By April 1945, the war in Europe was winding down but hostilities in Asia showed no signs of ending in the near future. Perhaps as an unconscious way to remind Americans that the fight against Japan wasn’t over yet, Blood on the Sun was released. It’s a surprisingly well-made thriller, with hints of noir, starring an impressive cast such as Sylvia Sidney, John Emery as the arch villain Baron Tanaka, and most of all, James Cagney.
As I said in my Behind the Rising Sun review, this is one of the few wartime movies that depicted Japanese internal politics and even showed an honorable Japanese. However, there are some noticeable differences, namely that Blood on the Sun takes place long before Pearl Harbor and deals with an infamous piece of propaganda, the Tanaka Memorial.
Starring the legendary flame-haired tough guy, James Cagney as an American newspaper reporter, Nick Condon who is stationed in prewar Japan. The exact date is never specified but I’d guess it is set in 1929, given that there are portraits of Herbert Hoover and Baron Tanaka, the arch villain of the movie, is prime minister.
After a montage of samurai paintings, a brief description appears, summarizing the Tanaka Memorial as the work of an “Oriental Hitler” and a plan of “world conquest”. Nick Condon hears rumors of this secret plan and publishes a condensed version, leading to a riot outside of the Tokyo Chronicle office. The Japanese Police restore order and confront Nick, denouncing the Tanaka Memorial as a forgery.
The movie’s plot is superficially simple but the twists and turns that comprise it are surprisingly dense. Like many movies from the 1940s, exposition and back-story is told through snappy dialogue in a matter of seconds. Turns out, Nick Condon heard the rumor from one of his reporters, Ollie Miller. Loudmouthed and habitually drunk, Ollie has recently come into a mysterious amount of money and skipping town with his wife, Edith.
Ollie is coy about where he got the money and when Condon goes to see them both off at the docks, he discovers Edith dead and a mysterious female searching the room. Although he doesn’t see her face, Condon manages to get a good look of the lavish ring on her finger. Circling back to Ollie’s house, he finds his friend dying from a gunshot, struggling toward the door.
In another round of exposition through dialogue, Ollie eludes that the money he’d received came from a party within Japan trying to smuggle the Tanaka Memorial overseas. Just before he dies, Ollie hands over the plan itself, which Condon hides behind a portrait of the Emperor. Just then the secondary villains of the film, Police Captain Oshima and Secret Police Agent Hijikata, burst in. They search the house for the Tanaka Memorial but, in a clever twist, they cannot touch a portrait of their sacred Emperor and end up missing it entirely.
A fight breaks out and Cagney displays some judo moves on the police officers, which he had apparently learned for this role. Unfortunately, Captain Oshima judo chops him from behind and he wakes up in a Japanese jail cell. After his release, he returns to Ollie Miller’s house only to find the Tanaka Memorial isn’t there anymore. There’s a good deal of conspiratorial tension here, but before Nick can figure out where the plan has disappeared to, he is summoned before Baron Giichi Tanaka himself.
Against the backdrop of a picturesque Japanese garden, the next scene introduces us to Baron Tanaka, Prince Tatsugi, and Iris Hilliard. A half-Chinese half-American femme fatale, Iris is one of Baron Tanaka’s many agents and implied mistress. It’s made very apparent that she did not kill Edith or Ollie Miller, but was indeed the mysterious hand that Nick saw. After she departs, Baron Tanaka and Prince Tatsugi argue over politics, and here is where the movie stands apart from the vast majority of anti-Japanese movies made during the war. Like Behind the Rising Sun, it portrays an honorable Japanese, one who for peace and co-existence with the West. The movie is still dripping with hate for Japan, however, but this mere inclusion of a peaceful Japanese, and one who is a member of Tanaka’s cabinet, no less, makes it a rare breed.
Prince Tatsugi departs and Baron Tanaka meets with Nick Condon, along with Major Kajioka of the Secret Police and Colonel Hideki Tojo. The inclusion of Tojo is an interesting choice since he was one of the few Japanese leaders who had gained familiarity in the West. In actuality, Tojo had nothing to do with Baron Tanaka or his cabinet, but this is a work of fiction, so I’ll allow it.
Baron Tanaka, at his slimiest, asks Nick for his help in finding the Memorial, but he plays coy. Only when the real killers of Ollie and Edit Miller are arrested (i.e. Oshima and Hijikata) then he’ll hand over the plan. Of course, he doesn’t reveal the Tanaka Memorial has gone missing.
Nick hatches a plan, revealed again through quick-paced dialogue. He quits the Tokyo Chronicle and plans on leaving Japan in ten days. He publicizes his departure, hoping the person who has the Tanaka Memorial will contact Nick and ask him to smuggle it out of Japan.
Nick bumps into Joe Cassell, a sleazy pro-Japanese reporter, and introduces him to Iris Hilliard, who just arrived from Shanghai. The two strike up a quick romance, made quicker by the fact that she is instructed by Baron Tanaka to uncover any secrets Nick might be hiding about the Memorial. Nick and Iris continue their budding romance through a particularly funny scene where they avoid Hijikata tailing them through Asakusa.
Through Colonel Tojo’s machinations, Joe Cassell is hired at the Tokyo Chronicle which doesn’t sit well with Nick. Through an exposé, Nick reveals Cassell’s attempts to block a relief loan to China. This embarrasses Tojo who cuts off relations with him. Desperate, Cassell turns to Nick for help and reveals that Iris was tasked to get the Tanaka Memorial off of him. After a swift punch to Cassell’s jaw, Nick storms off to confront her.
Iris comes clean about her relation with Tanaka and reveals that she’s the one who took the Memorial from the Emperor’s portrait. She’s been working with the mysterious party within the Japanese government who opposes Tanaka and the militarists to smuggle the plans out of the country. Iris makes the true intention of the Tanaka Memorial quite clear.
“This is a plan for world conquest! Manchuria is only a beginning. All of China, then America,” she says.
“Whoa now, wait a minute,” Nick counters. “What do you think we’ll be doing when all this is going on?”
“Sleeping. Until the bombs start falling on you, they’re counting on it!”
Nick is concerned that the Tanaka Memorial might be dismissed as a fraud. However, Iris says it can be authenticated by the signature of a person who was presented when the plan was drafted.
Nick leaves and Iris is confronted by Baron Tanaka, who reveals he knows of her treachery. He gives her two hours to name the traitor within the Japanese government or else he’ll hand her over to Colonel Tojo. Iris escapes from her hotel suite and Baron Tanaka, unable to deal with the shame of being double-crossed, decides ritual suicide is his only way out. He asks his two lackeys, Colonel Hideki Tojo and Captain Isoroku Yamamoto, to promise that the Japanese Empire will fulfill the Tanaka Memorial’s plans of world conquest. Secure in the knowledge that a new generation of militarists will carry out his wishes, Baron Tanaka commits seppuku in a very lavish and well-done scene. The music, lighting, and camera angles all evoke a sense of dread that is surprising in a 1945 propaganda movie. I’ve seen publicity stills of Tojo drawing his sword and about to behead Tanaka but I suppose it was cut for being too graphic.
Meanwhile, Nick Condon has lost all contact with Iris. Even worse, his day to leave Japan is approaching fast. Out of the blue, as his bags are being packed, he receives word to meet her by the docks that night. Iris, who has been in hiding ever since her escape, introduces Nick to the mysterious traitor within the Japanese government; Prince Tatsugi. He authenticates the Tanaka Memorial with his signature, stating that “I would rather see Japan defeated than triumphant under the heels of our militarists.”
Prince Tatsugi leaves, only to be gunned down by Captain Oshima whose men had tailed Nick to the docks. Cornered, Nick makes sure Iris escapes with the Tanaka Memorial and stays behind to stall Oshima. My favorite type of fight scene ensues between Nick and Oshima, full of awkward punches, flips, and stumbling about. A middle-aged man like Cagney is obviously no judo expert, but he performs the moves with enough grace. The struggle is sloppy and unglamorous, which I prefer, accelerated by dramatic music. Fight scenes in modern movies are far too stylized, looking more like a dance than actual fighting.
Nick delivers the final blow to Captain Oshima, sending him plunging into the dark waters below the docks. Narrowly escaping the rest of Oshima’s men, Nick rushes to the American Embassy, where the rest of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is waiting for him. In a pretty tense scene, Nick walks toward the embassy gates and freedom, until a Police sniper opens fire. Nick runs for it but catches a bullet and collapses only feet away from the gate. The Police search him but too late they realize he no longer has Tanaka Memorial, now on its way out of Japan.
An American Embassy worker rushes to Nick’s aid, threatening the Japanese Police that this will not “be treated as one of your ‘very regrettable’ mistakes!” Realizing he’s been bested, the Police Chief tries to let bygones be bygones and asks that the entire incident be forgotten.
“Condon-san, you have saying, ‘forgive your enemy’. I am willing,” the Police Chief pleads.
“Sure,” Nick replies. “Forgive your enemies. But first, get even!”
The last line is a reaffirmation that Pearl Harbor was going to be avenged and that the war against Japan was far from over. Accompanied by a swelling end score, Nick is led back to the American Embassy and safety.
Blood on the Sun is by no means a perfect movie. For one, there’s a lot of inference and plot points aren’t made clear unless you rewatch those snappy dialogue scenes two or more times. There are also plot holes, namely why does Captain Oshima kill Edith Miller but then Baron Tanaka sends Iris to search her body. Why not just do it himself? How does Prince Tatsugi know Iris is sympathetic to his plans if she just arrived from Shanghai the night before? Added to that is the naked anti-Japanese and racist sentiment throughout the film. Japanese are referred to as ‘monkeys’, portrayed as sneaky and cruel, and there is the standard and unfortunate use of yellowface throughout the film.
However, of all the thrillers made during the war years, Blood on the Sun is easily one of the best and probably my personal favorite. James Cagney is great as always, as is the rest of the cast, and there is some chemistry between him and Sylvia Sidney. The music accentuates the scenes perfectly, be they playful, adventurous, or dramatic, and the sets are absolutely gorgeous. The Asakusa market and docks are a work of beauty for a 1945 studio back lot.
I saw Blood on the Sun years ago on an old VHS copy and it’s stuck with me ever since. As I mentioned, the fact that they bothered to add a sympathetic Japanese character differentiates the film from about 95% of anti-Japanese propaganda made at the time. The plot, by no means perfect, moves quickly, has some good twists, great villains, and influenced me to this day.
Luckily, the film fell into public domain in 1973 and is available to watch here. A radio play was produced in December 1945 and can be listened to here. A second radio play starring John Garfield aired on the Academy Award Theater in 1946 and can be listened to here.
- The main plot point of the movie, the Tanaka Memorial, is almost certainly a forgery. First published in 1929
by a Chinese magazine 時事月報 (Current Affairs Monthly), it outlined a policy of Japanese Blood and Iron by first conquering Manchuria, then Mongolia, then China, then the world. The 1931-1932 invasion of Manchuria seemed only to confirm this. However, the truth is far less lurid.
- In 1927, Prime Minister Tanaka convened a ‘Far Eastern Conference’, in which he outlined his government’s support for the Kuomintang in suppressing the Chinese Communists but to support Marshal Chang Tso-lin in keeping Manchuria autonomous from the rest of China. The Japanese had a wide array of financial and military interests in Manchuria and with Chang Tso-lin a friendly ally to Japan there was no real need to invade the region.
- However, when Marshal Chang failed to stop the Kuomintang from advancing north, rogue Japanese officers assassinated him, hoping his opium addict son would be more malleable to Japan’s interests. It is highly likely that Chang Tso-lin’s assassination, along with past Japanese intrigues like the infamous Twenty-One Demands, fueled the creation of the “Tanaka Memorial” by taking bits and pieces of the 1927 Far Eastern Conference and infusing it with fantastical elements that reflected legitimate Chinese fears.
- A final nail in the coffin for the legitimacy of the Tanaka Memorial is that a true Japanese original has never been found, nor has any Japanese official vouched for its authenticity. It was mainly circulated by American Communists in the 1930s before being picked up as official US government propaganda during World War II. Even today, it still creeps up in third-rate historical documentaries.
- Contrary to the Fu Manchu-style ultranationalist militarist of the movie, Giichi Tanaka was basically an establishment conservative. His government presided over the crackdown of Communists in 1928, along with the Tsinan Incident, where Japanese soldiers were deployed to protect Japanese nationals during Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition. It is true that Tanaka pursued a policy of separating Manchuria and Mongolia (満蒙分離政策) but he was not even privy to the Kwantung Army’s plot to assassinate Chang Tso-lin. When he learned of the cover-up, he resigned from the prime minister post in July 1929 and died shortly after.
- As mentioned, Tanaka’s lackeys in the film are Colonel Tojo and Captain Yamamoto. This is entirely because these were the few Japanese military leaders familiar in America. In actuality, Tojo was unimportant in 1929 and had no real relation with Tanaka and Yamamoto was quite vocally opposed to any war with the United States. This didn’t stop the filmmakers from portraying him as a warmonger and even corrupting his famous quote about dictating peace terms in the White House (“I shall be in the White House when Japan dictates her terms of peace”). In truth, it was an attempt to show how far Japan would have to go to secure peace but American propaganda turned it into a megalomaniacal desire to march through Washington DC.
- All the Japanese Army, Navy, and Police uniforms are surprisingly accurate. Tojo is wearing a standard Army tunic, and the scene where Tanaka commits seppuku has him and Yamamoto decked out in well-designed dress uniforms. Many films of this time could not be bothered at all with the slightest bit of accuracy with enemy uniforms (see my reviews for Tokyo Joe and Behind the Rising Sun), so my hat goes off to the filmmakers here.
- Once again, Philip Ahn finds work playing a Japanese officer, this time as Captain Yamamoto.
- Again, while I never condone yellowface, the actor playing Tojo (Robert Armstrong) looks surprisingly similar to his real-life counterpart. Interestingly enough, he never wears that style uniform (1938 model) in the movie.