Thursday, December 25, 2014


(this article was first published in CHINA-US FOCUS, October 25, 2014)

Last Emperor

Back in 1986, China was but a picturesque background for big Western films, not a market. The producers of blockbusters such as "The Last Emperor" and "Empire of the Sun" had no illusions about theatrical distribution in China apart from a few “friendship” showings at low cost or no cost.

The real ancillary market in those days was Japan, and both of these “China” films were tailored in little ways to please what was then the world’s second largest market. Bertolucci’s Emperor starred recognizable Japanese talent and had a superb score written by Sakamoto Ryuichi, who also acted in the film. Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was so faithful to its source material — JG Ballard’s recollection of life in Shanghai under Japanese occupation as seen through eyes of an airplane-addled boy – that it gave an oddly endearing gloss to a brutal takeover. When it came to screening in Japan, the localized marketing campaigns emphasized the Japan elements; the glamour of the cast in the first instance, and the obsession with the Mitsubishi Zero and Rising Sun insignia in the second. Even so, the Japan distributor of “Emperor” pressured producer Jeremy Thomas into cutting scenes containing actual wartime newsreel footage that reflected poorly on Japan.

Empire of the Sun
Three decades later, big co-productions still venture ashore in China, but they have to submit to being tied up like Gulliver on the beach, freedom of movement denied until they are tamed to pass muster with prickly cultural commissars. It is hard to imagine either Emperor or Empire getting made in China today, not just because of the economics of fielding a cast of thousands, but due to onerous regulations and censorship.
China, not Japan, is the most coveted ancillary market for Hollywood today, and doing things right by Beijing is the price that must be paid to partake in the multibillion dollar theatrical stakes.
Hollywood has always been politicized, at least as Marxists see it, and even-non Marxists would acknowledge that Tinseltown tends to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, be it the material exuberance of the 1920’s, the prudish strictures of the Hayes Commission in the 1930’s or the patriotic production of war propaganda in the 1940’s.
The “guidance” in co-productions these days is to insert China content and hire Chinese talent, but there are other ways to thread the box office needle. Happily for directors such as James Cameron, epic special effects films such as "Titanic" (1997) and 3D action pix such as Avatar (2009) are among the most remunerative films ever, the latter still China’s box office leader.
The sky is still the perceived limit in China’s dynamic film market, but the distribution game is not for the faint of heart as protectionist sentiment in China is on the rise.
While China has wowed the world with its economic prowess in manufacturing and trade, it is still playing catch-up in creative and innovative endeavors such as film. As such, China’s reception of Western imports betrays a mix of humility and arrogance, admiration and covetousness, –a desire to learn from Hollywood in order to one day beat Americans at their own game. When the quota for foreign films was increased from 20 to 34, the expansion made room for 3-D films only, a dazzling new technology that China is keen to copy, co-opt and master. Sometimes this eager impatience manifests itself in negative ways, such as the IMAX dispute involving claims of stolen technology, or, more agreeably, in the announced purchase of 20% of Imax’s Chinese business by China Media Capital and FountainVest Partners.
Former Shanghai actress Luo Yan, whose Silver Dream Productions has advised Relativity Media and other US clients on the China market says, “Hollywood has never faced such a challenge in its history.” She says the Chinese audience is developing its own tastes related to a national culture that is hard for foreigners to understand.
Not that getting a grip on what people will pay to see in the theatre is easy for Chinese either. The box-office success of the locally produced "Tiny Times" (2013) illustrates the difficulty of knowing what works and why. The lightweight tale about four young women enjoying the hedonism of modern-day Shanghai, ("Sex and the City" being an obvious influence) disappointed foreign film pros and party hacks alike. What kind of cultural barometer is this? Why does something so obviously superficial and derivative continue to pack them in?
Tiny Times, box office sensation

At the same time, serious works, even those in tune with reigning political currents, sometimes go to comical lengths to compete with popular pabulum. When The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894 《一八九四•甲午大海战》 (2012)) hit the screens, the publicity campaign featured unrelated buzzwords ripped straight from contentious headlines of 2012: “Diaoyu Islands, Nansha Islands, Shisha Islands.” For some inexplicable reason, Iwo Jima, which had recently been renamed “Iwoto” by revisionist Japanese authorities, was also included in the eye-catching but anachronistic poster.
Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894

The delayed release of Lu Chuan’s Nanjing, Nanjing (2009) shows how even China’s most powerful production entity, the China Film Corporation, can be stymied by political shifts. This sober film was held up for a year due to ostensible censorship concerns, but not so coincidentally, its initial release date was pegged at one of those rare junctures where it looked like Sino-Japanese relations might improve due to a spate of Sino-Japanese summitry leading to a possible off-shore gas deal, with the result that one hand of the state promoted the anti-Japan fare while the other hand sought to squelch it. The film’s unsparing depiction of Japanese military atrocities against Chinese citizens was an unexpected box office success when it was finally cleared for release after the collapse of the gas deal.
Nanjing! Nanjing!

Beijing authorities issued guidelines this past summer calling for more “patriotic” and “anti-fascist” fare starting in September, but China’s mid-autumn holiday filmgoers opted for middlebrow American art, as an ape costume drama vied for ticket sales against a mercenary action film packed with an ensemble of bankable stars.
As Hollywood Reporter put it:
“Planet of the Apes Narrowly Tops Expendables 3.”
Moviegoers vote with their feet. Despite the imposition of quotas, guidelines, government subsidies, script meddling, the manipulation of release dates and holding up payment of earned revenue, the China box office has a mind of its own.

Philip Cunningham is a media researcher and political commentator with film and TV experience in China and Japan.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014


"The Interview" (2014) is based on a deeply-flawed conceit rooted in American exceptionalism; that a film about the killing a leader for the fun of it is funny as long as the target is unpopular and foreign. Such a cinematic hit job may or may not boost box office, but one thing is sure; it speaks volumes about America’s increasingly out of control culture of violence.

Look at the violence associated with America today; kids shot by cops, civilians cut down by drones, a gun industry selling tools of murder with impunity and an international arms trade to match. The US has a brutal prison system swollen with violent offenders that is now the largest archipelago of incarceration in the world. 

Look at the mindless school shootings and heart-breaking acts of terror, the abomination of state-sanctioned torture and a foreign policy that calls for an endless war that provokes political kidnapping, suicide bombing and videotaped murders in retaliation. 

America has lost its course; America has lost its compass. It's the violence, stupid.

“The Interview” may be a joke of a film, but the escalating war of words between anti-Kim detractors and the pro-Kim hackers is deadly serious. Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in,” Sony Japan in its own subtle, understated way, belatedly said "no" to its decadent, derelict Hollywood division.

There are things far worse than taking simple precautions in the face of a threat, and that includes doubling down on the bad behavior that created the conflict in the first place. Is it really worth calling for revenge and beating the drums of war to justify an exercise in bad taste?

What core principles are at stake? Does a commitment to free speech mean that anything goes, that values have no value? Does Hollywood not have pieties of its own, topics it won't touch?

Is it right to indulge, in fantasy, as in foreign policy, in the bloody destruction of people beyond our borders?  

Does respect for diversity go out the door when the US border is crossed, in accord with NSA policy of exploiting the privacy of foreigners?  

Is racism and prejudice okay outside the US zone of influence?

It might also be mentioned that there’s nothing funny about journalists doing hit jobs, either, as was the tragic case in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda rival Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by a camera crew on September 9, 2001 as a precursor to the attacks of 9-11.

President Kennedy, in the last days of his life, poignantly pointed out how wrong it was for the US to sanction the overthrow and killing of Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. In more recent times the US government has targeted, with terminal prejudice, unpopular leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. 

For the US, a country that lost four presidents and dozens of civil rights leaders to assassination, not to mention the ongoing epidemic of violence on the street, is it not preposterous that a film depicting the targeted killing of a living leader for kicks should be hailed by the US president, and trumped up by political commentators, as a precious product that deserves the widest release possible.

Garbage is still garbage, and hate is still hate, even if the bad guys are bad.

Hollywood is political, and like US politicians, it takes great care not to offend powerful US constituencies, partly out of fear of push-back but also because the industry is not devoid of decency and there is a sporting sense of what's right and wrong.

As the list of countries that the world's sole superpower does not control or maintain significant influence in shrinks, the shortlist of Hollywood villains gets shorter. Even Cuba, itself the historic target of attempted US hit jobs, is looking friendly now. And China, even before it became a coveted film market in its own right, was too powerful and self-protective to go up against. So, what do you do on a level playing field full of strong people? Kick the dog?

That seems to be Hollywood's attitude to little North Korea. It's odious enough, isolated enough, and until recently, regarded as impotent enough to bear the brunt of trade in hatred and personified evil.

In Japan, as the US, the Pyongyang regime is slyly vilified as a proxy for untouchable China. As a vestige of the losing camp in the Cold War, it's a useful villain and foil for US triumphalism.

Why if it weren't for North Korea, there'd be no one to kick around anymore. Well, we'll always have the Nazis. Central casting can breathe a sigh of relief that Hitler's foot soldiers, safely sequestered in a horrific chapter of the past, are beyond redemption and will always be available for backlot bad guys and stock villains.

To state the obvious, it should be stressed that what the hackers did to Sony was utterly wrong. The hack was devastating and raises issues of Internet privacy and digital security that will be addressed for years to come. 

Where the Sony hackers lost their "lulz" and turned a technically impressive attack into something beyond the pale was the follow-up threat of violence directed against movie theatres, and the implausible, but chilling invocation of 9-11. That's the kind of hatred the controversial film was trading in.

American TV news is on the story, exploding with indignation. But this kind of over-reacting to withdrawal of the film, which President Obama contributed to with some flippant words chiding Sony in a press conference, will ironically lead to an even greater erosion of free expression and privacy. Who do you call when the hackers strike? 

The FBI and NSA have already come running to the rescue.

But with all of this hullabaloo, where's the reflection? Where's the cultural humility and self-questioning? Who in the US talk show circuit has the courage to go against the anti-North Korean stampede and xenophobic catcalls for war to acknowledge that America has a problem in the way it promotes and glorifies violence?

Even with free speech as a most cherished national value, there are lines best not crossed. The classic example starts with yelling fire in a movie theatre, but as the unhappy saga of “The Interview” all too clearly demonstrates, needlessly incendiary movies are not only not in good taste, but sometimes result in real-world violence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014



(Japan Times)

“The Interview” may be a joke of a film, but the Sony hacking incident and escalating war of words between anti-Kim detractors and the pro-Kim hackers is deadly serious. Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in” Sony finally found the gumption to say "no" to its own misguided and derelict pandering of violence, hatred and racism.

Is it worth beating the drums of war for an exercise in bad taste? What principles are at stake? Is it not about free speech?

The US is rightly proud of its tradition of free speech and Hollywood filmmaking. But to put a lame, zany ill-conceived comedy film on the frontline of a trumped-up battle in defense of Western values is a bit like betting the bank on Bozo the clown and refusing to back down. For one, it suggests the Hollywood mogul's Midas touch can do no wrong, when there's ample evidence of tone-deaf studio bungling and bad judgement. Sony's American  branch inadvertently echoed the kind of one-sided righteousness  invoked by defenders of the CIA’s indefensible torture record; admit no wrong, for if we do it, it cannot be all that bad.

Hollywood hardly holds the high moral ground on free speech issues either; it has a rich history of self-censorship, pandering to vested interests and playing to power. Sony Executive Amy Pascal is no exception; she vowed she would never work with Mel Gibson after his intemperate drunken outburst about Jews, which he later apologized for, yet her reputation now rests on her decision to green-light and promote a racist film that takes cheap shots at Asian characters.  

Free speech runs the gamut from the principles of the founding fathers and other lofty ideas all the way to hate speech, anti-Semitism and incitement of panic or crime, and America, with its penchant for political correctness, is not the bastion of free speech it pretends to be. What's more, as Sony has learned, America's obsession with violence on the screen, while couched in terms of artistic "freedom" is not without consequence, even if it's just a second-rate slacker comedy looking for quick bucks and cheap laughs.

The kill scene in Seth Rogan’s “The Interview,” in which an explosive projectile strikes the leader of North Korea in the head and creates a fiery mess is not only not art, but it constitutes a kind of hate speech which would be fiercely contested if the object of the on-screen killing were the standing leader of the US or an ally.

The Sony hacks are unprecedented, but it is ludicrous to characterize them as an act of war, as suggested by radio shock jock Howard Stern, shock politician Newt Gingrich and other assorted knee-jerk rightists spoiling for a fight. 

The financial damage to Sony is real, and mounting, and the hack raises vexing issues of how to balance privacy and journalist’s right to publish leaked documents and a host of other digital age conundrums that will be discussed for years to come. But for Aaron Sorkin to cry "treason" and squelch discussion of leaked material because it happens to be humiliating to him, or to argue that the hack is an act of war along the spurious lines that financial loss is equivalent to an act of terror is a good illustration of just how out of touch some of these Hollywood execs can be. If the Sony hack was an act of war because it involved monetary loss, one is left without words to describe the incomparably bigger shock that Wall Street inflicted on the world in 2008. Or "Shock and Awe" for that matter.

The anonymous hackers warned moviegoers away from the theaters, an ugly development by any reckoning. Nobody likes to be told what to do, but perhaps nowhere more so than in post-2001 America, where the received political wisdom suggests that the US way of life is entirely honorable and non-negotiable; Americans will continue to do what they please, and will do so with a vengeance, all the more so for being told not to. The despicable threat of violence might even boost the film’s popularity in a perverse way. Bring it on.

But therein lies the crux of the issue. Isn’t American society saturated with enough violence already? Has US foreign policy not tweaked enough foes and wreaked enough death and destruction abroad? Have the shoot first, ask questions later tactics of US domestic policing and the horrid schoolyard shootings and the violence of America’s vast prison archipelago become such an integral part of the national DNA that it is normal to relax and celebrate the season of light by scheduling a “feel-good” assassination comedy on Christmas Day? What was Amy Pascal thinking?

Morita Akio, the legendary head of Sony, who built a world-class company from scratch on principles of quality and prudence, thrift and innovation would be horrified to see his legacy at risk due to a bloated, inane stoner picture. Morita admired the United States and thought the US and Japan had a lot to teach each other, but he also pointed out that American executives were ridiculously overpaid and lacked an understanding of Asia. He stressed the need for Sony to build bridges with neighboring countries in Asia, an important part of Sony’s core electronics market.

The Sony head office in Japan understands this, which is why Seth Rogen’s snuff comedy never had a serious chance at theatrical distribution in the Japan market, or on the Asian mainland either. A film that depicts the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for a country like Japan which had no police shooting deaths in a year when the US had over 400.

The Pyongyang regime is unpopular with its neighbors, especially Tokyo, which has seen citizens kidnapped from Japan’s shores by its erratic and tyrannical neighbor, and even Beijing has been sufficiently annoyed by North Korea's bad behavior to look the other way when Chinese netizens made a  music mash-up making fun of a dancing Kim Jong-un. But a graphic cinematic kill crosses the line into stupid, gratuitous violence.

There’s no magic fix for Sony in the face of its own lousy decision-making, but this time but after extensive bungling Sony was right to say no. If its American branch chooses to release “Interview” at some future date it would be prudent, and congruent with the best of the Hollywood's creative tradition, to edit out the exploding head and work for laughs the old fashioned way, by earning them.

Japan Times

The author has worked in film and TV in China and Japan since 1986.

Thursday, November 6, 2014



China is rising, peacefully for the most part, but there's been considerable muscle flexing and elbow-bumping between China and Japan in recent months. No longer does the Deng Xiaoping maxim of keeping a low profile and biding one's time seem to apply. The profile is high and the time is now.
A glimpse of how the brass new China views itself in the world can be gleaned from the increasingly strident, orthodox tone of state run television. Nationalism is increasingly worn on the sleeve, or in the case of newscasters and spokesmen, in the form of China flag lapel pins.
Consider “Midnight News” the first broadcast of the day on CCTV's "Xinwen" channel, China's answer to CNN. The round-the-clock news service begins its May 30, 2014 news coverage of the world with a series of strident reports about Japan. The program opens with a troubling report about how Japanese pilots have been engaged in provocative behavior threatening the legitimate passage of Chinese aircraft on the high seas.
The neatly groomed announcer points out that China has been acting with restraint and very much within in its right, conducting a legitimate air-sea drill in the sea off its shores. The first bulletin of the day goes on to accuse Japan of a series of "irresponsible and dangerous maneuvers," including the twin incidents of May 24 in which a Chinese jet came within 50 meters of a Japanese surveillance plane, and cites another case in which a "Japanese warplane" came within 30 meters of a Chinese jet, iIlustrated with stock footage of the aircraft in question, The report states that Japan’s outrageous provocation is only the latest in a series of "deliberate close encounters" inside China's "Air Defense Identification Zone." 

As if the danger of collision, inadvertent or otherwise, weren’t obvious enough, the report brings up a previously undisclosed case dated months earlier in which saw two aircraft come within ten meters of each other, a hair’s breath in aviation terms. The report suggests it was all Japan's fault, as China was engaged in professional operations conforming to policy and regulations. China scrambled its jets for identification in accord with internationally accepted practices.  A repeating loop of file footage showing Chinese and Japanese aircraft doing maneuvers in flight adds drama to the breaking news story.

This hot lead is followed by an indignant piece of analysis about how Japan Prime Minister Abe is single-handedly trying to change collective self-defense to allow Japan a more aggressive international role. China's smooth and unruffled Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, wearing a red flag pin on his lapel, denounces "An-be" as the Japanese prime minister is called in Chinese, in plain, no-nonsense terms that suggest a fit of diplomatic pique. The accompanying images of the Japanese Prime Minister, though drawn from file footage, do not show to his advantage.
The Beijing-based chastisement of Abe is followed up by a satellite link report with a CCTV reporter in Tokyo who interviews a Japan antiwar activist whose position happens to hew close to the Chinese one. The cursory vox populi is aired in the original Japanese, translated with subtitles. The Tokyo report then cuts to a news clip of a small but lively Japan demonstration against Abe's unwarranted shift in policy, which is evidence, CCTV concludes, that among Japanese ordinary people, (minjian) there is opposition to Abe’s proposed changes.

The two lead stories with a focus on bad news about Japan have now run nearly ten minutes, an eternity in news time. As if to capture the flagging attention of the late night viewer or random channel surfer, the news puts an emphasis on striking visuals and arresting catch copy. The just aired pieces cut from the narrator to show a series of bombs and jets and Top Gun maneuvers drawn from impressive TV file footage of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces exercises. The Japanese Hinomaru flag, and its likeness as an insignia on jets, planes and ships, is displayed prominently in many shots.
The virtual war scenes, stitched together from innocuous footage and the TV producer’s imagination, are followed by actual horror of war scenes as the first news report of the day turns other big stories of the day. The youthful, well-groomed announcer turns his attention to Ukraine, where wire services footage of bombings, fleeing civilians and wanton destruction on the ground offer a harrowing, unglamorous counterpoint to the slick illustrated theatrics of Sino-Japanese tensions in the previous segment.
The next story in the top of the hour lineup features Edward Snowden, talking to NBC reporter Brian Williams in Moscow. It includes a subtitled clip of Snowden explaining in English how your phone can be turned on remote, how people can be hurt by unwanted electronic intrusion and unfair profiles based on metadata
Next up is a brief pro-Russia PR segment about how Russia is strengthening its good relationship with former Soviet states of Kazakhstan and Byelorussia. This glowing coverage is in tune with over two weeks of positive coverage and optimistic pronouncements reflecting an upswing of mutual admiration dating to the Shanghai Confidence Building Conference that was boosted by the attendance of the image-conscious leader Vladimir Putin, who enjoys considerable popularity in China.
The report makes note of a prospective Sino-Russian pipeline and gas deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars, a possible game-changer in global energy fortunes, and The pro-Russian reportage caps off a news cycle that has been demonstrably favorable to Russia, with a segment about the joint Sino-Russian naval exercises recently held in the South China Sea, and serves as a geopolitical context for the opening report on the aerial near-miss with Japan.
A final tidbit of Japan news is presented, again showing pictures of Abe, saying Japan will ease sanctions in return for more cooperation in finding evidence of Japanese kidnapped citizens in North Korea. The subtle uptick in Japan-North Korean relations in the context of a broader honeymoon between China and Russia suggests a departure from the Cold War alignments, but the Cold War norm of a world divided into camps still seems to apply. China-North Korea relations have cooled sufficiently, and Japan’s foreign policy moves have been met with sufficient official outrage and skepticism to leave doubt in the mind of the viewer about the true intentions of Japan’s delicate rapprochement with its long-time bete noir, North Korea.
The Xinwentai’s Midnight News report on the state of the world of is followed by a few short clips of domestic developments in China, making it an almost exact reverse of the flagship nightly news at seven, Xinwenlianbo, which is almost entirely focused on domestic news, with a just a few minutes to cover the rest of the world at the end of the program.
There’s a report about the record-breaking heat wave scorching Beijing and many parts of the country.
Next is a cultural item about fabled Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu, whose magisterial novel "Fortress Besieged" describes China during the time of Japanese invasion. Qian's extensive foreign language notes and manuscripts have been published. The midnight news program closes with a series of brief clips touching on transportation, including China's ever-expanding high-speed train network, regulations for truckers, a clip of Google's driverless car and some stunning footage from the Kazakhstan launch of the Soyuz spacecraft, shown at liftoff and docking with the International Space Station.
The closing bumper, with its feel-good good-news of advances in transportation, is of a piece with China’s hunger for new technology and visionary, if not slightly insane, projects like building a high-speed train line from China to Alaska via Siberia, an alternative to the Panama Canal in Nicaragua, and planned moon shots. As has been the case with already executed mega projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which is silted and near capacity, new pipelines and a rapidly expanding high-speed rail network, short shrift is given to environmental worries and the downside of development.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


"Let's take back Japan" is code for "Let's trash history to put Japan in the best possible light"


NHK, Japan’s answer to BBC, is apparently mulling a ban on topics of historical contention such as “comfort women” the “Nanking Massacre” and thorny territorial disputes. This is as predictable as it is disappointing. The gist of the gag order is: don't report the news, report the Abe government's take on the news, don't reference history, refer instead to the fairy tale that neo-nationalist Abe Shinzo likes to call "Beautiful Japan."

The thrust of the new policy is to whitewash, if not deny outright, the amply documented bad behavior of Japan during its war of invasion in China. The orders, reported by Richard Lloyd Parry in the Times of London, clearly reflect the thinking of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, who is well-known for wearing strident nationalism on his sleeve. As Abe has suggested in his book “Beautiful Japan” and has said repeatedly as a sop to his revisionist political base, Japan needs to offer its youth a brighter vision of Japan’s past than the truth, as expressed in textbooks and newspapers, currently allows for.

Naturally this won’t play well in China, nor does it jibe with the interests of good journalism anywhere, and that’s where NHK’s policy shift looks interesting. The ever-changing editorial line is sometimes hard on China, sometimes easy on China, but consistently subservient to Japan's ruling party. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when NHK went out of its way not to offend or criticize China, even in the aftermath of the horrific bloodletting in the heart of Beijing on June 4, 1989. As a contract employee at NHK during the post-Tiananmen period on China-related matters, I was constantly wrestling with taboo topics and editorial red lines, written and unwritten, that guided what could and couldn’t be said about China. It was patently clear that the three T’s --Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan- were to be avoided or tip-toed around at all costs. NHK recognized, not incorrectly, that Beijing's recalcitrant leadership regarded these matters as core issues. As for motivation, NHK's remit went beyond journalism and included a vital public relations role; it did not want to ruffle feathers or risk a then-booming bilateral trade. 

While working as a TV producer at NHK in 1991, I used the phrase “ideological drift” to describe the atmosphere in post-Tiananmen China in a script I wrote for China Now, a magazine format TV news show that culled footage from CCTV and NHK to highlight trends on the mainland. After the show aired on satellite TV, the Chinese Foreign Ministry voiced an objection to the notion that a Japanese TV show should criticize China in this way. NHK quickly apologized, blaming the indelicate wording on the “gaijin.” I kept my job, but the screws tightened on what kind of words I could use and what topics could be covered.

Part of this reflects the hybrid institutional culture of Japan's biggest TV station. NHK models itself after BBC’s non-governmental fee-based model, and yet frequently functions as a state-run TV would, taking the government position on controversial political issues and serving as the voice of the nation to the outside world. This quasi-governmental structure, funded by the public, yet guided by the state, on whom it depends for only a tiny but critical fraction of its funding, means that the “voice of Japan” is either going to reflect the prejudices of the incumbent government, or it is going to go to great lengths to preserve its independence by being neutral and politically correct to the point of being neutered.

A more trivial example of how editorial policy served as a guide to censoring content involved the word "Disneyland."  The script in question invoked the name of the American theme park in a descriptive passage about the Qing Dynasty imperial pleasure palace Chengde, which I described as an "ancient Disneyland.” NHK, though deeply in bed with Japanese industry, especially the electronics sector, took exception to the fact that I named an American company. This went against its policy of brandishing brand names, lest it be accused of free advertising or commercial favor.

Curiously enough, NHK did not require me to get a work visa for the first year I worked there, joking that it was unnecessary as I was working for the government anyway, and when I did formalized my visa status a year later, I was personally whisked through immigration by the brother of a prominent LDP minister.

In May 1992, while moonlighting as a rewriter on the graveyard shift for Radio Japan, NHK’s answer to VOA or BBC's World Service, I got a better feel how words mattered, and how a phone call could change a story like night and day. NHK’s coverage of political unrest in Thailand had taken the line that Bangkok street demonstrations were disruptive, part of an anti-government movement. Every time I tried to use the phrase “democracy movement” it got cut. The cruel Bangkok crackdown that came to be known as “Black May” saw the Thai military government step down to be replaced by a civilian government, thanks to timely intervention by King Bhumiphol. As the crisis began to resolve itself, Radio Japan got a late-night phone call from someone in the Foreign Ministry, instructing it to henceforth use the term “democracy movement” and so it did.

The point is, NHK is far more than a news and entertainment TV station. It is also a critical component of Japan’s self-presentation to the world and an intelligence organization, in the best sense of the word. I eventually quit China Now because the program was being used, in part, as cover to move funds and personnel into China at a time when Japan was eager to buy influence there. The credits to the program I worked on as producer/writer included the names of many people I had never met and never would meet. But they were going back and forth from Tokyo to Beijing under NHK and China Now auspices, spending some $10,000 a day according to my supervisor, NHK’s former Beijing bureau chief.

As with BBC, which famously refused to broadcast the voices of Sinn Fein and pro-IRA Irish politicians by fiat from London, and has long played highly cooperative role with British diplomacy, as evidenced by the firing of journalist Andrew Gilligan and in its collusion with the government during the deeply compromised Hutton Inquiry, NHK exudes a governmental tone even as it strives for editorial independence.

NHK’s current chairman, Momii Katsuto is an Abe political ally famous for bullying NHK into toeing the government line on issues such as territorial disputes and reports about  “comfort women.” The station remains mired in a top-down bureaucracy where image counts almost as much as news, and where the goal of a journalist practitioner is not just to inform but to produce a public relations product that casts Japan in the kindest light possible, even if it means ignoring well-established truths.

The author, who won a Nieman Fellowship based on his reporting from China and Japan, was most recently an Abe Journalism Fellow '14. 

PM Abe the "fireman" using juvenile props on a TV show to sell his pro-US, anti-China security pact

Thursday, August 7, 2014


"Tunnel Warfare"(1965) set the standard for the anti-Japan dramas that followed

Chinese TV in 2014 was ordered to step up the airing of "patriotic" drama

China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes; the 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. The buzzwords of Sino-Japanese frictions today --Nanjing Massacre, comfort women, Diaoyudao-- were conspicuous by their absence from film and media reports of those decades.

The startling upswing in the production and consumption of anti-Japan narratives set during China's war of resistance against Japan will be examined in the context of similarly-themed productions that came before. Looking back on films and TV dramas made at discreet points in decades past one is tempted to link such production to the zeitgeist of the era and indeed, films must need reflect something of the environment they were made in, --no film is made in a vacuum. A more difficult question is whether or not films, especially widely-viewed war films also can be said to have influenced their era in a way that touches on real issues of war and peace, such as in nudging foreign policy or popular readiness for war. 

The debate over the influence of films on society is ongoing and unresolved. In the US, critics of the violence on TV and in film are usually answered by defenders of the industry with a variation of "art doesn't hurt people."  The argument is that film is entertainment, a cathartic experience at best, like that of good stage drama, and only very young children or feeble-minded adults would mistake art for life and vice versa.  

The prevailing Hollywood view, which is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess the influence of anti-Japan dramas on a tense bilateral relationship, is that art is art and shouldn't be over-interpreted as an inspiration to action. But movies do move people, if only in mysterious ways. Marilyn Young argues "In the Combat Zone", that filmic nostalgia for war isn't just entertainment but is also "about salvaging war as a fruitful human activity. It is also intended to hold a mirror to our own corrupt times." Or as Ian Buruma wrote in the Guardian after seeing the Michael Bay production "Pearl Harbor" (2001) the message of the film seems to be that "we should feel nostalgia for the times when dying for the nation was called for." Both these observations are applicable to the earnest but hackneyed production and promotion of anti-Japan war dramas in contemporary China as it struggles with the problems of peacetime ennui, ideological drift, immense corruption and nostalgia for more heroic times.

Given the plastic and mutable narrative structure of drama, a war film designed to meet the criteria of both the censor and the propagandist may fail at its intended purpose and instead, in the manner of drama in general, find a reception primarily as escapist entertainment and not something to be taken as the literal truth. In searching for the most potent media influences on popular opinion, drama would appear at best to be a poor cousin to newspapers, news broadcasts and history texts, since it makes no pretension of being the literal truth. The symbolic weight of fictional storytelling accounts for a lasting emotional power that lingers and influences and cannot be easily dismissed, but it is rarely a serious thinking guide on how to understand current events.

Bearing these points in mind, it is worth to review the celluloid influences and precursors to the current boom of drama set during the Chinese war of resistance against Japan. A few memorable films were produced just before the chaos of the Cultural Revolution broke loose, after which China film production all but ground to a halt except for Jiang Qing-approved "yangbanxi" or revolutionary opera productions.
"Tunnel Warfare" (1964) tells the story of a
village militia that outfoxes the Japanese
invaders by literally going underground.

A couple of well-crafted anti-Japan war movies stand out as celluloid landmarks of 1960's film;  "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. Indeed the fealty to this film is so great that when a remake was produced a few years ago, critics savaged it for "historical distortion" even though the original film was a martial fairy tale in its own right.

"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."

Hong Kong-Mainland pioneering co-production on Nanjing Massacre

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"

"Zi Ri" or "Purple Sunset" is set at war's end

"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.  

"Nanjing, Nanjing" (2009) by Lu Chuan

"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 tackled a tough subject to critical acclaim. It capped off a largely frivolous film decade dominated by corny comedy and zany drama. The topic of Nanjing hit the screens again two years later with the much anticipated but somewhat flawed  Zhang Yimou production "Flowers of War" (2011). Based on a novel by Yan Geling, it used the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre to show Chinese courage, chivalry and fortitude under stress, while also addressing the age-old dichotomy of fallen versus virtuous women. 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.

Sniper film "Cold Steel" (2011) (Biandi Langyan)
"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.

"The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894"(jiawudahaizhan) released in 2012 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.

 "Diaoyudao" is anachronistically included in the PR posters promoting "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.

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.

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 even if the film is otherwise forgettable. 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.

Japan, too, has produced numerous war dramas for cinema and TV audiences, but more often about the Pacific War, with its kamikaze heroics over contested sea and air, than the China War. Perhaps the search for a heroic narrative  is part of the reason for this, since no amount of white-washing can alter the unpalatable fact that Japan entering China was a war of invasion. Unlike Chinese films about being victim to Japan's predations, and the revenge fantasies that follow, the narratives of Japan's films tend towards elevating the heroism and devotion of soldiers fighting a lost cause.

Take for example the Ishihara Shintaro-scripted, "For Those We Love" (Ore-kimi) 2007 or "The Men of the Yamato"' (Otoko tachi no Yamato) 2005 and it is plain that the story line is not about revenge or demonizing the enemy, but whitewashing the record and glorifying Japan's own fighters. 
Kamikaze suicide bombers in " For Those We Love," scripted by Ishihara Shintaro
In a similar vein, two recent Japanese films focus on the Mitsubishi Zero with abject awe, keeping the focus on its upward arc as a symbol of soaring technical prowess and courage rather than as a gloomy suicide-bomb machine that it ultimately became in the eyes of Japan's foes.  "The Wind Also Rises" (Kaze Tachinu) 2013 by anime maestro Miyazaki Hayao, lauds the designers of the Zero, the emphasis being on the joy of invention and flight, while "The Eternal Zero" (Eien no Zero) 2013, an Abe Shinzo favorite that was quickly denounced by critics as nationalistic propaganda, glorifies a kamikaze pilot for his spirit of ultimate sacrifice, as a didactic lesson for today's youth. 
"The Eternal Zero" glorifies a patriotic Kamikaze pilot

Even more controversially, "The Truth about Nanjing" (nankin no shinjitsu) 2007 by Mizushima Satoru, released during Abe Shinzo's first term as prime minister and acclaimed by then Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, is a revisionist trampling on China's holy ground of national victimology. The film is all about Japan's propaganda wars with China, yet interestingly, it was said to have been made in reaction to an American film rather than any of the Chinese productions on the topic.

The US-produced "Nanjing" 2007 directed by Bill Gutentag and starring Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway was not a box office success but it upset Japanese rightists who feared Americans were starting to buy into "Chinese propaganda" and see things the wrong way. Released in tense, soul-searching period after China's violent anti-Japan street demonstrations of 2005, it obviously hit a raw nerve. As succinctly expressed in The Truth of Nanjing Massacre, posted on youtube by a Japanese nationalist with the very telling tag "Japanascool" the reason why the US could side with China despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, is that "America needed to find the excuse that dropped atomic bombs. To become 'Hero' American needed to make Japan 'Cruel Villain.'"

Despite China's voluminous output of Japan war drama, including some pointed productions about the endlessly controversial Nanjing Massacre, such as "Nanjing 1937" and "Nanjing, Nanjing," Japanese filmmakers intent on "telling it like it was" seem to be more obsessed with contesting American versions of history than those of China. Most Japan-made war movies focus on the latter stages of the war when it became a battle in air and at sea between US and Japan. Japan's extremist defenders of the there-was-no-Nanjing-massacre revisionist bent of thought chose to go after Ted Gutentag's US production "Nanjing" rather than Chinese tellings of the story. 

Art, even bad art, is art and news, even bad news is news and hopefully the twain will never meet. 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 demonizing drama, the propagandistic and prejudiced qualities of art may come to influence real world thinking. As lightweight as many of the war dramas might appear in times of peace, at a time of conflict they may be interpreted to take on a more weighty  aspect.

(updated on August 31, 2014)