As the situation in China escalated, the Japanese government imposed limit on foreign movie imports. However, during this nervous and violent years, one Hollywood film broke the box-office record.

Happiness in Daydream

On August 25 in 1937, Sadao Yamanaka‘s HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS (人情紙風船, 1937) opened in theaters. The film was rather uncharacteristic of his work — devoid of humor, downbeat and tragic. On the same day, Yamanaka received the draft notice from the Army. “If this movie were to be my last, it’s a bit sad, aint’t it”, he said.

On the same day, Japanese Railway reportedly operated a special ‘fairy’ train called “Micky Mouse Train” for kids. I never saw the picture of this train. I have no idea what kind of the train it was, but I assume it must have sported the image of that famous mouse somewhere. They had four more years until Pearl Harbor Attack. And Japanese people were still fond of American mass culture, apparently.

However, the reality of Second Sino-Japanese War was quickly transforming the shape of the society into something shapeless and grotesque. As the situation in Shanghai escalated, Japanese government quickly reacted as if they had known it coming. In late July, Ministry of the Army instructed Japanese Red Cross to mobilize war-time medical units. In September, as it became clear they needed more war horses at battle fronts, the government prohibited unauthorized ‘transportation’ of horses. In big cities, taxies were ordered not to cruise around streets during night. Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued import ban on cotton, cosmetics, fruits, and tea to stop foreign currency outflow.

In motion picture industry, the import ban was imposed almost immediately after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Ministry of the Treasury suddenly issued complete ban on import of foreign movies in late August, 1937. Foreign movies were very popular, and cash outflow was reaching 10 million yen annually. They needed to stop this foreign currency outflow. Foreign film exchange companies and agencies made an alliance to protest the decision (read: bribes and more bribes), but it had no effect. The number of imported films plummeted sharply from 343 films in 1936 to 286 in 1937. And further down to 158 in 1938. Sadao Yamanaka’s last film may be depressing, but the whole industry was losing vibe.

Number of Imported Films in Japan (1934 – 1941)
Source: [4] [5]
Yamanaka was assigned to the 16th Division of the Japanese Northern China Area Army and sent to China in October. In December, the division participated in the Battle of Nanking, and ensuing massacre. We don’ t know the details of Yamanaka’s actions during this battle.

In December, came another blow. Ministry of Interior announced there would be another law, this time to impose a limit on the length of a program in movie theaters. The program must not exceed three hours or 5,000 meters in print length. They gave several reasons for this absurdity, but the main reason, they said, was to raise the standard of the movie production. That is, the censorship office could not keep up with the pace of movie production, so the production should be slowed down. Due to escalation of military aggression and atrocity in China, they had to have much more strict censorship to control information flow. This restriction was to be effective from February 1938.

When Japanese soldiers were piercing their bayonets into men and women in and around Nanking, one Hollywood movie was creating sensation in Tokyo. Though the import of new foreign movies were banned, the import agencies and companies still had some ‘ammunition’ left at their shelves. And popularity of this bomb was so powerful that one representative accused the movie of damaging the Japanese society in the Upper House.

On December 29, ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL (1937) starring Deanna Durbin opened in Hibiya Theater. The Universal Tokyo Branch, sensing Japanese would love this story, gambled on a single-bill roadshow for this movie, instead of usual double bill. They even raised admissions to 1 yen (ususally 0.5 yen). The gamble paid off. The Depression-era musical was a biggest hit during the winter season. Roppa Furukawa, the popular comedian, was quite impressed and noted “very good indeed” in his diary.

Tsutomu Sawamura, then a movie critic at Yomiuri Shinbun (newspaper), was quite enthusiastic about the film.

The script is wonderful. Deanna Durbin, a lovely young singing actress with spontaneous acting skill, Stokowski, a famous music director, and Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra are main three protagonists and the movie tells each story perfectly while melting them into one gentle tale. … The film is full of joy, like a fairy tale telling a story of happiness in daydream, that vanishes into thin air instantly.Tsutomu Sawamura

Yuriko Miyamoto, a communist-novelist, also saw the film on New Year’s Day. She wrote her thoughts on the film in her diary.

After four o’clock, three of us went to Hibiya to see ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL. As I watched how Stokowski does his conducting, I sort of got an idea. It is a kind of pantomime, and Stokowski couldn’t exist if not for such skillful players. Such a poser! He is a sort of snob. After the movie, we went to Hayashi-cho and had a salmon for dinner. Yuriko Miyamoto

ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL was such a hit, the theaters kept on holding it over week after week. Japanese branch of Universal Pictures (deliciously named “The Greater Japan Universal Film Distribution Inc.”) placed an ad in Kinema Junpo (May 11, 1938), to thank 147 movie theater owners, who had signed up for showing the film. Popularity of the film was staggering especially in Metropolitan area. In Tokyo alone, 51 theaters were listed in the ad.

“Thank You” Note from Universal, for Signing Up for “One Hundred Men and A Girl”

Dependency on Blue Eyes and Redhead

Just a month before the Deanna Durbin movie hit the Hibiya theater, Italy joined Anti-Comintern Pact. Thus the pact became tripartite among Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Some hardline officials and politicians made it clear that American influence was unwelcome. In December, Ministry of Interior began campaign against Hollywood movies, arguing that recent decline in domestic birth rate was due to Hollywood movies.

Decline in birth rate is result of foreign influence through the movies. People are made to think “babies are unproductive” and they behave like Americans. “Calamity is American cinema”

I wish I could ask this person which Hollywood movie actually influenced people so much that they began to think “babies are unproductive”.

Akira Iwasaki, a movie critic, read this article one day and sarcastically blasted “maybe this guy is right. Hollywood movies are products of social, academic expression of impotency born of the dilemma between ‘desire to attain higher quality of life and culture’ and ‘materialistic poverty'”.

Of course sarcasm doesn’t ring a bell in Fascist’s head.

In April 1939, the theme of discussion in the Upper House, the Imperial Diet, was the new Cinema Law. Kiichi Noguchi, who was a rookie representative from Kanagawa Prefecture, made a lengthy speech on his view on motion picture industry in Japan. He demanded it should be mandated to every movie theater to run double bill, and at least one feature should be a domestic propaganda film. To make his point, he talked about one particular Hollywood film.

As an example, when ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, featuring Deanna Durbin, a pretty actress with beautiful eyes, was once opened in theaters, movie ‘fans’ around the Metropolitan area flocked to see this picture. The ‘fans’ were so excited that the picture was held over and over. What did we, Japanese, gain from this? Two things: Dependency on blue eyes and redheads and 800,000 yen loss of cash leaked out into United States just for this one picture! (applause)Kiichi Noguchi

I don’t know what to say. I really don’t.

If you re-examine the Japanese movie industry around the time of ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL fiasco, you see they were not oblivious of the world situations. You might find it rather odd that some trade companies selectively promoted fascist propaganda films. For example: LO SQUADRONE BIANCO (1936), SCIPIONE, L’AFRICANO (1937), CONDOTTIERI (1937) and ICH WAR JACK MORTIMER (1935). These films were shown in the context of Anti-Comintern Pact. CONDOTTIERI was the first German-Italian co-production, and directed by Luis Trenker. Italian government financially supported the production. This film and SCIPIONE, L’AFRICANO were distributed to major theaters across Italy by ENIC, the para-state agency. These Italian films were imported exclusively by Kunimitsu Film Co., and heavily advertised. In one account, huge panels and posters of SCIPIONE decorated the entrance of the theater in the Asakusa Movie Theater District and successfully lured patrons into the ticket office. It is rather strange to claim ICH WAR JACK MORTIMER as a Anti-Comintern film, but I suspect it was ever a hit. There was also a Japanese documentary called ANTI-COMINTERN CRUSADE (防共十字軍, 1937), which explained how Anti-Comintern Pact worked.

Particularly interesting was reworking of the previously released films to create a propaganda film. BERGE IN FLAMMEN (1931) was a good example. A war film directed by Luis Trenker, it was a story of two mountaineer friends, Florian (Luis Trenker) and Arthur (Luigi Serventi), who had to fight each other as enemies during WWI. Apparently, the film was reedited by a Japanese company in 1937 and released as a “Special Japanese Version”. The new Japanese title now reads “Human Bullet Battles in Mountains, Global Mobilization Command”, which doesn’t make any sense. Ads were full of more nonsense: “How did Germany, Our Allies in Anti-Comintern Pact today, fought the last war? See a German spirit of a hero who dedicated himself to his fatherland”. And this catchphrase is unbelievable:

They fought a ‘human bullet’ combat in snowy mountains of Alps for three years! From this movie, think of our Imperial soldiers fighting in cold Northern China! Advertisement for BERGE IN FLAMMEN, rereleased in 1937 (Kinema Junpo, December 1937)


Advertisement for HUMAN BULLET BATTLES IN MOUNTAINS, GLOBAL MOBILIZATION COMMAND (1937), Japanese special new edit of BERGE IN FLAMMEN (1931). Kinema Junpo, December 1937

In this backdrop, ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL was released.


[1] Y. Okudaira, “Cinema under Government Control (映画の国家統制),” in ‘War and Japanese Cinema’ (戦争と日本映画), vol. 4, Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1986.
[2] Y. Miyamoto, Diary. Aozora Bunko.
[3] T. Kato, Film Director: Sadao Yamanaka (映画監督 山中貞雄). Kinema Junpo Sha, 2008.
[4] N. Furuta, “Japan’s Pre-war Animation Under the Rule of Cinema Law”, The Seijo University Arts and Literature Quarterly, no. 237・238, pp. 153–125, Dec. 2016.
[5] “Movie Industry: Imports,” Kinema Junpo, Jan. 01, 1938.
[6] R. Furukawa, Showa Diary. Aozora Bunko.
[7] Katei Sougou KenkyuKai, Ed., Showa Domestic History <1926 – 1989> (昭和家庭史年表). Kawaide Shobo, 1990.

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