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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

How to move the hearts of a 100 million - Yamamoto Kajiro's war and propaganda film

December 13, 2000

Reglindis Helmer

Ever since the escalation of Japanese military operations to a full-fledged war with China in 1937, an increasing number of Japanese fiction films have focused on battles, life at the front and military training. Many of those films were supported by or produced in close cooperation with the Army and Navy.  quote;The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malayaquote; ([Hawai, Marê oki kaisen]), first shown on December 3, 1942 to commemorate the beginning of the Pacific War, has to be considered one of the most ambitious projects of the era: Produced by the Tōhō film studios under the supervision of the Navy Information Office at the Imperial Headquarters and sponsored by the Navy Ministry, its production took nearly one year and resulted in the, up to then, most expensive movie in Japanese film history. Although an advertisement slogan of Tōhō, which claimed that quote;a hundred millionquote; – [ichi oku nin], i.e. the whole population – has seen the film, seems exaggerated by far, quote;The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malayaquote; was widely shown in Japan as well as in the occupied countries, not only in regular film programmes but also in specially organized screenings for school classes or troupes moving out to the front. The story can be described in few words:

Fascinated by aviation, a young boy joins the Air Force Preparatory School of the Imperial Navy. After completing his training, he successfully takes part in the attack on Pearl Harbor as a pilot of a torpedo bomber. Three days later, his elder cousin and advisor, the captain of a big torpedo bomber, leads his men into attack on two British warships off the coast oft the Malayan peninsula.

The clearly stated aim of quote;The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malayaquote; was to fan the fighting spirit of the population by demonstrating the successes and force of the Imperial Navy. At the same time, it was explicitly meant to motivate young men, or rather boys, to join the Naval Flight Preparatory Units. Many people, including the director Yamamoto Kajirō, believed that it succeeded in doing so – a myth that has been perpetuated in the postwar literature on the film.

How, then, does the film proceed to convince his audience? After giving an outline of the production and its backgrounds, I want to show that the narration is based on structures which Susan Suleiman (1983) has described as typical for authoritarian fiction: a structure of apprenticeship, which is then transposed into a structure of confrontation. Reports of the emotional outbursts of the audience seem to support those critics who concentrate on the spectacular battle scenes, overlooking the meaning of the first part of the narration. I want to argue, though, that the training sequence, which has often been criticised as overly long, is firmly interlocked with the climatic battle scenes by structuring an emotional layer which serves to shape and reinforce the reactions at the dramatic final. Finally, I want to discuss how recent theories on film and emotion can be productively used to analyse (Japanese) propaganda movies.