Japanese Army and Cabinet Information Department intensified censorship and propaganda campaign after Nanking Massacre. Ashihei Hino's novel 'Wheat and Soldiers' was a product of such a media control by the government.
This is part II of the series. Part I is here.
Ashihei Hino, whose real name is Katsunori Tamai, was born in Fukuoka, northern Kyushu, in 1907. His father managed a large group of dockworkers in the Wakamatsu port, where coals were unloaded every day. Hino developed a taste for poetry and literature in his teens, and studied English literature in Waseda University. His study was cut short by military duties, and he worked under his father eventually. Around this time, he became interested in labor issues and socialism. He was drafted to Army for the second time in 1937, and sent to Shanghai (Hangzhou Bay) in November of that year as a soldier. Before he left, Hino submitted a novel called ‘Tales of Excrement and Urine’ to the magazine ‘Bungaku-Kaigi’. The novel received Akutagawa Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Japan, in 1938. Now, he became the most promising ‘soldier-novelist’ in the eyes of Japanese Army PR division. PR division and Kan Kikuchi decided to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Kan Kikuchi was not only a popular novelist but also a successful entrepreneur. He was President of Bungei Shunju Publishing and established Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize. He actively cooperated with Cabinet Information Department to design propaganda scheme in the realm of literatures, critique, poetries, plays and even movies (he later served as President of Dai-Ei). Army PR division and Kikuchi coordinated the Akutagawa Prize ceremony in the Army camp in Hangzhou, sending Hideo Kobayashi, a noted literary critic, as a presenter. It was a solemn and grandiose ceremony, against Hino’s wish. The ceremony was publicized to capitalize this new brand of ‘soldier-novelist’.
Hino was immediately transferred to Army PR division. His next task: write a book about Sino-Japanese War from the viewpoint of a soldier. Hino was assigned as an Army war correspondent in Battle of Xuzhou and finished the book ‘Wheat and Soldiers’ by early summer. The Army PR division constantly interfered with his writing, crossing out every minor detail, and adding layers after layers of propaganda.
In later years, Hino noted PR division officers demanded him to follow these seven rules.
1. Do not write a scene in which Japanese Army is losing. They never lose or retreat.
2. Do not write the dark side of war.
3. Illustrate enemies as contemptible as possible. Our allies are all respectable, while enemies are all beast.
4. Do not describe the entire picture of military campaign.
5. Do not disclose the names and compositions of any division, troop and platoon.
6. Do not develop each soldier as a human character. Especially all the officers must be described as morally wholesome and pure.
7. Do not write about women.
Every page had to go through two stages of censorship within the Army, and each sentence was checked from every angle in accordance with these seven rules.
‘Soldier Trilogy’ went on to become bestsellers, and the total of 2 to 3 million copies were sold. Since it was designed as a propaganda tool, ‘Wheat and Soldiers’ was translated into English in 1939. Pearl Buck was impressed by ‘honesty’ of this work. It was one of the Japanese books that inspired young Donald Keene to study Japanese literature. (You can read the English translation here.)
Tomotaka Tasaka and Realism
Naturally, any movie mogul would consider making a film out of such a national bestseller. As early as summer of 1938, a rumor of film adaptation plan, with Hiroshi Shimidzu as a director, was circulating in the Shochiku Ofuna lot. However, Shochiku was not cut out for the grim and unglamorous tale of a soldier – its strength was in women’s films and tear jerkers. In the end, it was Nikkatsu which picked up the second installment of the trilogy – “Earth and Soldiers” – for film adaptation and sent Tomotaka Tasaka to China for massive location shooting.
Tasaka had joined Kyoto Nikkatsu in 1924 and directed various genre films ranging from comedy to melodrama. He exceled in honest depiction of honest people, and his first critically acclaimed work was SHINJITSU-ICHIRO (真実一路, 1936). Tasaka directed FIVE SCOUTS (五人の斥候兵, 1938), a tale of five soldiers in China, based on a short newspaper article in 1937. Though shot in Narashino in Chiba and Nikkatsu Tamagawa in Tokyo, the film was praised for its relentless realism in combat zones, peppered with just right amount of human interest, and nominated for the best film in Venice International Film Festival. While some critics called the film “anti-war” at the time, Tasaka commented depiction of humane side of soldiers would inevitably lead to anti-war sentiment.
When I finished the film (FIVE SCOUTS), I received the notice from the Censorship Office. I thought I would be grilled for its unfavorable depiction of the war. Then, some big guy in the Censorship Office greeted me and said “Congratulations!”. They gave me some bonus or something, 500 yen or so. I felt pretty odd.
– Tomotaka Tasaka
EARTH AND SOLDIERS was in fact pretty similar in approach to FIVE SCOUTS, but in much more grandeur scale. The whole production was on location near Hangzhou in China, and the production unit was attached to the Army. The actors and staffs worked under “real” conditions, as the “real” soldiers were fighting the “real” combat nearby. All the ammunitions used in the film were “live”. Tasaka said he wanted to avoid flag-waving and the film may be boring to some audience because there was little drama. However, because of the location shooting in such an environment, he considered the film uncompromisingly “real”.
The story follows advance of the Japanese Army from Hangzhou Bay to Kazen, focusing on one unit led by Corporal Tamai. The large part of the film is devoted to the soldiers on foot, just keep on marching. Most of the combat scenes are static shots, except for a couple of very swift and long tracking shots following the soldiers running through the field. There is no voice-over narration and the plot is almost non-existent. Though minimal in its approach, EARTH AND SOLDIERS is extremely loud and relentlessly violent. In the last thirty minutes, the audience are pounded with incessant blasts, chattering machine guns, and bombing after bombing. Sheer magnitude of destruction may be, in fact, on par with CG-laden pyrotechnics in big-budget Hollywood productions today.
When this film was released in November 1939, it was a moderate success at box office, probably falling short of the studio’s expectations. To put this film into a perspective, it may be helpful to know Kenji Mizoguchi’s THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS (残菊物語, 1939) was also released in the same month. The notorious Cinema Act was enacted earlier that year, allowing the government officials (mainly Ministry of Education and Ministry of Interior) greater control of the cinema industry. As discussed in Part I, Army HQ and Cabinet Information Department, prompted by Nanking Massacre, had been anxiously seeking the greater power to control media. Though Cinema Act had been on table well before Nanking Massacre, the censorship officials (and military officials) took a great advantage of the new regulation as if it was tailor-made for their purpose.