Film review: "City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!)"

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In April 2005, a Japanese junior high textbook set off protests across China. The book was an updated version of the one which triggered violent scenes four years earlier when it was first released. Approved by the Education Ministry, the text refers to the 1937 Nanjing (formerly Nanking) Massacre – in which some historians say at least 300,000 people were killed by Japanese troops in the then Chinese capital – as an “incident”.

There was a lot more at play, though, than simply a revisionist textbook compiled by nationalist historians which critics say whitewashes Japan’s wartime atrocities. The spring 2005 protests were also directed at Tokyo’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat. Forty-four million Chinese signed an online petition in opposition to their East Asian neighbour joining the P5 at the top table of international relations. This particular illustration of historical memory shaping a postconflict interstate relationship worried Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Nobutaka Machimura enough that, at the height of the anti-Japanese demonstrations, he visited China and proposed that their nations conduct joint historical research.

The Chinese refused, initially. But earlier this year, the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee published its report. While commentators have focused on the still-disputed death toll, points of agreement were reached: that the Japanese army committed atrocities during the war and that Japan’s illegal acts of aggression were the main cause of hostilities.

I mention all this as a way of providing context for City of Life and Death, a film currently on limited release in the UK. After the spate of paperbacks and programmes released in 2007 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the nightmare of Nanjing, it was feared that Lu Chuan’s 2009 production could make a simmering Sino-Japanese rivalry – what some have likened to Anglo-German relations prior to World War I – boil over. Yet despite its Chinese director receiving multiple death threats for his refusal to demonize the Japanese, the recently developed “strategic relationship” between the two nations is likely to continue untroubled.

The same cannot be said for cinema-goers, however, since you come away with more questions than answers notwithstanding scenes of civilians and disarmed soldiers being bayoneted, burned and buried alive leaving you close to speechless.

Do not get me wrong, though, Chuan should be applauded for his jaw-dropping recreation of Japanese occupation. After all, Lawrence Olivier said when narrating The World at War in 1973 that “Even the Nazis were shocked” by the actions of the Imperial Army in 1937. Yet while stark black and white footage ensures that the visual impact crosses any language barrier, it can make the 135-minute movie feel as long as the 26-epsidoe series.

Worst still, in this instance, it makes for a blackness of space, with no prior history, no surroundings – no context. This is not to say that the director has not meticulously researched his subject: he evidently has. And four years spent working on the script makes for nothing if not an accurate portrayal. But ultimately, history is written by the historians – not the victors or film directors. It is to them, then, that we now turn for answers as to how and why events unfolded as they did.

Michael Burleigh tells us how. The preeminent historians’ latest book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II, has just hit bookstores and devotes an entire chapter to the form of appeasement which shaped the governing class of the day. As appreciative as he is of the facts that Japanese aggression in Manchuria came at the worst possible time (in the depths of the Great Depression, let us not forget) and that the Royal Navy could not patrol three theatres at once, he is scathing when it comes to “Ineffectual condemnation by the League of Nations of Japan’s aggression in China”. Talk of sanctions allowed the Japanese to pose as victims of white aggression. “This contributed to Japanese self-isolation,” the best-selling author writes, “with a corresponding urge to break out through further acts of defiant violence.”

Niall Ferguson tells us why. In The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, the Harvard don calls the period 1904-1953 the “Age of Hatred.” His 2006 tome masterfully explains the logic behind territorial expansion and why empire became so important to “self-styled ‘have not’” Japan. Yet it is his discussion about the “capacity to treat other human beings as members of an inferior … species” that is compelling reading for anyone interested in how “The brutal methods the Axis powers used to build their empires swiftly turned living space killing space.”

Earlier this year, Japanese activist Tamaki Matsuoka released a documentary in which veterans speak for the first time on film about their eight-week killing and raping spree. The independent film, Torn Memories of Nanjing, is just the latest step in her 10-year campaign to expose Japan’s atrocities in China. The words of one veteran, Sho Mitani, vividly illustrate Professor Ferguson’s point. “We were living in an age where we were taught that Chinese were not human,” the 90-year-old former navy sailor said. “The army used a trumpet sound that meant ‘Kill all Chinese who run away.’ We were taught from childhood in schools that Chinese were like insects.”

My advice, then, would be to at least watch Matsouka’s 84-minute Torn Memories of Nanjing. Failing that – a distinct possibility seeing as it has been released in only three Japanese theatres after premiering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, read Ferguson and Burleigh to put some flesh on Chuan’s bone-like raw treatment. “For although the events of the Second World War seem so far behind us,” the latter concludes, “in many ways they continue to structure mentalities in the contemporary world.”

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