“If you want to learn how the traditional Prussian goose-step works, you have to watch British television, because in Germany nobody knows how to perform it,” Joschka Fischer complained to the BBC when he was German Foreign Minister eight years ago.
His concern was the way that stereotypes about Germany seem to thrive among British audiences. It is a gripe echoed by German diplomats too, fed up with the disproportionate focus on Nazi Germany in Britain’s history syllabus, its love affair with war films, and the enduring popularity of anti-German jibes in comedies like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder.
Quite how a similar conversation might go between a Japanese foreign minister and executives from Chinese TV is open to question, especially as war films and spy dramas are flooding the schedules like never before. Their common theme is Japan’s wartime behaviour between 1937 and 1945.
Hengdian Film Studios in Zhejiang province, where much of the footage for the current crop of shows is shot, is a major beneficiary of the trend, as well as the 300,000 extras who have been hired for the films made there, says Southern Weekend. Of this total, about 60% are playing the parts of Japanese.
The studio’s weibo account offered an insight into why so many extras were required, posting this item over Chinese New Year. “Just took a walk around,” it relayed. “Everything looked great. Japanese soldiers were being killed in every possible way you could think of. Many of them needed to rush to several different production teams a day, dying in different scenes from day to night. It has been a festive New Year and everyone is busy shooting the Japanese.”
All that bayoneting and bludgeoning is proving lucrative, not just for the extras but for other businesses in Hengdian. Laundry outlets have to work through the night to scrub fake blood off uniforms, for instance, while local technicians are in demand to prime an arsenal of replica rifles and hand grenades.
One of the extras making his living as a Japanese soldier is Fan Jingtao, who is shot, stabbed and blown up for daily pay of around Rmb200 (Fan’s record is 31 fatalities in a single day, says Reuters).
But Fan still throws himself wholeheartedly into his role. “I’m acting the part of a shameful Japanese soldier in the way that when people watch they feel he deserves to die,” he explained. “I want to show the viewers the kind of Japanese soldier that is really, really evil.”
WiC has covered anti-Japanese sentiment before and how it manifests itself in many Chinese dramas (for a selection, see WiC81 for the kung-fu remake in which the hero beats up scores of Japanese; or WiC135 for local hopes that Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War – a story told against the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre – would be a worldwide hit; or even the mention in WiC138 of a series that raised eyebrows for looking at a Japanese character in a more nuanced, less negative light).
But there is also a sense today of an increasing intensity in much of the anti-Japanese fare. Southern Weekend says that, until 2004, an average of three dramas a year were choosing the War against Japanese Aggression (as it is usually known in China) as their narrative context. The tempo then picked up notably in 2005, for the sixtieth anniversary of the victory over Japanese forces, when Wan Rong’s Drawing Sword was a huge hit, and one of 20 similar dramas broadcast. Since then the number has increased substantially again, with anti-Japanese series making up at least 70 of the 200 shows broadcast in primetime by China’s satellite TV channels last year.
Take Anti-Japanese Hero (sub-heading: You’ve got bullets? I’ve got kung-fu!). It topped the ratings in Shanxi, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Beijing, and was so profitable that a second series was rushed into production.
The first run delighted its more bloodthirsty viewers with scenes in which the Japanese enemy was literally ripped apart by Chinese hands.
Some viewers are more uncomfortable with the violent mood. “There’s too many anti-Japanese series,” one weibo contributor complains. “If you count how many Japanese have died, there would be no one left in Japan. Our anti-Japan shows are even more powerful than the atom bomb.”
Others laugh the genre off as Tom and Jerry style violence or say that the plots are so ridiculous that they insult their audience.
“If we’ve got so many heroes like these, why bother building aircraft carriers?” scoffs another weibo critic.
A third claim is that it is the profit potential of the dramas that leads to so many being made, although this raises questions about why such material continues to be so popular. Normally this is left unanswered, just as the role of China’s educational system in promoting demand for Japan-bashing content rarely comes up for debate in the domestic media.
Another suggestion is that it is easier to make war films than other entertainment genre, which periodically come under the scruting of the television regulators (the showing of time travel dramas and dating shows have been blocked from time to time). Nonetheless, the censors still show a keen eye and are wont to make sure that military action meets their required standards. Southern Weekend tells how one director was driven to exasperation by the number of changes that he was expected to make to his own production. “The cruelty of the Japanese soldiers should be highlighted,” he was instructed, “but the military qualities of the Japanese army cannot be displayed.”
According to the China Digital Times, there was similar meddling in the leaked set of demands made of Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep, a runner-up at the Cannes Film Festival 12 years ago. Despite the international plaudits, it was refused a domestic release without revisions. One of the main deficiencies, the regulators insisted, was that the film failed to express “the hatred and opposition of the common Chinese people against the invasion”.
The censors added: “It prominently displays and exaggerates [the Chinese public’s] ignorance, apathy and servility… and has not fully revealed the Japanese imperialist and his aggressive nature.”
With this kind of guidance, it’s less of a surprise that so many of the shows seem to foster enduring prejudices among their audiences. This nationalistic mood is reflected in Hengdian too with attractions in which tourists can spend a day “shooting the Japanese fascists to death”, says Southern Weekend. The studio also offers microfilms in which visitors can play star roles. Many have an anti-Japanese theme, including the local favourite “Hands Up”.
Films about fighting the Japanese have also become more popular as tensions grow over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Some visitors have even been bringing banners to Hengdian with them, and shouting “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” during the filming of their own productions [the Japanese call the islands the Senkakus].
Such a hostile mood has been a bittersweet experience for Yano Koji, a Japanese actor who arrived in China more than a decade ago and is now the most recognised Japanese actor in China, says the Japan Times. That has meant many years playing an enemy soldier, often in roles that it has disturbed Yano to play. “In China’s anti-Japan soap operas, all Japanese faces virtually carry the same stereotype. I understand why and I could only follow the script as an actor,” he told Hong Kong’s Apple Daily last month.
Perhaps ironically, Yano’s career choice has seen him come under greatest threat from his own countrymen, some of whom have accused him of demonising his homeland. Five years ago he was assaulted back in Japan. Some of his Chinese fans then took the unexpected step of expressing concern at his well-being. “The Chinese audience thought that I was one of them. I was really touched,” he recalled.
At least Yano, who now has a Chinese wife and daughter, has managed to graduate to other work, including a spot on a light entertainment show on Hunan TV. It’s a trend that he would like to continue. “I hope people don’t label me guizi (devil) again. I am trying to take part in other entertainment shows and remake myself on screen,” he told the Apple Daily.
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