Michael Berry, Chiho Sawada, eds. Divided Lenses: Screen Memories of War in East Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. viii + 331 pp. $58.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-5151-4.
Reviewed by Thomas Arnold (San Diego Mesa College)
Published on H-War (August, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Beyond Hollywood: East Asian Cinema and Memories of War
For many people, the term “East Asian cinema” conjures up images of martial arts action flicks, Kurosawa epics, innovative Korean horror movies, or perhaps a classic animated movie from Hayao Miyazaki, like My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Movies about World War II, especially the Pacific theater, would not immediately spring to mind. Some might recognize Hollywood movies about the Pacific War such as From Here to Eternity with Burt Lancaster (1953), the much-lamented Pearl Harbor from 2001, or perhaps Clint Eastwood’s two films from opposite sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). In Michael Berry and Chiho Sawada’s edited collection, Hollywood is only one small element in a comprehensive look at movies made about the wars in East Asia between 1931 and 1953. It is the second part (the first studied textbooks) of the “Divided Memories and Reconciliation” research project from the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford. The main focus is on movies made in China, Korea, and Japan and their role in shaping historical memory in these countries. Given the rising influence of Asia in the culture and politics of today’s world, this collection is as timely as it is illuminating.
In his introduction, Berry outlines the collection’s eleven essays, which are grouped into two parts. The first part focuses on film industries in specific nations (Japan, Korea, China, the United States), with the second concentrating on specific issues including comfort women, the Nanjing Massacre, revisionist history, “pop culture diplomacy,” and gaming. Berry also outlines the role of media, especially cinema, in shaping and preserving memories of wartime and other historical events. Like the armies at Iwo Jima or Tarawa, different points of view strive to win the viewing public’s attention on the “battlefield” of cinema. He also provides a helpful sketch of current trends in Asian cinema and acknowledges the elements missing from the collection (North Korean films and documentaries, for example). There are many films to keep track of, so the listing at the end of the book is very helpful.
The first example of films as battleground is found in Yinjing Zhang’s “War, History and Remembrance in Chinese Cinema,” which covers events that occurred in the pre-Communist era (1911-49) and also includes films from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Zhang maps out the elements, importance, and impact of the “war films,” the main contenders in the arena of public memory. This includes movies from before and after the pre-Communist era, including such recent films as 2007’s Assembly, which has been called the Chinese Saving Private Ryan (1998). Changes in cinema are linked to social and political changes, for example, how the reform-minded policies of the 1980s gave way to the current repression of controversial ideas in China, which Zhang characterizes as moving “from dissent to consent” (p. 32). This comprehensive look at Chinese cinema fills a gap in scholarship and provides important insights into Chinese historical memory.
Wenchi Lin’s “Of Female Spies and National Heroes: A Brief History of Anti-Japanese Films in Taiwan from the 1950s to the 1970s” tells the story from the losing side of the Chinese civil war and also questions exactly what constitutes a “war film.” When such films appeared in the early 1960s, Lin argues, they focused on intrepid female spies, only later expressing anti-Japanese feelings. Just as in mainland China, Taiwan’s films changed with the political and diplomatic conditions. As Taiwan’s international situation worsened, films became more patriotic and heroic to improve national morale. As state sponsorship of the film industry faded, filmmakers were able to make more creative and controversial films.
Korea suffered greatly from Japanese colonization, WWII, and of course the Korean War. Their point of view is vital to understanding how these conflicts are addressed and remembered. Hyangjin Lee’s “The ‘Division Blockbuster’ in South Korea: The Evolution of Cinematic Representations of War and Division,” like the previous two essays, follows the changes in cinema that accompanied political change, from state control in the 1950s through democratization in the 1980s, globalization in the 1990s to the current “division blockbuster.” Lee defines this last element as domestically produced movies about the division of Korea produced to counter the “cultural imperialism” of Hollywood movies. How these films deal with a divided Korea, Lee argues, reveals a lot about South Korean identity. Korean pop culture continues to spread worldwide and recent events have put the peninsula back in the media spotlight, so these issues will remain relevant for a long time.
The next two chapters focus on Japan and how films, graphic novels (manga), and animation (anime) shape and reflect memories of war. David Desser’s “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun: Imagining the Pacific War in the Japanese Cinema” assesses the competing narratives of Japanese as perpetrators and victims (possibly both). Similar to the Chinese and Korean movies, these narratives gain or lose influence according to political and cultural changes. He shows the evolution of Japanese cinema from the “combat films” of the war years to the “victim” narrative during the US occupation to later films more critical of warand less focused on Japanese militarism and aggression and finally to the recent revival of Japanese nationalism and revisionism in the twenty-first century. Kyu Hyun Kim finds similar elements in “Japanese Manga and Anime on the Asia-Pacific War Experience.” Manga and anime criticize war rather than the Japanese, often adopt the “victim” narrative, show anger towards Americans, or use science fiction metaphors to disguise such criticism. Readers may recognize Mizuki Shigeru’s Comic History of the Showa Era, which focuses on individual soldiers and sees the United States as the enemy. Given the popularity of these two media inside and outside Japan, Kim’s essay is an important element to include and its topic could be the subject of future collections.
Robert Brent Toplin gives Hollywood its due in “Continuity and Change in Hollywood’s Representations of American-Asia Relations in War and Peace.” The essay analyzes patterns in the portrayal of Asian characters in American films. These too changed with the politics of the time. For example, the wartime hard-working, oppressed Chinese peasant becomes a Communist tool after Mao’s victory in 1949. Toplin’s comparison of the portrayal of Japanese and Germans, events such as Pearl Harbor, and the atomic bomb highlights the importance of movies in shaping perceptions of foreigners and foreign countries. It resonates with the current controversy over casting Caucasians as Asian characters, aka “white-washing.”
With this solid background in place, the collection moves on to the specific issues mentioned above, beginning with Lily Wong’s “Oscillating Histories: Representations of Comfort Women from Bamboo House of Dolls to Imperial Comfort Women.” Wong analyzes this particularly sensitive subject for Koreans and source of criticism of how Japan has dealt (or not dealt) with its role in WWII. She shows how both films mix political narrative with sexual desire, seeking to both titillate and inform at the same time. Wong finds this mix problematic, as comfort women are once again used to stimulate desire, overlooking the ugly reality of their existence. She calls for more scholarship in this area, which would intersect well with gender studies.
Michael Berry’s “Shooting the Enemy: Photographic Attachment in The Children of Huang Shi and Scarlet Rose” brings in another visual element (photography) and successfully ties it to cinema in two treatments of the Nanjing Massacre. The Children of Huang Shi (2008) raises important questions about the role of photography and photographers, i.e, do they just document events, or do they shape how events are understood and remembered? Berry finds photos shaping history in the Chinese miniseries Scarlet Rose (2007), which tells the story of Chinese female assassins. This changes the narrative from Chinese as victims to vengeful heroes, which suits current Chinese nationalism. Berry’s essay is a welcome addition to this collection, as it goes beyond cinema.
Japan is often criticized for not owning up to its role in WWII, and Aaron Gerow, in “War and Nationalism in Recent Japanese Cinema: Yamato, Kamikaze, Trauma, and Forgetting the Postwar,” shows that such criticism may be justified. This is especially true concerning a recent movie about the battleship Yamato and attempts to deal with the “trauma” of the postwar years in kamikaze films. Gerow sees Yamato (2005) as both patriotic and antiwar, comparing it to Saving Private Ryan (1998) in how it helps contemporary audiences interpret the past. Kamikaze films, however, are more dangerous, constituting what Gerow calls “an empty postwar” that ignores Japan’s responsibility for WII in favor of revisionist nationalism (p. 198). Given the actions of Prime Minister Abe and general global trend towards nationalism, this essay is especially relevant.
The final two chapters raise intriguing possibilities for future studies in media and politics. Chiho Sawada’s “The Promise and Limits of 'Pop Culture Diplomacy' in East Asia: Contexts-Texts-Reception” assesses the capacity of pop culture to build bridges between former enemies, in this case Japan and Korea, and set the stage for future cooperation. Sawada focuses on public and private initiatives to use pop culture for reconciliation. Examples include a 1998 Japanese government apology for colonizing Korea, the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, and the growing popularity of Korean pop culture in Japan. In the end Sawada concludes that reconciliation via pop culture is still mostly “uncharted territory” offering both “peril and promise” (p. 244), as wartime memory and the lingering impacts of colonization make reconciliation difficult. Sawada argues for the relevance of pop culture for historians, who can play a role in international reconciliation.
In the final essay, “History and Its Alternatives: War Games as Social Forms,” Eric Hayot compares video games with “alternative histories” in novels by such authors as Harry Turtledove. Depending on the form, the video game player can either reach the same historical conclusion (i.e., win the D-Day campaign as the Allies) or a completely ahistorical conclusion (drive the Allies back into the sea). What is important here is how this experimentation with outcomes differentiates video games from movies and other forms of pop culture. Imagining alternative futures in books offers broader possibilities than fictionalized versions of the past. In the end, what is important is the potential offered by using history, in this case the Pacific War, as play has shaped the popular imagination of the Pacific. Given the huge and growing popularity of gaming (video and otherwise) this area deserves further study.
Pop culture allows audiences to “play” with history and be creative with historical events. Divided Lenses shows that movies, TV, novels (graphic and otherwise), and games have much more to offer than imagination, shaping reality (or at least the audience’s perception of reality), memory, and even politics. The variety of perspectives offered creates a model for future studies, especially on Asia. This collection should appeal to those interested in war, pop culture, or both.
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Thomas Arnold. Review of Berry, Michael; Sawada, Chiho, eds., Divided Lenses: Screen Memories of War in East Asia.
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