World War 2 Cinema Continues to Shape Historical Memory in China and Japan
Posted December 4, 2023
With iconic films like Schindler’s List, Dunkirk, and Oppenheimer, the World War II film genre continues to shape Western cultural memory of that period in history. But how do the films of other cultures — including those that fought for the Axis Powers — remember and understand World War II? How has that understanding changed over time?
In her recent book Han Heroes and Yamato Warriors: Competing Masculinities in Chinese and Japanese War Cinema, School of Modern Languages Associate Professor Amanda Weiss explores this question.
Weiss traces the history of films about World War II in China, Japan, and the United States. She became interested in the topic while studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the Beijing Film Academy.
“Many of my classmates were Japanese actors, and I noticed that they were always in World War II movies,” Weiss said. “I realized that World War II films were really dominant at that time in China, even though it was the 2000s. I found it really curious, so I started to investigate the topic.”
After she completed her studies in Beijing, Weiss attended graduate school in Japan to immerse herself in the perspectives of both cultures. Living in Japan showed her how complicated and fractured the discourse about World War II is in the two countries.
“There are clear politically right and left perspectives on the war, and then there is a much more ambiguous and dominant middle. It’s a bit similar to how Americans remember Vietnam,” she said.
A Cultural ‘Memory Loop’
“As stories of the war and its aftermath are told and re-told in film and literature over the course of decades, the different cultural memories of those events are written and rewritten in a kind of ‘memory loop,’” said Weiss. “The history of World War II cinema in China, Japan, and the U.S. reveals an interconnected, transnational discourse about the war.”
Weiss traces this discourse — and rising national tensions — through the conflicts between the male figures in film.
A Unified Narrative, Divided
“During the 1980s, many films about the war were co-produced by China and Japan, representing an attempt to move forward together, to create a unified narrative between the two nations,” said Weiss.
But in the 1990s, that co-created narrative began to fall apart. After 2000, co-productions were gone, and Japanese and Chinese films about this era began to reflect rising tensions between the two countries.
As an example, Weiss noted Tokyo Trial, a 2006 Chinese film about the postwar tribunals. The film depicts a heroic Chinese judge standing up to bullying Americans and to the Japanese soldiers who committed crimes during the war.
Japanese films about post-war tribunals have a more ambiguous and conflicted narrative — and understandably so.
“For Japanese audiences, the tribunal films grapple with very difficult and ambivalent national feelings about being labeled a perpetrator of war crimes, about nationalism, and about losing the war,” said Weiss.
It’s no surprise, then, that the narratives of mainstream Japanese tribunal films tend to be ambiguous and conflicted, addressing existential questions of justice, guilt, and morality.
“One recurring narrative in Japanese tribunal films is ‘victor’s justice.’ Some people argue that history is written by the victors, so perhaps the whole story isn’t being told,” said Weiss. “Then there are more right-wing films that depict the accused soldier as a heroic figure whose honor needs to be protected,” she added.
What Are Han Heroes and Yamato Warriors?
“Different aspects of nation are often articulated through masculinities,” she said. “In this film genre, we have stalwart judges, heroic soldiers, and good leaders. We also have perpetrators of war crimes and political leaders.
The term "Han" refers to the ethnic majority in China. Weiss conceptualizes “Han heroes” as the dominant heroic trope in recent Chinese war films, a trope that often emphasizes Chinese nationalism through cultural notions of idealized masculinity like “wen” (literary) and “wu” (martial). "Yamato" refers to the ethnic majority in Japan. Weiss argues that the “Yamato warrior” is also an idealized masculine figure who represents imagined Japanese values of loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice — and more problematically, fervent nationalism.
Weiss said her next book will be about the “feminization of memory” in Japanese popular memories of Manchuria. Her project explores media spectacles around the return of Japanese women left in China after WWII, literature written on Manchuria by female writers, and new heroic images of wartime women like Torihama Tome, the “kamikaze mother.” One chapter will discuss a singer, actress, journalist, and politician named Yamaguchi Yoshiko. A Japanese woman born in China, Yamaguchi was an actress in the Manchurian film industry during World War II, acting in propaganda films under the name Li Xianglan or Ri Koran.
“In 1945, Yamaguchi was prosecuted for treason in China, because she had played all these roles of Chinese women falling in love with Japanese soldiers,” said Weiss. “She only escaped execution when they realized she was a Japanese citizen.”
Yamaguchi went on to have a decades-long film career that spanned many countries and languages.
“She was a remarkable person. There are many books about her, but no one has talked much about the impact of her death in 2014,” said Weiss. “I want to understand how her death reopened this gendered World War II memory discourse, as people in Japan and China reflected on what her life and career meant.”
Weiss’ book, Han Heroes and Yamato Warriors: Competing Masculinities in Chinese and Japanese War Cinema, was published in October 2023 by the Hong Kong University Press. It is available at https://doi.org/10.2307/jj.6695534.
The School of Modern Languages is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Weiss’ work is one example of arts-related research in the College. Others include examining the intersection of art and AI, evoking conversations about sustainability through digital media artworks, and exploring the transformative impact of hip-hop.
Contact For More InformationStephanie N. Kadel
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts