I once went to see Bridge On the River Kwai in Tokyo with a Japanese friend. This film, about POWs on the Burma Railroad, is hardly complimentary to the Japanese. I asked my friend who the Japanese identified with. I found it hard to imagine that anyone would find much in common with Sessue Hayakawa, as the camp commandant. My friend said many young Japanese thought William Holden was pretty cool.
This image of the former enemy is untypical. American heroes do not appear much in Japanese films. But there are not many Japanese war movies that cast the Americans as out-and-out villains either. Bad Americans are more common in films about the post-war Allied occupation. There was a fashion in the 1950s and 1960s for films about US military bases in Japan. Audiences found it titillating to see beefy GIs abusing the local population and misbehaving with Japanese girls. It made them feel self-righteous and excited at the same time. The message was that "if our boys behaved badly in Asia, the Yanks are no better over here". A stock scene in countless movies about the Allied occupation is of GIs (often black) raping innocent Japanese girls, while shouting "Dirty Japs!" or "Jap bitches", or something to that effect. Most Japanese, who were not in the army, first saw their enemies after the war, in real life, and in the movies.
During the war, the enemy in Japanese films was usually unseen. There were, to be sure, movies about the war in China, where local "bandits" were pursued by heroic Japanese soldiers. But until the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese were not supposed to be at war with anyone. They were simply trying to keep "bandits" and Communists from disturbing the peace. And even after 1941, Japan was not at war with Asia; it was trying to spread Asian brotherhood, and liberate Asia from the Western imperialists. Or so it had to be presented in the cinema.
So Chinese or South-east Asian characters in Japanese war movies are rarely depicted as enemies. The most common story in Japanese war films between 1941 and 1945 is of an Asian character who resents the Japanese at first but soon realises that the Japanese are brothers in a common struggle against Western oppressors. For example, in Shoot That Flag (1944), directed by Abe Yutaka, a Filipino officer starts off by fighting the Japanese. But soon he is so impressed by their quest for peace that he joins them against the US. Dozens of films set in China, the Philippines, Burma, or the Dutch East Indies follow this pattern.
Sometimes the ending of these pictures was adapted to suit different audiences. In China Night, directed in 1940 by Fushimizu Osamu, a beautiful Chinese orphan falls in love with a Japanese naval officer. In the Chinese version of the film, they get married. In the ending for South-east Asians, he saves her from committing suicide. In the Japanese version, she succeeds in killing herself.
The American enemies are rarely seen in wartime movies, partly because there were not enough Caucasians to cast. Sometimes attempts were made to have Japanese run around with blond wigs, but that wouldn't really do. The other reason for caution was that American movies had been very popular in Japan before the war. So it was safer to keep the enemy out of sight, lest people feel sympathy, or worse, nostalgia. Most pre-1945 war movies concentrate almost entirely on Japanese themselves, on young soldiers dying patriotically, or on people at home: nurses, factory workers, mothers, children, all cheerfully doing their bit for the emperor.
The situation in movies made in Nazi Germany was not so very different. Most films were either sugary entertainments, or showed the stupendous virtues of the German people. The most vicious propaganda film featuring the "enemies" of the Aryan master race was Jew Suss, which is a tale of Jewish wickedness and German virtue, set in the 18th century.
In German war films made after 1945, the real enemies of the German people are not the Allies, and certainly not the Jews, but brutal German Nazis. In Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (1946) the truly nasty character is a German officer who ordered the killing of Polish partisans one Christmas Eve. There are no German wartime heroes to identify with, only bad Germans and suffering Germans.
In Japan, the odd military hero, such as Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, the man who planned the raid on Pearl Harbor, does crop up in some post-war movies, particularly ones made by the conservative Toei studios, but mostly the emphasis is on Japanese suffering. Films about the bombing of Hiroshima are always popular. These are of varying quality and degrees of dishonesty. One egregious example features US tourists, coming to Hiroshima after the war to buy souvenir bones of Japanese victims. Still, the point of the A-bomb films is not the evil nature of the enemy. The point is that the bomb, like the rest of the war, hit Japan like a plague. Who was responsible is left unclear.
Kamikaze pilots are the subjects of another popular genre. Young, handsome men, brimming with patriotism and sincerity, sacrifice themselves for a cause they believe in. Many Japanese see great beauty in this. The young men are often compared to cherry blossoms, their lives cut short in full flower. But here too, there is no question of heroic victory over wicked enemies. On the contrary, the beauty of the kamikaze stories lies precisely in the knowledge of certain defeat.
Perhaps the film that best sums up the general tone of post-war Japanese war movies is Ichikawa Kon's The Harp of Burma (1956). Set in 1945, after the Japanese defeat, it is the story of a group of Japanese POWs in Burma. They have all suffered and sacrificed. We see the corpses of Japanese soldiers (never of Burmese civilians, or Commonwealth soldiers) rotting in the sun. One of the Japanese soldiers decides to become a monk, and stays behind to make sure every Japanese soldier is properly buried. We never see Japanese soldiers do anything bad, nor do we see bad enemies. All we know is that war is bad, and the Japanese, having suffered so terribly, are sincere in their desire for peace.
British and American movies made after the war, show a very different perspective. We were brought up with heroes. Alec Guinness and William Holden belong to us. And even during the war there was never a lack of refugees who could act the parts of of wicked German enemies. Germans in British films either confirm the British conviction that foreigners are inherently comical - funny accents, stupid manners, no sense of humour - or vile and sinister: Ve haf vays... and so on. The Japanese enemies in American films are generally depicted as barking fanatics.
Children of the Allies have had the luck of growing up on the side of the angels. I don't know whether that is always an advantage. If Germans and Japanese are struggling with their own demons, many of us are still fighting an imaginary enemy. The fact that those imaginary enemies are now doing rather better than we are, adds a certain irony to the situation. It has made sure that in the end everyone feels sorry for himself.
n Ian Buruma is the author of 'The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan', published by Jonathan CapeReuse content