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Documentaries and Politics

Documentaries as Instruments of National and International Politics

From very soon after its development, film as a medium has been susceptible to political and ideological influences and instrumentalisation. While most of the earliest film makers felt enthusiastic about recording the mundane world around them through creating footage of everyday life or about implementing artistic visions, governments soon realised the potential of filmic propaganda, too. Propaganda films had their initial heyday during the First World War when countries such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, France and the United States used documentary and other films on a broad scale to slander their enemies, justify their own cause and generally substantiate their political positions in front of home audiences. Pacifist ideologies, too, found a way into film as in the French J’accuse (1918). The 1920s and early 1930s brought about further internationalisation of the film business while more and more countries and political actors started to use films for conveying their messages. Well-known examples are the Soviet films promoting the benefits of communism and films affiliated with rising National Socialism in Germany. It is during this period that we see a rising trend for films with an outward orientation beyond their home audiences (e.g. in Soviet advertisement for revolution).

Documentaries in Japan: a short overview

To understand what political and cultural mindset the documentary at hand stems from, a glance at the development of documentary film making in Japan seems helpful. While by the early 1920s there had been little more activity in documentary filming than sporadically produced variations of the newsreel, the end of the decade brought about a turn with a vigorous left-wing film movement taking shape. Yet Prokino, as it was called, which even had some transnational influence and inspire similar movements in other countries, could not hold its own against political pressure. Increasing governmental control over the Japanese film industry based on the Peace Preservation Law from 1925 coincided with a strong increase in and the growing prestige of documentary filming. By the early 1930s a marked shift to the right can be observed in many films ,with most documentaries connected to the military in one way or another. Historians of Japanese cinema widely agree on the general gradual militarisation of Japanese film culture during the years leading to the Second World War (Nornes 2003: xvii-xxi). As the range of films during this era shows, the Manchuarian Incident, as well as the invasion of 1937, did much to fuel this development. Both events led to a large number of pro-Japanese documentary films being produced on these subjects, mostly from 1935 onwards.

Having started its colonisation, Japan began a campaign to encourage immigration to the new land. In this context, the Southern Manchurian Railway Company produced its own travelogues and a large number of silent films designed to advertise Manchuria to prospective business investors: “beginning with the Manchurian Incident, they showed the founding of the new Manchurian state and enthronement of Pu Yi, followed by scenes of a peaceful land crisscrossed by luxurious trains and home to classy hotels, mining, shipping, and other attractive business opportunities – not to mention lots of open space, which is constantly emphasized through long shots of expansive plains. Other immigration films were aimed at farmers and focused on the broad continent’s possibilities for a new life.” (Nornes 2003: 58)

The film unit of the Southern Manchurian Railway Company produced many prominent propaganda films during these years. Examples promoting national policy include Mikkyōsei River (Mikkyōseigawa, 1936), The Railway and New Manchuria (Tetsuro shin Manshū, 1936), Mantetsu’s 30 Years (Mantetsu sanjūnen, 1936) and Pioneering Shock Troops (Kaitaku totsugekitai 開拓突撃隊, 1936). Others of their films focused more on life in Manchuria, for instance Barga Grasslands (Sōgen Baruga 草原バルガ, 1936). Another significant corpus of nonfiction film relating to Manchuria was produced by Manshū Eiga Kyōkai 満洲映画協会 (Manchurian Motion Picture Association, or Man’ei 満映) in the later 1930s.