Before World War II, there was precious little cinematic depictions of Japan from Hollywood, especially when compared to China. However, after Pearl Harbor, a slew of propaganda films were made to depict the Japanese enemy. Even among these, they rarely showed the Japanese home front and even rarer, the internal politics of Japan in the 1930s. Behind the Rising Sun is a surprising exception.
Modern audiences might be put off by this movie. First and foremost, much of the cast is in yellowface and the Japanese themselves are often depicted in crude stereotypes. Indeed, the lobby cards luridly promised audiences they would “KNOW THE WORST ABOUT THE JAPS!” However, this was typical of the time and Behind the Rising Sun is one of the very few movies made during the war that actually argues that there are some decent Japanese people.
I cannot stress how rare this is among wartime films. Almost every single movie made during the war years painted Japanese a uniformly deceitful, treacherous, and cruel race, a notch above monsters. While many films painted the Germans in a negative light, there were some Germans who retained their humanity by being anti-Nazi. Since there was no Nazi equivalent in Japan, the portrayal of “good” Japanese is hard to find in these movies.
This doesn’t excuse Behind the Rising Sun’s flaws but it does help the modern viewer understand the zeitgeist a little better. Based on a memoir by James R. Young, the book and film have virtually nothing to do with each other besides incorporating a few amusing anecdotes into the narrative. The movie opens with a prominent newspaper publisher, Reo Seki, receiving the ashes of his recently deceased son, Taro Seki. Narrated by Papa Seki, the movie flashes back to 1936, specifically the infamous 2-26 Incident.
We witness the real-life assassination of Korekiyo Takahashi by an Army officer. Here’s the movie’s first indication that the Japanese aren’t an inherently evil race since Takahashi explicitly states that he wants “peace in Asia”.
On the same day, Taro Seki returns to Tokyo after studying abroad in America. While yellowface makeup is never convincing, Taro’s is especially laughable. He looks like a bronzed, squinting white guy. The movie doesn’t really have a single protagonist but Taro is the closest we have. He’s also an allegory for Japan itself: obsessed with modernism and Western culture in the 30s before turning into a militarist war machine as the years grind on. Initially, he rejects his father’s imperialist dreams, yearning for a more enlightened Japan. His father begins the movie as a fervent imperialist and tries to entice Taro to his point of view.
Instead, Taro wants to become an engineer, which is what he went to school in America for. Applying for a job at an architecture firm, he meets a female secretary, Tama Shimamura, another sympathetic Japanese. The firm is owned by Clancy O’Hara and it is through him we meet some other American expats; Sara Braden, a newspaperwoman, and Lefty O’Doyle…I think he’s a baseball player?
This group is pretty dull and uninteresting and were probably only included to give 1943 audiences some life preserver of familiarity to hold on to in a sea of Asian names and faces. The only two interesting gaijin come in the form of Boris and Max, spies for the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany respectively. Their roles are meant to reflect wartime sentiments: Boris, the gruff but lovable Russian ally and Max, the pompous and slimy Nazi enemy, who everyone takes turn insulting and putting in his place.
Taro begins courting Tama through a series of scenes where we begin to see Japan slowly turning into a militarist state: a baseball game that includes marching and martial music and when a little boy who inquires about the Panama Canal, which Reo Seki’s narration hints that the Japanese Empire will someday master. Japan’s foreign policy is reduced to a simplistic caricature, comic book villainy trying to conquer the world. Anyone who studies this area of history knows that even the most vocal of the Japanese imperialists generally confined their ambitions to East Asia and the Pacific.
One of the few scenes that are borrowed from the book is a scene where Taro, Boris, Max, Lefty, and O’Hara attend a geisha party. Throughout it, the foreigners muse about how Japanese women are bred to be servile and submissive, some of who are sold to the brothels in Yoshiwara. This was an all-too-real plight of many of Japan’s poor and reached a fever pitch in the 1930s. Many of the radical ultranationalists in the Army and Navy were motivated by stories of families selling their daughters just to make ends meet. However, Boris calls Japan a “slave society” which is cruel irony coming from a Soviet spy. At its worst, Imperial Japan was never as totalitarian as Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, or North Korea.
When a cat starts meowing, an annoyed Lefty shoots at it, summoning the attention of the Tokko. Sometimes called the Japanese Gestapo, they were commonly known as the Shiso Keisatsu or Thought Police. This nickname was used long before Orwell published 1984. Threatening at first, the Tokko officers soon retreat after learning of who Taro Seki’s influential father.
Eventually, Taro proposes to Tama just as the Sino-Japanese War starts. Taro is drafted as an engineer and is sent to one of the occupied provinces in North China. Taro retains his humanity, for a while, even going as far as to save a little Chinese girl from being run over. What’s more, he is appalled by the Japanese Army’s use of opium (something that was all too real) and is reprimanded by his superior officer.
Slowly but surely, Taro becomes incorporated into the militarist war machine that is twisting the entire Japanese nation. When the reporter Sara Braden, on assignment in China, confronts him about Japanese soldiers bayoneting babies, Taro coldly states that they aren’t his men and therefore, not his problem. While this film is often dismissed as racist propaganda, here is a clear example of how many Japanese soldiers learned to cope with the horrors being perpetrated around them: by becoming desensitized and simply ignoring it.
Upon returning home in 1941, Taro reunites with Tama at O’Hara’s office. Also, there is Sara Braden, who insults him and the whole Imperial Army. Taro isn’t just desensitized now, he’s becoming a nationalistic militarist, and will not let this insult stand. O’Hara steps in and gets in the way of Taro’s rage. Taro challenges him to a duel but in for contrived reasons, surrogates fight for him: Lefty for O’Hara and a jiu-jitsu master for Taro. Lefty boxes while the Japanese uses judo. After a long struggle, Lefty wins.
Eventually, tempers cool enough to where Taro goes to meet Tama’s parents. They live in a remote village outside of Tokyo. Unfortunately, she realizes that her little sister has been sold to the Yoshiwara brothels. Initially, Taro agrees to buy her back but a radio broadcast announces the Pearl Harbor attack.
“War with America?” Tama’s father chokes out. “But we are already poor from the war in China!”
“But this is different,” Taro insists. “This is the white war!”
Tama has long been grateful to the United States for the relief it sent after the Great Kanto Earthquake and appalled. Even worse, Taro reneges on his earlier promise to find her sister saying that “when the Emperor calls the individual counts for nothing.”
Taro reports to his regiment and is transferred to the Air Force. It’s around this time where he has a falling out with his father, who has begun to regret his earlier imperialist rhetoric after seeing the monster that Taro has become. The roles are now reversed and this new militarist Taro is disgusted with such pacifism.
Returning to Tokyo, Tama is picked up by the Tokko, along with the other boring foreigners, sans Boris and Max. Tortured, they are eventually sentenced to death for their “crimes” of spying. In actuality, very few people were sentenced to death within Japan itself (the occupied territories are another matter entirely).
One of the only cases of death sentences for espionage was Richard Sorge and his accomplice, Hotsumi Ozaki. Most of those arrested by the Tokko were never even brought to trial but instead “rehabilitated” through a process called tenko. This essentially involved torture, shaming, and repeated “confessions” in an attempt to turn dissidents into patriotic citizens.
Things look bleak for O’Hara, Tama, and Sara but the stars align for them. The Doolittle Raid occurs and causes them to evacuate their cells. Boris, who is visiting the jail, escorts them to a special car sent by Reo Seki, complete with papers and tickets aboard a Swedish ship. However, Tama desires to stay behind and rebuild after the war for “a Japan yet to be born.”
In his fighter plane, Taro rushes to intercept the bombers only to be shot down and meet his end in a fiery blaze. It’s here that we resume with the framing device from the beginning of the movie, where Reo Seki has received Taro’s ashes and is penning a final farewell to his late son. After imploring the Americans to “destroy us as we have destroyed others”, he commits seppuku as atonement for his, and Japan’s, misdeeds.
Behind the Rising Sun was a major success when it first premiered but has since descended into obscurity. My father remembered seeing it broadcast on TV in the 1960s and my first introduction was an old VHS copy of it. The few times I see it mentioned it’s usually by reviewers who are appalled at its racism. I suspect these people have seen very little propaganda from World War II.
I wonder if the same people who are shocked by Behind the Rising Sun do any research into the war itself, such as the infamous trophy hunting in the Pacific. Even more shocking, in a 1944 poll, some 13% of Americans surveyed favored the complete extermination of the Japanese people. American hatred of the Japanese did not come out of thin air. Instead, it was fueled by an expansionist Empire that had terror bombed civilians, conducted numerous massacres in China, and routinely tortured and maltreated POWs.
Most importantly, the Pearl Harbor attack was widely viewed by Americans as sneaky, cowardly, and underhanded. Perhaps if war had been declared first, the sheer racial hatred might not have been as palpable. Added to that, many Americans already had some racial prejudice and scientific racism had gained traction in the 1910s and 1920s. All of these ingredients created a lethal cocktail of hate that exploded across the Pacific.
Behind the Rising Sun has lots of faults and isn’t a great movie. The yellowface is offensive and laughable, characters speak in fortune cookie quotations, and it furthers many stereotypes about the Japanese. Indeed most of the “good” Japanese are only good because they adopt Western mindsets or are Christian themselves. However, in an era where Japanese were portrayed as little more than beasts and vermin, deserving only to be slaughtered, the fact that this movie actually hinted that they were essentially decent but simply corrupted by their leaders, is very surprising. A film like that should not be totally dismissed by modern audiences with no sense of history of context.
Behind the Rising Sun is available for digital purchase on YouTube.
- The movie’s opening states it’s 1943 whereas the Doolittle Raid happened in April 1942.
- Veteran Asian actors Philip Ahn and Richard Loo make appearances: Ahn as the Army officer who kills Takahashi and Loo as Taro’s commanding officer in China.
- The Japanese Christian leader who Tama mentions while in jail is Toyohiko Kagawa, one of the foremost proponents of women’s rights and opponents to war.
- Some of the Japanese Army uniforms are surprisingly accurate, whereas others are completely fictitious. The 1938 officer uniforms and peaked service caps look pretty decent, but the ryakubo (略帽) field caps are the same Hollywood imitations I complained about in my Tokyo Joe review. Taro’s “Air Force” uniform is just a Japanese Special Naval Landing uniform complete with epaulettes and a Hollywood ryakubo.
- Some of the 2-26 Incident footage was reused for the famous 1945 propaganda film Know Your Enemy: Japan.
- The movie makes reference to the “rebels” of the 2-26 Incident but never goes into detail. It makes sense since many in America knew nothing about the internal factional struggle between the Kodo-ha and the Tosei-ha. But that’s a story for another time.