The best novel we’ve read so far this year is Ian Buruma’s The China Lover, a criminally underrated fusion of first-rate historical reportage and thoughtful meditation on the nature of art. The book’s backbone is the true-life tale of a Japanese actress-turned-politician, whose career is recounted through the eyes of three lonely, movie-obsessed observers. The first of these narrators has a most unusual job—working on 1930s propaganda films meant to pacify the denizens of Manchukuo, or Japanese-controlled Manchuria. This is the puppet state that figured so prominently in The Last Emperor, as the scene of Pu Yi‘s pathetic comeback gig. (Pu Yi makes an appearance in The China Lover, as an aficionado of both opium and Charlie Chaplin flicks.)
The book’s Manchukuo section inspired me to dig up the English-language propaganda film above, which portrays life in Manchukuo as a little slice of workingman’s heaven. The movie was obviously designed to allay American fears over rumors of Japanese atrocities, such as the testing of germ-warfare methods on human subjects. Here, Manchukuo is depicted as remarkably similar to the United States, a place where baseball and bathing beauties reign.
Knowing what we know now, propaganda films of this nature seem both quaint and ghoulish. But put yourself in the shoes of a 1930s American moviegoer, who might have caught this newsreel before the showing of the latest Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical. This would likely have been your first real glimpse of Manchuria, after having read just a few snippets in the newspaper, or in history textbooks. As such, you’d have little reason to doubt Japan’s benevolence in bringing Manchuria into the modern world. Celluloid had far more power to convince in the pre-TV era.
Microkhan remains curious about the front company cited at the beginning of the film: “Beaux Art (sic) Production.” As those familiar with Tokyo Rose know, the Japanese cultivated a sophisticated network of native English speakers. But who is the narrator in this flick? And was he a true believer, or just another propagandist in on the con?