Sunday, December 9, 2012

Behind the Rising Sun (RKO, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Behind the Rising Sun, a 1943 RKO anti-Japanese propaganda movie that was a follow-up to Hitler’s Children, made earlier in 1943 and telling the story of the star-crossed love between two German-American kids, Karl Brunner (Tim Holt) and Anna Miller (Bonita Granville), who meet in Germany in 1933, just when Hitler took over, and go their separate ways: though Brunner was born in the U.S. and Anna in Germany, she considers herself American while he considers himself German and eventually he’s indoctrinated into hard-core Nazism at the Horst Wessel School while she plays baseball with the boys at the American Colony School. For the follow-up, RKO assigned the same writer, Emmet Lavery, and the same director, Edward Dmytryk, whom they’d hired away from Columbia’s “B” unit (just after his very interesting horror film with Boris Karloff and Anne Revere, The Devil Commands), and Lavery constructed a strikingly similar plot: the film is narrated by Reo Seki (J. Carrol Naish, playing a relatively sympathetic Japanese role the same year he was the evil Japanese criminal mastermind Dr. Daka in the first Columbia Batman serial) as he writes a manuscript in front of a nice-looking white cardboard box, tied with a ceremonial ribbon, that contains the ashes of his son Taro Seki (Tom Neal). Taro was born in Japan but his dad sent him to the U.S. to be trained in engineering at Cornell University, and as the film proper begins we see his return to Japan following his graduation, where he takes a job at the engineering company owned by Clancy O’Hara (Don Douglas) and falls in love with Tama Shimamura (Margo, top-billed), the Japanese woman O’Hara has hired as his secretary. For the first half-hour or so the biggest dramatic issue in Lavery’s script is whether Reo will allow his son Taro to marry Tama even though he’s from a prestigious family and she isn’t. Then, in 1937, Taro is drafted and sent to the Chinese front in the wake of the attack on the Marco Polo Bridge and the subsequent Japanese siege of Nanking. The experience of serving in the Emperor’s army turns Taro from a decent Japanese-American boy into a fanatical servant of the Emperor and the militarist clique that ran Japan and got the idea to declare war against the U.S. in the first place. It also gives him a suntan; though Tom Neal’s “Asian” makeup isn’t very convincing at any point in the film (of all the whites playing Japanese — and they’re most of the cast, though with so many real Japanese-Americans in the internment camps the cast is filled out with Chinese actors, including Benson Fong in his screen debut — only Naish is even remotely convincing), it gets even harder to believe as his face grows darker as the movie continues. Anyway, Taro slowly turns into a monster, getting excited by seeing the Japanese soldiers take babies away from Chinese mothers so they can throw them into the air and impale them on their bayonets, and on his return to Japan telling Tama that she should consider it an honor that her younger sister has just been sold into prostitution. As in Hitler’s Children, Emmet Lavery seemed more interested in the Axis enemy’s sexual sins than anything else bad he could have said about them; at one point we see an order, signed by Taro, telling Chinese women that they are expected to service Japanese soldiers at any time.

There are a few other people in the dramatis personae, notably American reporter Sara Braden (played by “Dracula’s daughter,” Gloria Holden, in a vivid performance that dominates virtually every scene she’s in), who finds herself running afoul of the Japanese occupation of China when she’s there to report on it, and is particularly shocked to find that nice young man Taro Seki having become as mean and bloodthirsty as the rest of his army. There’s also a bizarre scene in which back in Tokyo, Taro and O’Hara have an argument, O’Hara demands “satisfaction,” and eventually they meet to fight — only both of them are replaced by stand-ins, Taro by a heavy-set Japanese wrestler (though the guy is nowhere near the usual size of a sumo wrestler and he fights more in the style of a U.S. grappler) and O’Hara by his friend, baseball coach Lefty O’Doyle (Robert Ryan), who agreed only because he thought it was a boxing match instead of what he calls a “grunt-and-grapple” fight to the finish. Ryan had actually been a professional prizefighter before he entered movies, and he was frequently cast as a boxer (most notably in The Set-Up, a superb film noir in which Ryan plays a fighter who’s so washed up his manager bets against him in his latest bout but doesn’t tell him to throw it because the crooked manager figures there’s no way Ryan’s character can win anyway) because he knew the moves and didn’t have to be coached or trained to look right in the ring. O’Doyle wins the fight, of course, and later the Japanese authorities arrest him, O’Hara, Sara Braden and Tama and accuse them all of being spies: they torture O’Doyle to death but O’Hara and Sara escape thanks to the Doolittle raid, with blasts the prison in which they’re being held to popcorn, and to visas secretly arranged by Reo Seki (ya remember Reo Seki?), who offers one to Tama as well, but she turns hers down because she wants to remain in Japan and help the country recover after it loses the war to the U.S. In the meantime Taro had transferred from the officer corps to the air force, where he piloted a Zero but got shot down and killed by fire from a Doolittle bomber — and in the final scene Reo Seki, guilt-ridden over his own role in supporting the militarist Japanese regime, commits seppuku in the classic Japanese style.

After we watched Behind the Rising Sun, Charles commented that next to it Hitler’s Children was a masterpiece, but in some ways Behind the Rising Sun is a better film; it’s certainly wartime propaganda and doesn’t pretend to be anything else (though, ironically, it was actually made at the request of the U.S. government to acknowledge the existence of some morally decent Japanese and not portray them as the mindless, faceless hordes most U.S. wartime films had shown — it’s been noted often that because the other two Axis countries were white, U.S. propaganda did depict “good Germans” and “good Italians” and suggested that the decent people of Germany and Italy had been led astray by unscrupulous dictators, but almost never did they give similar consideration to “good Japanese” — instead the Japanese were generally depicted as indistinguishable parts of the dreaded “Yellow Peril” racists in the U.S. media had been propagandizing against for at least four decades before Pearl Harbor), but it’s shot considerably more atmospherically than Hitler’s Children — it had a bigger budget and the prestigious Russell Metty was the cinematographer — and one sees Dymtryk warming up for his next film, the noir masterpiece Murder, My Sweet. Two years later RKO would put Tom Neal in “Asian” drag again for First Yank Into Tokyo, though at least in that movie the rottenness of his Asian makeup was explained by his casting as a white man who was put through plastic surgery to look Japanese so he could infiltrate the Japanese capital, get in touch with a U.S. prisoner and get hold of a military secret. RKO was looking forward to the U.S. invasion of Japan and thought the title First Yank Into Tokyo would draw people into theatres, but after the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Emperor (the real one, not the stick-figure one created by Japan’s military propagandists as an idol to be venerated and died for) ordered Japan to surrender, and RKO had to do a little plastic surgery of their own on their movie, rewriting it so that the precious secret Neal’s character was in Tokyo to obtain was the triggering mechanism for the A-bomb and they could use stock footage of the explosions for a climax. There’s quite a lot of authentic newsreel footage cut into Behind the Rising Sun, too, and it’s some of the most interesting material in the movie even though it reveals that in terms of shooting mass rallies and marches, the Japanese didn’t have a director anywhere near as good as Leni Riefenstahl. (Their best director during the war years was probably Kenzo Mizoguchi, who specialized — as Akira Kurosawa did later — in samurai stories and other tales of Japan’s legendary past; Kurosawa himself got his start during the war and it’s surprising, given his stereotyped reputation as the samurai director, that at least half of Kurosawa’s films were set in the Japan of his own time.)