War and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Film: Hong Kong Martial Arts and Japan’s Victim Playing, Part II

Originally written for an Asia in Film course during my graduate career, the following is the second part of a study that explores the demonstration of both Chinese and Japanese nationalism through their respective films in the twentieth century. This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

Shifting gears to look at Japan’s nationalism in films, the observer would notice that such implicit and grandiose segments and dialogue placing the nation’s needs and honor above any individual is vacant in such films, mainly the country’s war films. As a 2016 Japan Times article mentions, Japanese has the “highest sense of pacificism and the lowest sense of patriotism of any country in the world.”[1] Japan’s war films, centering around the Second World War, began to become popular in the Japanese public in the 1950s, the postwar years. In these films, studios portrayed Japanese soldiers and sailors in an almost positive light; some might even say the studios were very nostalgic of the war. Many films, like Eagle of the Pacific (1953) and Farewell Rabaul (1954) focus more on the Pacific Theater – and Japan’s navy and air force – where Japan fought mainly the might of the American Navy and Airforce. This conveniently leaves out the army and the country’s mainland Asia campaigns for public consumption. Further, many films take the format of Eagle of the Pacific, serving as a biographical film for Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Each film that tackles Yamamoto portrays him as the prime example of a war hero, as his sternness and ironic anti-war stance sets him apart from his peers. This and other films like this from the decade create a fondness for the war years, emphasizing an innocence the navy and air force possessed throughout the war.[2]

Kaji (left) facing punishment from an officer in The Human Condition. Source: BAMPFA.

Yet, other films from the decade were critical of the war years, to which cinema professor Liew Kai Khiun states in his 2010 article that “a wave of criticism of the war years in which burden of responsibility was transferred from the American Occupiers to the former regime.” Films like the Human Condition trilogy (1959-61) and I Want to be a Shellfish (1959) critiqued war time responsibility. The former deals with the Second Sino-Japanese War, to where the Japanese government sends the pacifist protagonist Kaji to a labor camp in Manchuria. Here, the viewer can see the Japanese soldiers’ mistreatment of the Chinese laborers and later, Japanese harassment and abuse towards other Japanese soldiers. Such indiscipline of the soldiers obviously falls to their superiors, and by way of proxy, to the Imperial regime of Japan. Further, the latter film focuses on Class B and C criminals of war crimes, or the average soldier in relation to the war crimes. The protagonist Toyomatsu is placed on trial for the attempted murder of an American prisoner of war on orders from his superiors. Though found guilty of this crime, the film portrays Toyomatsu as an average soldier, following orders from his commander. These films, as a result, place the blame of war time actions on those above them, creating a sense of victimhood in the Japanese people.[3]

A busload of Kempeitai – Japanese Military Police – in 1935. Source: Historia Wiki.

In some strange way, the average Japanese citizen was a victim of the country’s militarism and imperialism. Khiun mentions that Japan implemented martial law with the Kempeitai (secret military police) brutalizing any citizen who broke curfew. In addition, almost every aspect of Japanese society became militaristic, especially the education system. Much like how military superiors could beat subordinates for almost no reason at all, the new militaristic culture permitted teachers to do the same to their students. For soldiers to express or manage their frustration of physical abuse, they turned to such acts of rape (of their own nurses and conquered peoples) and extreme violence.[4] Yet such brutality from an extreme militaristic society onto its citizens does not warrant historical memory loss or clinging to victimhood. This victimhood, however, is what the films in the next two decades further explore and, at times, propagate to their viewers.

Films during the 1980s and 1990s place themselves in a difficult position, viewing the Second World War through the lens of victimhood. Films like the animated Barefoot Gen (1983) and Grave of the Fireflies (1989) focus and emphasize the suffering and destruction of the Japanese people and surroundings during the final days of the war. Yet the films also portray a renewal of the collective voice of the Japanese people, promoting the sense of victimhood as the nation’s identity. In focusing on the suffering and destruction of the Japanese people, both animated films give a human face and story to the affliction and devastation of the War, allowing audiences to feel a sense of sympathy for Japanese civilians during the conflict. Though focusing on similar topics, each film’s protagonist demonstrates two different ways on dealing and coping with the chaotic final days of the War.[5]

Japanese film poster for Barefoot Gen. Source: IMDb.

In Barefoot Gen, the film centers around a young boy named Gen, his experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the event’s aftermath. The film begins with Japan’s Pacific War with America, then a slow credits-like roll of Japanese cities that the American Airforce bombed in the final days of the War, ending with Hiroshima. This list furthers the sense of victimhood, demonstrating to the audience that Japan and her people were targets, not humans, to American bombers. Though, what is ironic is the film’s opening Japanese narration provides the context of the War, stating that after three-and-a-half years of fighting the Allies, the “Japanese have seen the tide of battle turn against them” while the English opening narration explicitly mentions Japan’s surprise attack on Peral Harbor. The difference between the opening narration is striking, demonstrating how noncommittal the filmmakers were at in providing the historical cause for the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. Yet, throughout the film, Gen demonstrates a resistance to authority, or at least to societal norms, something he inherited from his father; he does not accept victimhood as the way the Japanese people should go – he expresses a sense of agency on how to live his life in the face of utter misery. Instead, Gen demonstrates an “indomitable spirit of resistance and renewal,” despite the horrors from the atomic bombing and losing half of his family to a fire in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. It is in this tragedy that Gen finds “moments of resolution and hope for the future.” Though his mother becomes docile and isolated after the death of half the family, Gen becomes “energized by [the] adversity” of rebuilding Hiroshima. Though some Japanese citizens are unable to muster the strength to carry on after such a magnitude of destruction and suffering, Gen becomes a symbol for other Japanese citizens to not stay in the dark, but to continue moving forward so that there may be some light in the Japanese collective, resisting the victimhood narrative, and establishing power over one’s life.[6]

The second film, Grave of the Fireflies, the protagonist Seito and his sister face the constant threat and dangers of the American firebombing in the final days of the War, perfectly demonstrating the sense of victimhood that permeates through the Japanese war genre. The film begins with Seito preparing to head over to the local bomb shelter with his sister as his mother leaves early, due to a heart condition. The American bombers find their mark, setting fire to Seito’s surroundings. As Seito and his sister survive, their mother was not so lucky, dying from burns. The two orphans soon move into a patronizing and demeaning aunt’s home, to which the two children spend their days as though a war was not occurring outside. Soon, the aunt, angered by Seito’s inactivity to help “serve [their] nation,” suggests the brother and sister go live in an abandoned bomb shelter. Quickly, Seito moves out, only to find that his sister dies from malnutrition and, shortly after, finds out that his father in the Imperial Japanese Navy died. Unsure what to do, Seito falls into sorrow and depression, later dies of starvation.[7]

Seito and his sister on his shoulders, acting as children during the final days of the Second World War. Source: IMDb.

Comparing Seito to Gen, the observer can see stark differences between to the protagonists. Seito, and Grave of the Fireflies overall, demonstrate a sense of passivity or a sense of powerlessness in the face of “nightmarish […] despair.” The constant threat of the American’s firebombs creates a continuous circle of despair and suffering that, as anime and manga professor Susan Napier asserts in her 2005 book, offers no historical contextualization, forcing Seito to “continually experience” his suffering, offering no chance of escape. In this continuous circle, Seito’s only response to suffering is not to act, or commit any real, meaningful action against the unfortunate series of events he experiences throughout the film. The audience clearly sees Seito’s coping mechanism for the suffering around him when his aunt asks him why he is not working or at school. His response, to the confusion of his aunt, is that the firebombing destroyed his school and the steel mill. The aunt replies that Seito is old enough to help fight the fires, suggesting that Seito help his community around him to become useful. His aunt further suggests this idea, with more of an annoyed tone, as Seito and his sister receive different and lower quality food compared to the others living with the aunt, who do work to “help our nation.” Instead of going out and finding a job that would increase the quality of food for both him and his sister, Seito takes to trading and bartering his dead mother’s possessions for food. Yet, when he becomes stuck in the same situation, Seito takes his aunt’s suggestion of living in an abandoned bomb shelter, demonstrating his passivity and avoidance to his problem.[8]

The way that Seito deals with his problems throughout the film demonstrates and propagates (almost) the victimhood narrative. The loss of the War, to Grave of the Fireflies, creates a loss of Japan’s national identity. Because Japan lost the War and received the destruction of both the firebombs and the two atomic bombs, the Japanese people find their national identity in victimhood. Both films, however, reference the Pacific War; in Barefoot Gen, the beginning timeline starts with the Pacific War and in Grave of the Fireflies, Seito’s father is in the navy and Seito even recalls a naval parade before his father sailed off to war, spurring up some nationalistic feelings in the protagonist. Both of these films do not “delve into issues of guilt or responsibility,” as any mention of the War is restricted to naval references and flashbacks. Even though Barefoot Gen rejects the notion of victimhood, the film still centers around the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the focal point of Japanese victimhood after the War. Such emphasis on victimhood reveals itself in even some of the more nationalistic and right-leaning films.[9]

Japanese film poster for Pride: The Fateful Moment. Source: FilmAffinity.

The final film, Pride: The Fateful Moment (1998), further carried the victim narrative. The film follows Tojo Hideki during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), or the Tokyo Trail, from 1946 to 1948. The film, from the beginning, received funding from Seine Jiyuto, a right-wing political party that wants to “correct the ‘errors’ of Japan’s World Ward II history and instill greater pride in the nation, especially the young.” As anthropology professor Charles Nuckolls points out in his 2006 article, there have been many other films in Japan’s postwar history that received funding and backing from right-wing organizations and political parties. Pride is nothing new in this regard, but Nuckolls mentions that before the film’s release year, discussing Tojo was a social taboo, and yet, the Japanese public began slightly rethinking Tojo in the overall Second World War narrative by the time the film released.[10]

The film first begins on December 8, 1941, infamous date when the navy and air force launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Here, Tojo begins a broadcast for the nation, speaking of the glory of the Japanese Empire and the burden Japan must carry to free all of Asia from Western colonialism. Later, the film cuts to the moments before the American soldiers’ arrest of Tojo. During the arrest, Tojo attempts suicide with a pistol but fails, creating public outcry in his disgrace. At the trail, Tojo, with the rest of the accused, plead not guilty. Throughout the trail, he is politely defiant of the American prosecutor, talking in vagueness and in circles to the ire of the prosecutor. At one point, Tojo accepts his actions, saying that war inevitably gets soldiers killed. He further states that he himself did not have any real control over the War’s events yet defends the Emperor’s role in the war. In the end, the tribunal sentences Tojo to death, to which he accepts, saying that he will become like Taira no Masakado, an ancient samurai that supposedly became a malevolent spirit after death.[11]

During the trial, the American prosecutor asks Tojo bluntly why Japan prepared for war with both China and America. Tojo, after offering vague answers, responds that the war in China was a conflict based on the need to defend Japanese citizens there and the armed reinforcements in American territories near Japan, which was in response to Japanese aggression on the Asian mainland, providing the Japanese with enough evidence for an imminent American invasion. This is the only Japanese film out of the ones discussed here that reference the war in China. Even still, Tojo blames Chinese aggression on Japanese citizens on the mainland for the reason to wage war on the already fractured country. Tojo blames the American response to Japanese aggression in China as a motive to attack Pearl Harbor. This passing and placing the blame on others instills and furthers the victimhood narrative to Japanese audiences, even in this right-leaning war film.[12]

It is also important to note that since Tojo’s arrest scene, the film cuts to various scenes of India during its independence movement, cementing a connection between Japan’s anti-Western colonial war with India’s fight for independence. One scene where Tojo discusses the Great Asia Charter with two other politicians, the three men conclude to help India in its independence movement, mainly for the positive effects a free India would have for the Japanese war machine and the negative effects on Britain. In another scene, the film shows Tojo with one of the Indian characters as the Japan-sponsored Indian National Army cheers on for independence, solidifying the connection the Japanese Empire has with India’s independence movement.[13]

Though these scenes are secondary, the outside Asian response to the film harkens the same responses since the end of the War: failure for Japan to recognize wartime crimes and accusing the country of historical revision. Such controversies do not help Japan, considering that the Ministry of Education, in 1977, shrunk its 200-page section on the Second World War, to six pages, showcasing pictures of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Japanese war dead, and American firebombs, to meet the newly created guidelines. Further, during the 2001 and 2006 period, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continued the Ministry’s action to “gloss over Japan’s wartime atrocities.” In addition, Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine that houses a handful of war criminals, on multiple occasions, further straining political relations with China and other Asian countries. The shrine visits strained relations so badly, the Chinese citizens began protesting Japan’s actions, something that does not normally occur in China.[14] Japan’s neighbors are critical of not only Japan’s political actions, but of the nation’s film industry as well.

This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

When director Wilson Yip began working on the first Ip Man film, he wanted to examine the teacher of Bruce Lee, seeing “how would a martial artist react to [the Sino-Japanese War]?” When interviewed on his thoughts on the character, actor Donnie Yen mentioned that Yip Man was a “skilled martial artist who is also a scholar, a family man […] I felt like we really hadn’t seen a Gung Fu hero like this before.” Even director Yip commented that Yip Man was a character one could identify with; that Yip Man was not “some sort of super hero,” just an average man in a changing time in China.[15] In these martial artists-turn-national hero Hong Kong and Chinese films, the Chinese people can find some sort of solace and national pride in light of foreign encroachment, past and present. These martial art films allow for the Chinese to return to their cultural roots and be proud of them. In the Chinese/Hong Kong films discussed, audiences rallied behind them showing their cultural roots to the rest of the world.

In Japan, however, films do not portray such grandiose feelings of nationalism, only the darkening feeling of misery and the narrative of victimhood. There is nothing grand about suffering, nor can the Japanese people find solace or the national pride that China demonstrates in its films. Such war films in Japan create controversy and call into question the morality of the pre-war and War years. Hence, such war films in Japan are not popular to the country’s audience.[16] Yet, when Japan’s film industry releases a war film, it demonstrates anti-war sentiment, as discussed with the country’s films during the 1950s, Grave of the Fireflies, and Barefoot Gen. Though strongly anti-war in each is depiction of war violence, each film emphasizes the suffering and despair of the Japanese people. In a sense, the films wanted their audiences to rally around negative experiences of hurt, almost implying that the war years were just that, negative experiences and suffering. All this does is further the victimhood narrative, allowing the Japanese people to claim such a negative experience as the country’s modern perception on nationalism, contrary to China’s perception of nationalism.

This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.


[1] Edo Naito, “Patriotism and Nationalism in Postwar Japan,” The Japan Times, September 3, 2016, accessed February 25, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/09/03/reader-mail/patriotism-nationalism-postwar-japan/.

[2] Sandra Wilson, “Film and Soldier: Japanese War Movies in the 1950s,” Journal of Contemporary History 48, no. 3 (2013): 539–44.

[3] Liew Kai Khiun, “Self-Inflicted Pain: Japanese Cinema on the Pacific War,” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 8, no. 3 (April 2011): 190; Wilson, “Film and Soldier,” 547–53; Masaki Kobayashi, The Human Condition: No Greater Love, Drama (Shochiku, 1959).

[4] Khiun, “Self-Inflicted Pain,” 196–98.

[5] Susan J. Napier, “No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and ‘Victim’s History,’” in Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, 9th ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 218–19.

[6] Napier, 219, 223, 225, 226; Mori Masaki, Barefoot Gen (Herald Enterprises, 1983).

[7] Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies, Anime (Toho, 1988).

[8] Napier, “No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and ‘Victim’s History,’” 219, 221; Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies.

[9] Napier, “No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and ‘Victim’s History,’” 218.

[10] Charles W. Nuckolls, “The Banal Nationalism of Japanese Cinema: The Making of Pride and the Idea of India,” The Journal of Popular Culture 39, no. 5 (2006): 818.

[11] Shunya Ito, Pride: The Fateful Moment, Historical Drama, 1998; Nuckolls, “The Banal Nationalism of Japanese Cinema,” 824–26.

[12] Ito, Pride: The Fateful Moment.

[13] Ito; Nuckolls, “The Banal Nationalism of Japanese Cinema,” 819–21.

[14] Kang, “Anti-Japanese Popular Nationalism and China’s Approach Towards Japan amid Sino-Japanese Political Tension, 2001–2006,” 163–64, 166–68, 170.

[15] Splendid Film, Interview Met Regisseur Wilson Yip; Eric Lilleor, “Donnie Yen: Bringing Ip Man to Life » Wing Chun Illustrated,” Wing Chun Illustrated, April 15, 2013, accessed February 7, 2019, https://www.wingchunillustrated.com/2013/04/15/donnie-yen/.

[16] Lukas Schwarzacher, “War Pix Prop up Nation’s Ego,” Variety 396, no. 6 (September 27, 2004): 18–18.

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