Women in the city

Colonial relations are often coded as gendered. The colonizer assumes dominant power through masculine control, conquering the colonized through physical force, intellectual superiority or charismatic sexuality. The colonized, usually a biological woman, is compelled to devote herself to the colonizer by sacrificing her body, love, and life. This colonial pattern of gender domination and devotion recurs in the storylines of numerous Japanese “national policy films” during the Sino-Japanese War. Ri Koran, the transnational film star in Japan, China, Manchukuo, Taiwan and Korea during the wartime, won fame in Japan by her performance of the colonized Chinese girl in the “Continental Trilogy”— Song of White Orchid (dir. Watanabe Kunio, 1939), Night of China (aka Shina no yoru, dir. Fushimizu Osamu, 1940) and Vows in the Desert (aka Netsusa no chikai, dir. Watanabe Kunio, 1940)—joint-productions between Toho and Man’ei production companies. In Night of China, a young Chinese woman at first resisted a Japanese young man’s kindness because of her anti-Japanese sentiment but is eventually tamed after she is slapped in the face by her suitor. Though the colonizer’s blatant abuse was well received by a Japanese audience, the Chinese audience was deeply offended. In fact, this film did not get to screen in the first-class cinema in Jing’ansi area in Shanghai, because even the Japanese colonial film censor knew that the Chinese market would not buy such power dynamics between men and women, Japan and China (Yamaguichi and Fujiwara 1988, 26).

A mere two years after Night of China, however, the joint-production between Shochiku and Man’ei, Winter Jasmine, was released to the public in Manchukuo and Japan. In this Shochiku style shoshimin eiga (middle class film) about ordinary people’s family and professional life in Manchukuo, the gender-power relation is totally reversed. Winter Jasmine is unique in this regard because it draws a contrast between a Manchurian family and a Japanese family, as well as trace the gender dynamics between a Manchurian woman and a Japanese man. The same Ri Koran plays the Manchurian woman, Bai Li. Although she was submissive in the “continental trilogy,” Ri Koran’s Bai Li in Winter Jasmine is strikingly superior to the Japanese young man, Murakawa. As an indigenous Fengtian girl, Bai Li assumes the role of a pedagogue. She cultivates, enlightens, and attracts the man from the cosmopolitan center of Tokyo, but eventually turns down his love. In terms of film plot, the script radically reverses the gendered colonial relation central to “national policy film.” Also implicit in this narrative revision is the geopolitical relation between Manchukuo and Japan. Unlike previous Man’ei productions that eulogize Japanese colonization, Winter Jasmine highlights Manchukuo’s sovereignty by depicting Manchurian woman’s independence and mobility.

The film production company’s conflicting allegiances to the imperial Japanese government, the colonial government of Manchukuo, and the occupying Japanese military (Kwantung Army) could explain in part Winter Jasmine’s distinctive representation of gender relation and colonial relations. Although some Chinese scholarship reads the film as colonial romance (Pang and Wang 2010) and others turn new attention to its urban geography (Li 2010, 117-124; Zhang 2010, 140-144), the personal sovereignty of working women in Winter Jasmine and its metaphoric significance for Manchukuo’s colonial modernity remain understudied. What I try to argue with my close reading of this film is the following: Winter Jasmine’s cinematic arrangements have made the film an unwitting story of Manchurian modernity and gender equality, undercutting the directorial intention of promoting the “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” and Japanese immigration to Manchukuo.

Winter Jasmine focuses on a playful young man’s moving to Manchukuo. Although Murakawa, the film’s male protagonist, is a graduate of the most prestigious school in the metropolitan state, Tokyo University, his family believes that life in Manchukuo will make him a better man. He comes to Fengtian as an engineer working at his uncle’s company in Manchukuo. Like every settler, Murakawa encounters cultural shock and linguistic problems in a far-flung place, but with the help of a kind and beautiful local woman, a staff member in Murakawa’s office, Bai Li, he soon gets used to the place of his new employment and becomes a hard-working and frugal man, like the local Manchukuo people. Murakawa is attracted to Bai Li and ignores his cousin Yae’s romantic interest in him. The triangular relationship narratively is resolved by aborting the marriage plot: both Bai Li and Yae turn down Murakawa romantically, resisting the cliché of colonial romance. At the end, Bai Li leaves for Beijing and Yae leaves for Tokyo for career development. Their aspirations for independence inspire Murakawa to stay at Fengtian and work for the development of the Manchukuo nation.

Interethnic romance and reversed gender roles constitute the two major narratives threads of Winter Jasmine, andBai Li’s role as a Manchukuo working woman is essential to both. As we recall, the film begins with Bai Li playing hockey on the skating rink in the factory. Situating the female protagonist simultaneously in work and recreational locations, Winter Jasmine forcefully constructs the image of a working woman with mobility; she has access to different social spheres. In contrast, during 1930s-1940s while Man’ei films promoted the image of working women in Manchukuo, an audience in Japan could see a film about a young woman who worked as a telephone operator at a pharmaceutical company in Osaka who was forced into becoming her boss’s mistress. This film, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy (1936), visualizes a stereotypical trope of modern Japanese women in the capitalist economy.

In the working place, the working woman, Ayako, is sexually objectified and constantly harassed by her boss and other male superiors. For example, the first shot of Ayako at the workplace frames her in the operator’s room. Sealed by glasses, Ayako in a kimono looks like a beautiful flower trapped in a cage (see fig.1). The potted flowers on her desk fit with her identity as decoration in the male-dominant space. A subsequent close-up of Ayako focuses on her beautiful profile and also shows all the male co-workers behind the glass window as a background. While highlighting Ayako’s sexuality on the one hand, the composition of this shot also marginalizes Ayako by placing her profile at the far left of the frame.

In contrast to this depiction of the oppressed Ayako, the opening sequence of Winter Jasmine foregrounds Bai Li’s autonomy and competence in the skating rink. In this her first appearance, Bai Li’s skillful skating is centered in the frame. A long shot portrays Bai Li as the best hockey player among all the young men and young women. In the next shot of a conversation between Bai Li and a male colleague, we hear about her ability. Unlike Ayako who is filmed in a gender-segregated space, Bai Li sits side by side with a male colleague. The image thus represents gender equality in Manchukuo. Comparing Mizoguchi’s Ayako and Sasaki’s Bai Li, we can see clearly the different rendition of working women in Japanese and Manchukuo cinema. While the working woman in a Japanese company is still subject to male supremacy and is judged by her sexuality, Manchukuo’s working women seem to have independence and respect. 

In sports, movement is not related to work demands; rather, it enhances and preserves the body. What is revolutionary about Winter Jasmine is that Bai Li and Yae’s sportswomen’s bodies represent their liberty and ability to control over their own bodies; these are crucial elements of personal sovereignty. The film portrays a woman’s body not in terms of sellable sexuality but in its capacity and will for work and leisure. Bai Li and Yae’s engagement in hockey is especially striking if compared with the “youth sports film” in 1930s Japan, which uses the male body to “disseminate a performance of the physical body as the national body that corresponds to the state’s attempts to instruct people in the ways of citizenship” (Wada-Marciano 2008, 65). Whereas Japanese films of the time showed that men could move and travel, Winter Jasmine represents Bai Li and Yae as being good at hockey. Furthermore, the male protagonist, Murakawa, has a heavy and un-athletic body and he cannot play the game. With their agility and strength, Bai Li and Yae’s sportswomen’s bodies and mobility begin to stand for Manchukuo’s modernity.

In another contrast with Japanese film, in addition to the “youth sports film,” the Japanese director, Kurosawa Akira’s The Most Beautiful demonstrates how imperialism exploited women’s agility and strength. Made in 1944, The Most Beautiful championed a wartime spirit when Japan was in a crucial moment during the Pacific War. Women’s body and physical strength were then mobilized for devotion to mass production in order to support the empire. In contrast to Bai Li’s body, empowered with autonomy and mobility, the female workers’ bodies in The Most Beautiful are subordinated to patriarchal power. Despite the woman protagonist, at Kurosawa’s film’s beginning, the female factory workers are ignored and marginalized. Previous scholarship regarded The Most Beautiful as a “humanistic” propaganda film or even documentary-like depiction of women (Richie 1996, 26;Yoshimoto 2000, 88). However, the beginning sequence showcases the very inhuman aspect of wartime mass production. The first two empty shots show the name of the factory and an audio speaker on a factory building. Human activity only appears in the third shot, yet here we see male factory administrators who are preparing to give a speech to all the workers. In the fourth shot, the male factory director in medium close-up appeals to workers to strive harder to meet the war needs. In this sequence, the ordinary man looks heroic in Hollywood style lighting. A viewer might almost mistake him as the protagonist of this film, yet the real protagonists, women workers, will not appear till later. The fifth to the eighth shots depict the assembled factory workers, the audience for this mobilization speech, all male, all emotionless and motionless. In these long shots, the army of workers looks like cluster of highly confirmative anonymous dots. Just like the optical products they manufacture that serve the war machine, the anonymous workers are also merely parts of the imperial project. However, even in this sequence that shows the nameless human parts of the war machine, one still cannot see any woman. Only in the ninth shot does a very indistinct appearance of a female worker emerge at the margin of the frame.

The cinematography of the beginning sequence thus sets a tone for The Most Beautiful. The film immediately implies that female workers will only win recognition when they submit their personal interests, emotions, families, and healthy, active bodies to the war. Indeed, for most of the film we see women at work, playing music, or doing sports; they seem to have a lot of mobility. However, women’s activities all take place in the factory compound, and the recreation does not aim to build their fitness but rather to enhance productivity. Only when one woman has thoroughly subordinated her personal interest to the empire, towards the end of the film, does the image of a female worker become heroic.

If we contrast the opening sequence of The Most Beautiful to that of Winter Jasmine, we can see that the juxtaposition of productive space with recreational space in the opening shot of the Manchukuo film has another vision of women’s role in the new nation’s modernization. With cheerful non-diegetic music playing over it, a long shot of a smoking chimney in the sky tilts down to a skating rink below. Labor is intertwined with leisure. It’s an image unlike the well-known, usual one of factory work, for example, in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), where workers are overwhelmed by machines. In the Manchukuo film, it is assumed that as factory workers produce materials for infrastructural building, sports produce strong citizens. In addition, hockey and skating are shown as healthy entertainment, in contrast to dance and gambling, the more decadent popular pastimes. Here it seems that people build strong bodies and minds for a strong nation.

As the plot now focuses on Bai Li and Murakawa in the city, Winter Jasmine’s cinematography contextualizes Bai Li within the public sphere and thus foregrounds the working woman’s relation to different social settings. She moves freely between the office, street, domestic spaces, and skating rink, where her mobility and confidence make her feel comfortable everywhere. The film depicts her skating four times. Every time, the tracking shot of her movement highlights her sportswoman’s body. In a medium long shot, Bai Li holds Murakawa’s hand and teaches him how to stand straight on skates. She looks at ease on the ice, while Murakawa can hardly keep his balance. Bai Li is not only Murakawa’s skating teacher but also his life coach for his new life in Manchukuo. She tells Murakawa how to save money in the office, and also encourages him to familiarize himself with the city while they eat in a restaurant. In each scenario, a medium long shot places Bai Li at the center of the frame with Murakawa at the margin. When Bai Li is talking in confidence, Murakawa either clasps his face between his hands or listens carefully like a student. When Bai Li takes the role as a pedagogue, the power dynamics between the male colonizer and the female colonized are reversed.

Bai Li takes Murakawa for a tour of Fengtian, familiarizing Murakawa with both the new shopping district and the traditional Chinese residential area, at once showing her mastery over city geography and Murakawa’s dependency on her. It is in this sequence that Winter Jasmine firmly flips the role of who is the de facto protagonist. By now, Murakawa’s protagonist status, like the superiority he gets from his birth status as a Japanese man from the imperial center, is thrown into doubt. Usually the composition centers Bai Li, putting Murakawa on the margin in profile. The audience is encouraged to side with Bai Li’s point of view. It is not surprising that Bai Li’s command of the city and her competence in maneuvering within the local culture make her a natural teacher guiding Mukarawa along. Such a gender reversal is simultaneously a revision of colonial relationships, with the colonizer the master from the metropole and the local inevitably under his tutelage.

Inspired by Bai Li, Yae leaves Murakawa and rejects the idea of marriage. This not only challenges a traditional romantic film plot, but it also has as its basis the ease with which the women characters engage with urban life. The harmonious coupling between the working women and the new space of a modern city and industry is especially remarkable for Winter Jasmine. Almost always in East Asian films of the 1930s and 1940s, the modern city is a place of consumption, crime, and sensation (Singer 1995, 72). Only in Winter Jasmine do we see a female protagonist with authority taking advantage of the hybridity of Manchukuo’s city culture. It is in seeing the compatibility between the women characters’ sovereignty and the modern city that the audience might well begin to imagine Manchukuo as a progressive modern nation.

Winter Jasmine’s extraordinary representation of women’s independence and mobility is also shared by Manchukuo’s magazine culture. For example, Kylin, the most popular Chinese- language magazine in Manchukuo, often published talks between female film stars and male scholars devoted to the subject of reading, work, and female independence. For example, in the “Conversation between Miss Yao Lu and Mr. S,” the film star Yao Lu was showcased as an intelligent and hard-working professional woman, who loved reading Ivan Turgenev and Lu Xun rather than shopping and dancing (Zhang 1941, page unknown). The article singles out the film actress as a “working woman,” connecting the image on the screen to the spectators’/readers’ ordinary life and facilitating identification between women viewers and the film actress and her roles. In “Interview with Women on the Frontline of Culture in the Capital City,” readers are shown a host of professional women typical of big cities in the 1940s. These included a female doctor, a radio hostess, a theatre actress, a female journalist, a film star, an office staff person, a schoolteacher, and a typist. Each working woman told how well she liked the career opportunity provided by new Manchukuo state. Although their pay varied, the working women all emphasized their economical independence and the satisfaction they derived from their contribution to family and society (Zhang 1941, page unknown).

Curiously, the working women portrayed in Kylin seem exclusively Manchurian or Chinese. In contrast, Japanese women in Manchukuo’s mass media continued to conform to the patriarchal tradition. An article in Kylin titled as “Japanese Women with Oriental Beauty” claimed that “Manchukuo’s cuisine, Japanese women, and Western housing are regarded as the best enjoyment in the world.” This article not only objectifies Japanese women, but also suggests that obedience and humility make Japanese women the best in the world. Even working women in Japan, the article says, are supposed to obey their husbands, giving up their careers in the productive sphere after they get married (Yongjiang 1942, page unknown).

The expected conformity of Japanese women to patriarchal expectations in magazines could explain in part Winter Jasmine’s portrayal of gender difference between Manchurian and Japanese women. Such an intra-gender and interracial relation is seen through the director’s representation of domestic spaces. Although a hockey player, the Japanese character Yae is usually confined to the domestic domain. The film has scenes in Yae or Bai Li’s living rooms, and both abodes showcase different cultural traditions. A traditional Japanese-style living room is the center of Yae’s home, reminiscent of Ozu’s cinematic representations of Japanese family life.[9] [open endnotes in new window] The film director’s apprenticeship to Ozu is visible here. A long shot shows the Japanese architectural divider, a fusuma, separating the Japanese-style room from a more modern Western-style room, while the fusuma also frames the women in the traditional room. The mother in kimono sits in front of a chabudai (Japanese style short table) all the time, wrapping gifts or doing ikebana. Yae, though in Western attire, is always seen here with her mother, talking about cooking or marriage. Yae’s father Kawashima never steps into the traditional living room throughout the film. Apparently, the domestic space of a Japanese family is constructed here as “feminine,” which is also supposed to stand for Japanese culture and tradition. Yae’s family and her limited mobility in the domestic space exemplify the gendered division of labor which has had a long life in liberalism, where “the family or personal life is natural to woman and in some formulations divinely ordained; it is a domain governed by needs and affective ties” (W. Brown 1995, 155).

Contrary to this more traditional and feminine rendition of a Japanese home in Manchukuo, the Manchurian family in Winter Jasmine does not seem to display a gendered division of labor. The Chinese woman, Bai Li, has freedom to move between the spaces of the hybrid culture and other spaces in her home. In the scene of Yae’s father’s visit to Bai Li’s father, the Chinese living room is photographed in a diagonal perspective, thus highlighting the spaciousness and loftiness of the Chinese house. The living room is a single large space decorated with multicultural artifacts. The doors have a “double-happiness” pattern emblem, and that along with the color-painting beam exhibit features of Manchurian local culture. In the foreground of the image is a set of synthesized European dining table and chairs. In the background, a Japanese doll stands by a Chinese vase. In a home of a local Manchurian family, instead of a space that claims the authenticity of local culture and tradition, competing signs of various cultures are integrated within it, suggesting modernity of many cultural influences. While Japanese domestic space is exclusively occupied by Japanese women, Bai’s living room is for both men and women, Japanese and Manchurian.

The Japanese living room of Bai Li's friend Yae. It is a space for women only. The Chinese living room in Bai’s family is for both men and women.

In this scene, Bai Li’s father and Yae’s father, Hawashima, engage in a competition of go, resonating with the competition between Bai Li and Yae for a lover. In both competitions, the Manchurian wins over the Japanese. The film plot offers viewers a moment to imagine Manchukuo’s superiority and it reflects a utopian dream of the colonial and imperial intellectuals in Manchukuo. Although the Japanese government attempted to make Manchukuo a colony of the Empire, the actual nation builders — such as its intellectuals, engineers, politicians and military officials — participated in the construction of the Manchukuo-state for different purposes. They did not necessarily support the Kwantung Army’s ambition of maintaining its dominance in the colonial state, nor the head of Manchukuo, Puyi’s wish to turn Manchukuo into his private kingdom.

In Winter Jasmine, Bai and Kawashima represent the Japanese scholars and China experts who flocked to Manchuria in a period of rapid colonial expansion as early as 1910s. For them, the establishment of the state of Manchukuo promised the birth of a new kind of nation that would accommodate Japanese economic imperialism and Chinese nationalism (Young 1999, 243). In more than two decades of its development, this dream seemed to have been partially realized in terms of economic and cultural autonomy. The intrinsic contradiction of Japanese colonial policy in Manchukuo was the conflict between consolidating imperial domination and promoting Manchukuo as a nation-state, and this contradiction unexpectedly opened a space for multiethnic culture and gender equality. Manchukuo’s mass media promoted the image of working women — a medical doctor, schoolteacher, professional writer or office staff — much like Bai Li on the screen, or the writer Mei Niang in reality. This image of working women personifies Manchukuo’s sovereignty. The contrast between Bai Li and Murakawa, and Bai Li’s father’s defeat of Kawashima in the go game appear to illuminate cinematically Manchukuo’s autonomy in the game of modernization.