Propaganda war is declared in cinemas over Nanking massacre

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The Independent Online

One way to learn what happened in one of history's most noxious but disputed episodes is to ask Satoru Mizushima. After what he calls "exhaustive research" on the 1937 seizure of the then Chinese capital by Japanese troops, estimated to have cost anywhere from 20,000 to 300,000 lives, Mizushima offers a very precise figure for the number of illegal deaths: zero.

"The evidence for a massacre is faked," he explains. "It is Chinese Communist propaganda." For support, he brandishes a book containing what he says are dozens of doctored photos. One shows a beheaded Chinese corpse with a cigarette in its mouth. "Japanese people don't mistreat corpses like that," he says, stabbing the page for emphasis. "It is not in our culture."

The world will soon get a chance to assess his claims when Mizushima's movie, The Truth of Nanking, reaches the cinemas. Arguments over what occurred in Nanking began almost as soon as Imperial soldiers marched into the city on 13 December 1937 and have only grown in ferocity since.

These smouldering disputes are set to cross over into mass entertainment on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, with nearly a dozen movies, backed by US, European and Chinese money, set to pick again at Nanking's scabs. Whatever the end result, one thing is certain: Japanese neo-nationalists have little hope of winning the propaganda war second time around.

Yesterday, Chinese historians published an eight-volume list of 13,000 victims of the invasion, which includes the names, ages, sex, occupations and addresses of the victims, which Japanese army unit was responsible and how the victims were killed. But the work of the historians will make little impact in comparison with that of the film-makers.

Mizushima's reputed $2m (1m) budget for The Truth is dwarfed, for example, by the $53m Purple Mountain filming in China. Adapted from the bestseller The Rape of Nanking by the bête noire of Japanese conservatives, Iris Chang, the US-Chinese film is aiming for nothing less than an Asian version of Schindler's List.

The $35m Nanking Xmas 1937, helmed by the Hong Kong art-house director Yim Ho, meanwhile, will depict the efforts of foreigners in the wartime city to protect civilians from Japanese troops. The award-winning Japanese actors Teruyuki Kagawa and Akira Emoto appear in John Rabe, a German movie also starring Steve Buscemi and Ulrich Tukur (The Lives of Others) as the eponymous Nazi, dubbed the "Schindler of China" for rescuing Chinese civilians. Nanking! Nanking! stars other big names in Chinese cinema.

The fact that various tentacles of the Chinese state are involved in these productions will doubtless fuel the suspicions of neo-nationalists in Japan. "China is trying to control what the world thinks of Japan," said Mizushima.

Beijing faces a tricky balancing act. Nanking occupies a central place in the foundation myths of post-1949 China and the success of the Communists in beating both the Japanese and the nationalists. The government hopes to ensure an event that was for decades ignored in popular culture is not forgotten. At the same time it must avoid damaging bilateral ties as its growing power contrasts with the decline of Japan.

One sign that the horrific events of Nanking are no longer only a bilateral issue is the growing interest of foreign film-makers. Oliver Stone is in script development for a Nanking film, and Roger Spottiswoode is in post-production with The Bitter Sea, about a British journalist who witnesses the massacre. The powerful documentary Nanking, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (Twin Towers) is already out.

Most frustrating of all for Japan, however, is a documentary by the Canadian husband-and-wife team William Spahic and Anne Pick. The Woman Who Couldn't Forget: The Iris Chang story focuses on the author of the book that dragged Nanking back into the daylight, igniting calls to remember the massacre among the Chinese Diaspora in North America. Chang, who committed suicide three years ago, is the inspiration and unofficial patron saint to most of the new movies. Her book was picked apart by conservatives in Japan who accused her of exaggerating, sloppy research and the biggest sin failing to distinguish between the truth and wartime Chinese propaganda.

At the very least, anti-Japanese sentiment is likely to be inflamed in China, where nationalist passions are already high. More bad publicity is certain to come from Europe and America.

As for Mizushima and other deniers, how will they react to taking such a monumental beating in the propaganda war? "I think that it will reinforce their siege mentality," said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "They seem to think that they are the sole possessor of 'truths' and 'historical facts' under siege [by the anti-Japan Chinese among others], and that those 'truths' will prevail, if only they are widely and correctly disseminated in the international community, particularly to the American audience. Of course, they are only deluding themselves, and they end up digging a deeper hole for themselves."