Home > Background to the Film > The Film and the Public

The Film and the Public

Public Resonance of the Manchurian Incident

The Manchurian Incident and its consequences received an immense amount of public attention on a world-wide scale. Newspapers with international focus such as The Times and The New York Times sent special correspondents to Manchuria, who reported elaborately on Chinese-Japanese collisions and the movements of troops for their readers (e.g. The New York Times, September 19th, 1931). Editorials discussed the respective national interests and rights in the region, the consequences for world peace, and of course the activities of the League of Nations, especially after the Lytton Commission delivered its report in September 1932. Popular media too commented on the ‘Manchurian Incident’ in their own ways. Hergé’s famous comic Le Lotus Bleu (The Blue Lotus, original 1934 version Tintin en Extrême-Orient) from the Les Aventures de Tintin series (1934-35) is set in Manchuria and gives a very negative impression of aggressive Japanese activities. It interprets the incident openly as a pseudo-assault initiated by the Japanese: in the plot of the famous Tintin adventure the Japanese stage a railway explosion in order to legitimate their well-prepared invasion of Manchuria.

The League of Nations, New Diplomacy and the Lytton Commission: Aspirations and Reality

From its beginnings, the League of Nations had proclaimed a new era of diplomacy. Instead of strictly abiding by traditional diplomatic secrecy, ‘new diplomacy’ was supposed to be more open and address a global public in order to make foreign relations more transparent. The media played a key role in this plan to democratise the international system. However, an imbalance can be noted between the press coverage on the work of the Lytton Commission and the information coming from the commissioners themselves. The latter seem to have remained largely silent on the whole matter until Lord Lytton delivered his extensive report to the League of Nations in autumn 1932, thus creating something of an information vacuum that others could exploit. By the time the report was edited and printed by the League’s Secretariat, other parties such as the press and the producers of the documentary film at hand had already taken over the task of addressing the world. Whether the commissioners’ reticence had any actual impact on how material such as this film was perceived by an international audience would be very difficult to determine. Yet the question of what information and whose perspectives were available and prominent remains an important one if we are to deliberate the purposes and potential effects of the film. Tenor and Potential of the Film.

Tenor and Potential of the Film

Unsurprisingly, the overall tenor of the film at hand is unequivocally pro-Japanese. It starts out as a documentary about the travels of the League of Nations’ representatives to Manchuria, shows the Japanese intervention as legitimate and necessary, and ends by praising the new state of Manchukuo. (For a more detailed content analysis see section “Analysing key themes”.) The Commission is presented as being supportive of the new state when really the League of Nations, as a result of the Lytton inquiry, did not recognise Manchukuo. This representation runs contrary to everything the Commission suggested in its report about solving the problem of Manchuria.

With this overall message the Japanese sought to manage global perceptions of their conquest. What is so interesting about this effort to proclaim and spread the Japanese view of the Manchurian Incident is not just the intended addressees but also the chosen medium itself. Considering the undisputed international increase in the importance of films in general and the rise of documentaries in the Japanese film scene in particular, it seems likely that the Japanese authorities saw the documentary as a highly up-to-date and effective resource for propaganda. After all, a film serves many communicative aims as it is easily reproducible and potentially reaches far more people in a manner that is more authentic appearing and thus also more suggestive compared to printed propaganda material. What is more, it could give its makers and subject a nimbus of modernity and progress, which were an important asset for a newly-founded state.

A Film for a Global Public?

Countless studies in history and related disciplines have dealt with the media’s influence on the public and its potential for becoming a powerful tool for governmental and other propaganda on a national level. Yet understandings of efforts to influence and manipulate not a national but a global public is still rather limited, especially for the period of interest here.

Conclusions concerning the film’s audience can be drawn partly from the film itself, partly from the manner in which it was distributed through a network of Japanese consulates and offices, and partly from related Japanese propaganda efforts. First of all, the use of English in the title cards of our version as well as several other versions suggests a non-Japanese, international target audience who were either native speakers of English, had a considerable degree of education or held social positions making the understanding of the English language relevant. Indeed, English and French were the official working languages of the League of Nations and the international diplomatic community. Clearly, the existence of several more versions in various other languages (see our chart in section "Editing") points to a broadly conceived international target audience. This orientation towards an international audience matches printed material which the newly-founded state of Manchukuo (respectively Japan) produced in several foreign languages for international propaganda. As recent research has revealed, Japanese war propaganda generally produced an astounding quantity of photographs, films and cartoons playing with transboundary perspectives (Germer 2011: xx). The high quality and in parts very modern styled pictures present Japanese progress seemingly observed from an outsider’s perspective while the Japanese perspective always remains intact. Research has also highlighted the overall importance of being represented in the new media for the new state of Manchukuo (High 2003:34). Films were important tools to give the ‘new-born state’ publicity (Wilson 2002: 50-53), an element needed to gain perhaps not formal sovereignty but at least a visual form of it.

Who was this global public audience then? Rather than embarking on elaborate attempts to define and discuss global public as a theoretical concept, we suggest a pragmatic approach considering some key factors. The 1920s saw the rise of an international climate in which film grew more important as a medium for communicating ideas in politics as well as other fields. The advancement and politicisation of Japanese documentaries indicate some significant change in how spreading political messages was approached in Japan. Internationalisation had led to the emergence of global media audiences and an international civil society, which manifested itself in the many organisations clustering around the League of Nations and which had become a player in international politics, representing an international public opinion and occupying an international public sphere. We can conclude from the contents as well as the very manner in which the film versions were spread that the target audience must have included diplomats, business people and the politically interested and active international civil society. Further substantiation for our claim of a global public as target audience (and actual audience) comes from the fact that the League of Nations itself must have been among the addressees. After all, the film material was first of all handed to the Japanese diplomatic offices in Paris and Geneva (Bureau du Japon à la Société des Nations, set up especially for cultivating the relations between Japan and the League) and the Geneva office edited the film and included captions in English and French. The first screening was also organised by the Japanese Delegation in Geneva during the extraordinary session of the League Assembly which debated the Lytton Report (JACAR: B02030888500. picture 49). This took place on 8 December 1932. Clearly, the film was shown there with the intention of substantiating the Japanese argumentation in order to achieve a favorable resolution in the League’s Assembly. JACAR sources confirm that civil servants, journalists, intellectuals and quite generally elites were amongst the initial viewers (JACAR: B02030888600/B02030888700).

As economic aspects feature strongly in the film, potential western investors should not be underestimated as a target audience. Whether a wider audience than those active in the international political and economic sphere was sought everywhere is a potential factor still in need of research. We know, however, that the Japanese embassy in Berlin made plans to give the film to the then largest German film company Ufa for general distribution (JACAR: B02030888600, picture 2-4). In Italy, too, the Japanese embassy intended to share their film version with the population at large and carried on negotiations for this purpose with the Instituto Nazionale LUCE (L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa), the main national film institution which was charged with distributing information about fascist projects in newsreels and documentaries. LUCE eventually organised public screenings of this version on six days (JACAR: B02030888600, picture 20-21). A revised film version with its focus not on Lytton but more on Manchukuo was supposed to be shown in front of the Japanese navy as well, thus adding domestic audiences to the mix (JACAR: B02030888700, picture 14).

Summing up, global public serves as an umbrella term for the intended, potential and actual international audiences of the film versions so far as they could be determined. The question of whether the actual audience was the same as the intended one is, incidentally, a fruitless one here. The reason for this is not only that we are unlikely to find a conclusive answer in the sources available today but that it is also of only minor importance for examining the intentions behind the filmmaking, which are, after all, what make this film so significant.