or moving in a direction not anticipated, and started to rein things in again.

The genre has gotten so hackneyed in the past two or three years that it transcends history, not just because it plays loose with facts but because it doesn't care about facts, or even the laws of physics. It's a highly stylized revenge fantasy, a frivolous attempt to right historic wrongs by exploding history rather than an attempt to get the history right. In this sense, it's just a lark, an idle daydream,  a shoot-'em-up video game, a kungfu combat pitting cowboys against Indians, bereft of historical context and lacking a coherent message.

Bad battle scenes and bad bed scenes entertain some viewers as surely as they bore or repulse others. Like other forms of mindless propaganda, the true measure of the genre's impact is unlikely to be found in the quality of the product on the market, or even in the distorted content, but instead in the subconscious effect of constant repetition.

Unlike mythical history genres based on Three Kingdoms lore, or the mischievous exploits of the Monkey King, the make-believe anti-Japan dramas deal with a real country that China continues to confront in real time. Unlike legendary episodes drawn from China's ancient feudal history, the anti-Japan fantasy fare is set during a time period that is fading but still on the verge of human memory, a contentious period that has been heavily documented in newspapers, books and documentary film. To use contested chapters of recent history as a setting for revenge fantasies, if only to amuse, still amounts to a kind of background drumbeat for the evening news programs that frequently have an anti-Japan message as well.

A mix of state-encouragement and commercial opportunism has resulted in the ossification and corruption of the wartime period drama. Increasingly, the result is a lowest common denominator product line that is packed with fun-looking kung-fu kicks and punches, heroic heroes, comely seductresses, and dazzling pyrotechnics fueled by bloody revenge fantasies. The bad guys, played by Chinese hamming it up, are mostly cardboard cutout cliches   -comical mustachioed comic book villains- who grunt, bow and snarl through every scene until they lose. 

The result is an odd television hybrid, a mix of knee-jerk nationalism, over-the-top special effects, hasty production values and a petulant political line. The dramas are supposed to vilify Japan, but that of course depends on the audience taking them seriously.

The influence of current events upon television programming has already been observed in the sudden upswing in production and selling of coveted time slots to stridently anti-Japanese dramas, but is there any evidence the dramas themselves are having an influence on current events? Perhaps there are traces of this, inasmuch as some members of the public take the risks inherent in demonstrating to demand that the government take an uncompromising position on Japan. Is the anti-Japan push in the media populist in nature, top-down, or a complex interaction of the two?

One political development that might help explain the current boom of dramas set during the war against Japan period is not about Japan at all, but rather about the ruling party on Taiwan. There is a desire, perhaps even a need, given the short shrift the KMT has gotten in CCP circles for the last half century, to diplomatically rewrite Chinese history in a way that gives fellow Chinese in the KMT their due as "zhanyou" or fellow fighters in the good fight against Japan.

Ever since the day the KMT turned against the CCP and left wing of the KMT in Shanghai, Mao and his followers have demonized the KMT on a level comparable with party line antipathy directed at Japan, perhaps even more so, given the bitter internecine angst of the cut-from-the-same-cloth KMT-CCP struggle.

The CCP has had the upper hand for over half a century now and there is not much reason to fear the KMT anymore. What's more, given China's keen appreciation of the fact that even a truculent KMT, with its stubborn dedication to the idea of a unitary China is to be preferred over an amicable DPP intent on finalizing the de facto split from China or any other pro-independence party, it prevails prevails upon the CCP to court the KMT in the hopes of finessing some kind of grand unification.

Add to the political expediency of making nice with KMT stalwarts on Taiwan, while simultaneously reminding Taiwanese with no particular gripe with Japan that Japan should be regarded as the common foe of all true Chinese, and you get a shift in party line that attempts to woe Taiwan back into the fold by reminding compatriots divided by the Taiwan Straits that they were once united in opposition to Japan's war of invasion.

It doesn't hurt the party's flip-flop on the question of KMT "patriotism" that there's growing support for the view, backed by historical documentation but also through the media commentary and informal folkways that Chinese of all stripes should be recognized for their contributions in combatting Japan's ruthless mainland invasion. To include decent KMT characters in the script of an anti-Japan war drama kills two birds with one stone; it reaches across the Straits to broaden the demonization of Japan while signaling a coming to terms with the KMT-dominated Taiwan.

In this sense, the recent boom of wartime resistance dramas that give a meaningful role to the KMT is of service to China's long-term goal of wooing Taiwan back into the fold of the motherland.

One problem with the calculated marriage of party dictates and market tastes is that the proliferation of wartime drama makes Japan a dirty word. The practice of calling the Japanese "guizi" or devils at every twist and turn may be justified in the sense that the term is based on actual linguistic practices that arose during war, but wars, almost by definition, are about demonizing the enemy. While bearing witness to make-believe killings of Japanese on the screen has not been shown to incite the public to violence, hearing Japanese referred to as "guizi" every other minute on TV does have real-world consequences; the slang is catchy and gets repeated thoughtlessly. The rise of the "g" word is partly a reflection of conscious political antipathy towards Japan, but it's also a lazy habit born of too much TV viewing.

"Blue Wolf" includes CCP, KMT and Japanese characters

China saw a marked uptick in tensions with Japan in 2010, 2012 and again in 2014 due to the ongoing Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. Add to that contentious territorial spat Japan's political shift to the right, the vocal nostalgia for wartime values on the part of Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, the diplomatically tone-deaf Yasukuni posturing, the blatant undoing of apologies and ungentlemanly aspersions about the comfort women being willing and greedy participants in the world's oldest profession and you get a right diplomatic mess.

As for China's contribution to the ongoing culture wars, the marriage of convenience between anti-Japanese populism and party guidance that produces Japan-demonizing dramas is an irritant in its own right, not to mention more serious military adventurism in the seas and skies between China and Japan.

Anti-Japan propaganda continues to be slyly endorsed by state censors in adherence to party line, both for geopolitical reasons and as a distraction from more immediately vexing domestic issues.

Producing TV dramas in China is the art of the possible, and Chinese production companies have learned to navigate the course of least resistance by submitting proposals that can get past the censors and make money. Television producers with no particular animus to Japan have learned that Anti-Japan films are easy to get green-lighted for production and can be profitable from constant television replay in China's vast network of national and provincial TV stations. While there's little evidence that the masses crave yet more of this tired, cliche-ridden genre, the generous airtime allocated by state-run TV for "safe" patriotic product helps the hacks find a market nonetheless.

A Japanese soldier is forced to show loyalty by using Chinese for bayonet practice

Despite the glut of over-bearing, overly-bombastic propagandistic dramas, it is not a given that such dramas serve the ostensible purpose of making viewers more patriotic, or even more anti-Japan. Are there not viewers repulsed by the ham-fisted dramatic manipulation and blatant propaganda and have come to see the entire blinkered enterprise as a negative for the party?  Or perhaps even that is taken the whole enterprise too seriously. It's not transformational TV viewing, it is merely banal daytime entertainment, as silly and stylized as cowboy and Indian productions from Hollywood's racially prejudiced past. Indeed online commentary suggests that anti-Japan product has become a joke for the cognoscenti, and with young people watching less TV and relying more on the Internet for news and entertainment, it's not clear the campaign has been successful at all in altering public opinion.

Where it has been arguably successful, despite obvious signs of production overkill, is in the economic realm. Even mediocre dramas keep production wheels turning, even boring shows help TV producers keep their jobs. Not unlike the dilemma faced by Japan's film industry a few decades back when it turned to pornography to keep directors, editors, camera operators and sound recorders in business, the salacious genre of exposing Japan's war crimes keeps production teams busy, and will continue to keep them busy until better work comes along. As with pornography, it doesn't seek to educate or edify. As with pornography, it relies on exaggerated exploits and action, with an emphasis on the visual for the purpose of titillation. Just as reasonable people argue about whether or not pornography influences real-world behavior, there is divided opinion on whether the CCP's propaganda war against Japan is having any real effect.

Informal talks with Chinese students, many of whom are quietly fond of Japan's "dongman" tradition (manga and anime) as well as Tokyo-style design, food and fashion, suggest that the Anti-Japan genre is missing the mark. For better or worse young people in China say they are not interested in raking over the coals of contested history but instead forward-looking to the future. "Boring"was the most common response I heard when asking about the Anti-Japan dramas on Chinese college campuses in the past few months, and to my surprise, some students claimed they didn't watch TV at all.  Instead they sate their media hunger on the internet, claiming that TV drama and TV news is mainly watched by "old people."

The episodic "On Fire" (Qianghuo) aired on Guizhou TV in the spring of 2014. 

Cang Lang, known as "Blue Wolf," is one of the better-produced drama series that aired in early 2014, but it made a mockery of its anti-Japan posturing when it was exposed for having "borrowed" music from a Japanese anime.  It's an inadvertently appropriate theft in a way, for it speaks to the power of contemporary Japanese anime and its receptivity among Chinese youth despite government policy against Japan. What's more, the Japan occupation period that serves as a backdrop to "Blue Wolf," especially in cosmopolitan centers such as occupied Shanghai, was historically rich in cross-cultural mixups, misappropriations, complex plotting.

"Blue Wolf" is an ambitious, sweeping drama with a rich and varied cast of soldiers, guerillas, foreign officials and singsong girls. It covers the period from Japan's invasion of China below the Great Wall, the battle of Shanghai, the destruction of Nanjing and KMT flight up the Yangtse River to Wuhan and Chongqing, but despite the epic backdrop, it's a silly soap opera at heart.

One of many seductions scene in "Blue Wolf"

A common visual theme of Anti-Japan drama is dressing the set with the eye-catching rising sun flag and insignia. Unlike Germany, which changed its flag after losing its war of aggression, Japan's continuous use of the hinomaru flag makes it possible for Chinese viewers of wartime dramas to conflate the enemy nation of the past with Japan of the present. 

“Heading into Cannon Fire” (Xiangzhe paohuo qianjin
shows the Japan wartime policy of "loot all, kill all and burn all."

"Enemy Troops Coming!" was one of the many Anti-Japan dramas aired during the recent upsurge in tensions that followed Prime Minister Abe's Yasukuni visit and near-clashes at sea. The story of a village under siege, it introduces a motley crew of Chinese youth who would not look out of place riding skateboards in contemporary Beijing. In one dramatic scene they wait in ambush exchanging boyish grins and soulful glances, guns in hand. The girls, hair neatly combed, lipstick carefully applied,  stare intently into the distance as a Japanese military convoy approaches. The camera cuts to a bedraggled, unshaved Japanese soldier, rocking back and forth as he drives a truck, the first in a convoy, with the hinomaru flag clearly affixed to the side. As the enemy soldier hurtles unsuspectingly down a bumpy dirt road, the hip guerillas use a trip wire and improvised explosive device to set off a blinding explosion that lights the night like a tactical atomic bomb. They shield their faces just watching the fireworks, grinning with pride at its unexpected power, but the bomb fails to finish off the enemy and the cliffhanger ending of the episode leaves viewers wondering what will happen next. The young heroes are last seen exchanging worried glances in the proximity of some very unhappy Japanese soldiers.

Chinese guerillas ambush Japanese convoy, 
from "Enemy Troops Coming!" (Binglincunxia) 

The hinomaru flag has uncomfortable connotations for Chinese even today, especially in the context of period dramas or when affixed to military craft as seen in news reports. It does not carry the extreme negative valance of the Nazi swastika, but it is still capable of summoning up painful memories, and mass-produced media memories, as it is closely associated with Japan's war of invasion. 

A contemporary poster calling on Japanese to respect the hinomaru flag

Japan's flag-waving right wing has been quick to discover and exploit the fact that the hinomaru riles Chinese sensibilities. The above poster, seen recently on a quiet street in Kyoto, exhorts Japanese to show their love of country by raising the rising sun flag. By comparing the red rubber ball of the flag to the iconic and majestic Mount Fuji is to suggest the hinomaru is a natural symbol of Japan, synonymous with the nation.

For the Chinese director of a period drama, the hinomaru flag is a natural symbol of Japan, also synonymous with the nation, but in a much more negative way. It screams out "enemy" and is a cheap and easily deployed prop useful for identifying the enemy camp, enemy vehicles and enemy dreams of conquest.

But it's far more than a film prop, for Japan vainly attempted to plant its flag in China with disastrous results. A long and brutal war of invasion was carried out under the banner of the rising sun and, as such, the flag's intimate association with bloodshed and invasion is a barrier to viewing post-war Japan as a different kind of country.

Chinese actors ham it up playing the role of Japanese devils

The story quality and production values of kang-ri-ju vary wildly from scene to scene and drama to drama, but Anti-Japan narratives share certain core elements. China is good, Japan is bad. As if to drive home the differentness, Chinese extras play Japanese without great nuance, relying on cartoon-like gestures, scowls and sneers. Japanese characters routinely insult dignity of women, exhibit stiff body language, speak in grunts and sport villainous mustaches. When Japanese characters have speaking roles, it usually suffices for a few words of Japanese to be inserted into otherwise fluent Chinese speech to signal that Japanese is being spoken. Dramas that aim for greater linguistic verisimilitude have full-blown Japanese dialogue, voiced fluently, though not flawlessly, by Chinese actors.

Overall, the narrative line of the wartime dramas tends to follow the contours of a David and Goliath struggle in which the dignified but poorly-equipped Chinese absorb unprovoked abuse and cruel blows, and then rise to resist and fight back. After a see-sawing struggle, the "good guys" eventually win, miraculously, and usually at the last minute, overcoming the superior firepower and material resources of the devilish invaders through guerilla cunning, kung-fu fighting and party-civilian cooperation. The rise of China's communist party and its historical correctness is a de rigueur element of the genre, the supposed silver lining of the war that ravished China and wreaked havoc from 1937-1945.

Given China's ironclad claim as a victim nation, it is not surprising that Chinese television dramas should now and then be hard on Japan. A certain degree of outrage and indignation is understandable, maybe even cathartic, since the dramatic replay of terrible historic incidents is bound to be tied up with emotional empathy and identification with wronged ancestors. But if the endless stream of wartime dramas are failing to get the history right, or take devilish detours down the back alleys of supernaturalism and sexual intrigue, what possible educational purpose do they serve? There's entertainment value of course, but given the top-down state-directed nature of media content, one has to wonder about the political intention, and the political effect.

China’s massive anti-corruption crackdown has led to the disgrace of the influential security czar Zhou Yangkang who is credited with permitting, perhaps even actively encouraging, anti-Japan street protests and stridently anti-Japan media reports. If the demise of Zhou’s powerful faction serves to reduce the influence of the outspokenly anti-Japanese Jiang Zemin, there is an opportunity to reset Sino-Japanese relations. Diplomatic opportunities are likely to arise with the diminishment of the clique most responsible for playing the Japan card to foment nationalism.

If it continues unabated, the boom in programming that exploits divisive history and gratuitously stages the annihilation of Japanese all day long on hundreds of millions of TV screens around China may well bear negative consequences. If any of the urgent, simmering issues that pit Japan against China at land, sea, or in the air should explode into hot conflict at a time when the mass audience is being inundated with anti-Japan themed drama, the propagandistic and prejudiced qualities of the genre, as ridiculous as they are in times of peace, may take on a more sinister aspect.

Perhaps the trumped-up nationalism and dramatization of antipathy for Japan is just a temporary expedient and the genies of xenophobia and racial prejudice will be kept in the box and safely contained, but for what it's worth, China's communist party has just ordered up extra servings of "patriotic drama" as it readies for National Day on October 1, 2014 and the big party congress that will soon follow.

(updated on August 25, 2014)

A sampling of spring 2014 Chinese TV dramas set during the war period. All of the programs listed below, including those aired on provincial satellite channels listed below were viewed in Beijing in May 2014.

Blue Wolf” (Canglang) Sichuan TV

Black Fox” (Heihu) Beijing Youth TV

“Heading into Cannon Fire” (Xiangzhe paohuo qianjin) China Educational TV, channel 1  

“Enemy Troops Coming!” (Binglincunxia) BTV Scitech 

“Club the Dogs” (Dagougun) Hebei TV

“Purple Sun” (Ziri) Hebei TV

 Legendary Hero” (Chuanqi yingxiong) Chongqing TV

 Martyr on March  (Zhuangshi chuchuan) Zhejiang TV 

Codename: Mulan” (Daihaohuamulan)

“On Fire” (Qianghuo) Guizhou TV

 Daohoupi  (Daohoupi) Tianjin TV

“Dihou Hero” (Dihouyingxiong) Sichuan TV