Unravelling the knots of Nanking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

Acrop of new movie releases to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre is again set to dredge up controversy surrounding one of the 20th century's most notorious and disputed events.

One perspective can be gained from Satoru Mizushima, president of Japanese right-wing webcaster Channel Sakura. After what he calls 'exhaustive research' on the seizure of what was then China's capital by Japanese troops in 1937 - 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 says. 'It is Chinese communist propaganda.'

He brandishes a book containing what he says are dozens of doctored photos. One shows a beheaded Chinese corpse with a cigarette stuck 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 have a chance to assess these claims when Mizushima's movie, The Truth of Nanjing, hits the cinemas. The documentary is supported by more than a dozen lawmakers, including Nariaki Nakayama, a former education minister, and a panel of academics led by history professor Shudo Higashinakano, who provides much of its thin intellectual gruel. Courts in China and Japan ruled recently that Professor Higashinakano libelled survivors of the massacre, Xia Shuqin and Li Xiuying, in two books that documented their experiences of atrocities as fantasies.

Arguments over what occurred in what is today called Nanjing began almost as soon as imperial soldiers marched into the city on December 13, 1937, and have only grown in ferocity since. They are played out for the digital generation on YouTube, where hundreds of clips, including Who Witnessed Nanking Massacre and China Could Not Prove Nanking Massacre Had Happened, are posted, along with the foulest of racist comments.

These disputes will finally cross over to mass entertainment on the 70th anniversary, with nearly a dozen movies backed by US, European and Chinese money set to pick again at Nanking's scabs.

Most are still being filmed or are in post-production. But Japanese neo-nationalists have little hope of winning the propaganda war.

Mizushima's reputed US$2 million budget for The Truth, funded by 5,000-odd supporters, is dwarfed, for example, by the US$53 million Purple Mountain, named after the picturesque peaks around the east of Nanking and now filming in China.

Adapted from the bestseller The Rape of Nanking by the bete noire of Japanese conservatives, Iris Chang, the US-Chinese film is aiming for nothing less than an Asian version of Schindler's List, director Simon West has told Variety magazine.

In other productions, award-winning Japanese actors Teruyuki Kagawa and Akira Emoto will appear in John Rabe, a German movie also starring Steve Buscemi and Ulrich Tukur as the eponymous Nazi, dubbed the 'Schindler of China' for his role in rescuing thousands of Chinese in the so-called Nanking Safety Zone. Rabe is also the subject of another German documentary, John Rabe: The Schindler of Nanjing, produced by public service broadcaster ZDF.

The US$35 million Nanking Xmas 1937, led by Hong Kong art-house director Yim Ho, meanwhile, will depict the efforts of the small foreign community to protect civilians from rampaging troops.

Then there is Nanking! Nanking!, reportedly starring some of the biggest names in Chinese cinema, including Liu Ye and Feng Wei.

The fact that various arms of the Chinese state are involved in all these productions will doubtless fuel the suspicions of Japanese neo-nationalists that this is a Beijing-steered plot designed to drag Japan through the international mud. Some are already muttering darkly about Chinese 'black propaganda'.

'China is trying to control what the world thinks of Japan,' Mizushima says.

But the directors and writers behind the movies claim they have been forced to tone down content by nervous Chinese censors fretting about their impact on ties with the country's biggest Asian trading partner.

The makers of Nanking! Nanking!, for example, reportedly endured months of vetting before getting permission to shoot, and then on condition that the state-owned China Film Group be allowed to jump aboard.

'The movie touches on the sphere of diplomacy,' director Lu Chuan recently said, hinting that his script was shuffled across the desks of the Foreign Ministry and the Central Propaganda Department before getting approval.

Beijing faces a tricky balancing act. Nanking occupies a central place in the foundational myths of post-1949 China and the success of the Communists in defeating both the Japanese invaders and the nationalists who failed to protect the country from them. The government hopes to harness it to its own nationalist ends. At the same time, it must avoid damaging bilateral ties.

But one sign that the event is no longer only a bilateral issue is the growing interest of foreign filmmakers. Oliver Stone is reportedly in script development for a movie about Nanking, and James Bond director Roger Spottiswoode is in post-production with The Bitter Sea, about a British journalist who witnesses the massacre. The movie, which stars Brendan Fraser, is scheduled for release in March.

The powerful Nanking, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman and released earlier this year, is the most watched documentary in Chinese film history, its makers claim. The movie will make extremely uncomfortable viewing for deniers: it is constructed entirely from archive footage of atrocities and witness accounts of survivors.

Producer Ted Leonsis, who was inspired to put the movie together after reading Chang's book, says: 'We hired 38 people who spent 18 months all over the world doing research. Our conclusion was we should have no point of view, to just document what happened.'

Will any of these movies be seen in Japan? As yet, none is scheduled. A spokesman for a major distribution company says releasing them in Japan would be 'difficult', though not impossible.

Mizushima, meanwhile, says his movie does not have an official release date, although there are plans to show the first two-hour instalment to invited journalists in the middle of this month.

The documentary is one of a three-part series, starting with the disputed Tokyo Trials and the 1947 execution of seven war criminals by the US occupation, including Iwane Matsui, the man accused of orchestrating the Nanking invasion.

Mizushima is filming the executions in Tokyo's Nikkatsu Studios this month. His set designer has recreated the execution gallows and actors are rehearsing by being dropped through trapdoors.

'It is very emotional. I hope this will make the Americans regret what they did,' he says. 'But I don't suppose it will.'

What might we expect from parts two and three? He gives some hints in his reply to a key question: Was the Imperial Japanese Army guilty of any war crimes? 'None,' he replies. 'In war, atrocities will always be carried out by a small number of individuals, but did the Japanese army systematically commit war crimes? Absolutely not.'