The Problem of Empire: Japan’s Film Wars in Asia

Michael Baskett (University of Kansas, Department of Film and Media Studies)


This paper examines Japan’s film wars in Asia during the first half of the twentieth century within the context of Japanese colonialism in order to situate Japanese cinema within the global order of film-producing colonial nations. Western theorists of colonialism and imperialism have routinely characterized the Japanese empire as a derivative form of a Western phenomenon. Film War discourse of the 1930s and 1940s exacerbates this problem of whether Japan’s empire, and by extension its cinema, should be included in the global order. Thus, the first half of my paper discusses the basic rhetorical features of colonial discourse in the West as a point of reference from which to interrogate Japanese colonial cinema discourse. Rather than narrowly focusing on a single geographical area or film market, this paper will situate the project of Japanese colonial film within the international struggle for film hegemony in Asia—a “Film War.” Defining Japanese colonial film as a system, however, is not to argue that its discourse is either monolithic or may be reduced to a finite set of texts. Rather, drawing on a broad range of Japanese, American, British, and Chinese examples, I argue that Japanese colonial film discourse may best be understood as a series of discourses each occupying their own specific historical situation while simultaneously sharing certain elements in common.

My primary methodological approaches include both rhetorical and historical analyses of these discourses while also drawing from concepts in contemporary theory. Adapting Jacques Derrida’s notion of anthropological war, as a basic confrontation that initiates communication between peoples and cultures even when that communication occurs outside of colonial and/or military oppression, I propose that Japan’s film wars represent a space that cannot be adequately accounted for in either Western colonial theory or Japanese colonial discourse. Film War, therefore, becomes a highly visible manifestation of imperialism’s many and mutable states and must always be understood within the larger context of empire and not merely war mobilization.

The basic rhetorical features of Japan’s colonial film discourse are extensively detailed in two Japanese books published at the end of empire in 1944; Shibata Yoshio’s Sekai Eiga Senso (World Film War) and Tsumura Hideo’s Eigasen (Film War). Both texts richly illustrate the central role that imperialism plays in the discourse by characterizing Asia as a perennial victim of an acute and ongoing “crisis” against which order is maintained by ideology and media representation as well as through formal administration. Colonial Asia, rather than being an active participant in this discourse, is portrayed as a prize for competing film-producing nations. Its markets are valuable less for their potential box-office profits than they are for their vast human and material resources. Both books assert Japan’s technological and economic “advancement” over non-Japanese peoples and cultures in Asia, and thus resemble what French anthropologist Georges Balandier has called the “colonial situation,” or a hierarchal division in which a foreign minority dominates a materially weaker indigenous majority in the name of ethnic, cultural, and/or technological superiority. Japan’s Film War literature also illustrates uniquely perceived differences among colonizers. Tsumura paradoxically contests that what differentiates Japan’s civilizing mission in Asia from Western colonialism is precisely a perceived shared moral and philosophical identity with the Asian people and cultures under its rule.

Building on the conceptual base established in the first part, the latter part of the paper discusses specific ways in which film discourses both in Japan and the United States dissimilarly understood the practices used to “fight” the Film War in Asia. Beyond the acquisition of markets and profits, both sides expressed a belief that territories were highly prized for their potential ideological value as dedicated spaces where ideas from the metropole could be communicated. That Hollywood producers actively villainized Japan’s presence in Asia onscreen beginning with the Manchuria Incident (1931) through the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937) and after, recalls Gramsci’s notion of hegemonic power which continues to function even outside the limits of direct (colonial) domination. Japan’s Film War literature reveals other unlikely sources of influence beyond mere resistance to Hollywood/Anglo-American models. For instance, Shibata’s book championed Japanese film in Asia as a “curative” for the evil effects of Western cinema which had been poisoned by “Jewish” capital and talent. This sort of film criticism was unique to Shibata’s work alone and suggests a forced attempt to support Japan’s alliance with Nazi Germany after the 1936 Tripartite Pact. The awkward pairing of Jewish capital and aesthetics with territorial invasion and moral degradation, illuminates just how fluid Film War literature truly was as well as how easily it could be applied to a range of competing ideologies.

Ultimately, Japan’s colonial film discourse should concern us for it articulates a fundamental and ongoing inability to resolve the problems that Japanese imperialism and colonialism created. In reflection, Japan’s film wars may be understood as something more than an act of accumulation or acquisition alone; at times it both adopted and challenged Anglo-American film models while also attempting to articulate an alternate approach. In this way, Japanese colonial film disproves charges of it being only an uncritical copy of Western models. Even with its flaws and contradictions, Japanese colonial film discourse contained a critique of Western colonialism that remains largely unaccounted for today. As such, it provides a valuable opportunity to reassess scholarship that: fails to recognize that Japan had a film empire (not just a war cinema), identifies only certain geographic areas within it, or dismisses the entire project as a failure. Unlike war discourse which can be comparatively easily contained to make a “postwar” discourse possible, colonial (and postcolonial) discourse is never really over either in the historical or cultural sense. This examination of Japan’s colonial film discourse is necessary and timely, for as historian Eric Hobsbwam wrote, “like the age of empire, we are no longer in it but do not know how much of it is still in us.”