Women’s mobility and autonomy on Manchukuo’s film screens

by Yue Chen

Manchukuo was a nominal nation-state installed inside Chinese territory by the Empire of Japan. It lasted from 1932 to 1945. During its very short history, Manchukuo witnessed a flourishing of film production. Soon after Manchukuo’s establishment in 1932, Manchurian Motion Pictures Association[1] [open endnotes in new window] was founded in 1937. Funded by the Manchukuo government and South Manchurian Railway Corporation,[2] Man’ei was a “National Policy Company,” whose film production was supposed to promote “national policy.”[3] From 1937 to 1945, when the Allied Army defeated Japan, Man’ei produced hundreds of feature films. Although most of the Man’ei films are not accessible now, existing films and film synopses reveal that majority of Man’ei’s feature films focused on the representation of women in the city.[4]

The figure of the “new woman” who has autonomy and mobility is central to Manchukuo’s films. While the official idea of womanhood in Manchukuo promulgated an ideology of “good wife wise mother” in accordance with Japanese imperial propaganda, in Manchukuo’s economic reality, industrialization demanded female labor in the workplace rather than wives or mothers in the domestic sphere. Industrialization turned agricultural labor into proletarian labor, and modern transportation made migration and mobility possible. The car, train, and steamship enabled women to commute between home and work and also sent them to the metropolis and out into the world. In Japan’s imperial project, Manchukuo’s industrialization provided material resources for the empire and supported its imperial war in East Asia. At the same time, industrial capitalism facilitated Manchukuo’s own urbanization and precipitated the formation of new notions of womanhood, family and emotion. The new nation’s establishment needed new citizens for nation building.

Manchukuo film constructed an image of the new citizen particularly through representing the new woman, liberated from male domination and striving for independence and equality through her hard work. The new nation-state was portrayed in this cinema as a multi-ethnic “paradise” in terms of gender equality and class equality, one where women can claim her personal sovereignty. Thus, perhaps unwittingly, the nation’s cinema indicated a direction for an alternative social solidarity despite its overall haunting imperial propaganda. This essay examines Manchukuo’s films with a focus on their depiction of woman and industrialization, scrutinizing women’s relation to Manchukuo’s modernity.

Women and women’s image in East Asian films are intimately tied to East Asian modernity. The mass media have usually connected the modern girl, moga in Japanese, to sexual and economy autonomy and regarded her as a threat to Japan’s patriarchal society. This fear/resentment toward the moga, according to Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, has represented Japan’s anxiety about Westernized culture and modernity (Wada-Marciano 2005, 15-24). The working woman in urban space was also seen as “the perfect accompaniment to a metropolitan atmosphere.” As Barbara Sato comments, even the male intellectual saw “women as accessories rather than as individuals in their own right” (Sato 2003, 120). In China, the varying images of the Modern Girl were subject to the coming of capitalism and imperialism. In her essay, “The Failed Modern Girl,” Tze-lan Sang demonstrates that this image in modern Chinese literature and film has reflected the shifting definition of the modern and the nation in early 20th century. Because of her “unconventional sexuality” was like that of a Japanese moga, Chinese mass media also portrayed the professional woman as the decadent modern girl. More important, the tragedy of “the failed modern girl” in popular novels revealed stagnant class mobility in urban China. “[T]he Modern Girl is not just a new gender but also a new class category.” It is “an identity so thoroughly defined by socioeconomic privilege,” and “is impossible to inhabit for those with lesser means” (Sang 2008, 200).[5]

The Korean woman’s relation to modernity was also complicated by Japanese imperialism and Korean nationalism in Japanese-occupied Korea. According to Young-Sun Kim, although Korean women were emancipated from the Neo-Confucian family and won an opportunity to get an education and to work, they were still subordinated to male-centered nationalism and Japanese imperialism. One reason, according to Kim’s discussion of Korean women and Korean colonial modernity, was that Korean colonial Modernity was shaped by the conflict between yet conspiracy of male-centered nationalism and coloniality. In order to fight against the cultural politics of colonial assimilation, the nation was ideologically constructed as a homogeneous “pure-blooded” family. Korean nationalists appropriated the Japanese imperial discourse of “good wife wise mother,” and assigned to women the role of keeping the blood of the nation “pure” within the family. In the contestation and negotiation between Korean nationalism and Japanese colonialism, Korean women were still confined to the domestic sphere by a capitalistic gendered division of labor (Kim 2009, 205-233).

On the East Asian screen of the time, the woman in the modern city tended to be either a consumer with no restraint or an object of sexual consumption, as if the modern woman were usually a helpless victim of modernity. In Japanese film, she could be an “office lady” in a pharmaceutical company who is constantly harassed by her boss (Osaka Elegy, aka. Naniwa hika, dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, 1936). In Korean film, Sweet Dream (aka. Mimong, dir. Yang Ju-nam, 1936) tells a story of a middle class housewife who destroys her own life and her family. In Shanghai film, neither the educated professional woman in the New Women (aka. Xin nüxing, dir. Cai Chusheng, 1935) nor the single mother in The Goddess (aka. Shennü, dir. Wu Yonggang, 1934) could escape from poverty and gender inequality; these characters had to sell their bodies in exchange for their children’s well-being or education, eventually committing suicide (New Women) or being thrown in jail (The Goddess).

“No positivity, no universal woman independent of man could exist under the terms of the recoded Victorian sex binary” in modern Chinese culture, according to Tani Barlow, because the modern notion of woman, nüxing, only existed as the “other” to Chinese man in order to assert the male self (Barlow 1994, 264-267). In Japan, the image of modern girl in the “woman’s film” also functions as a Western Other that assists Japanese audience to assert a Japanese national identity (Wada-Marciano 2005, 24). This opposition of self/other and masculine/feminine have long been coded in the West’s representation of West/East. In her essay “Seeing Modern China, Toward a Theory of Ethnic Spectatorship,” Rey Chow points out that Julia Kristeva’s apparent favoring of China is actually sexualized: “China is counterposed to the West not only because it is different,” but also because it is “feminine.” Kristeva’s feminization of Chinese culture, for example, resonates with Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, The Last Emperor. Rey Chow’s reading of The Last Emperor evinces that, by feminizing the space and the spectacle associated with Puyi, the last emperor of Qing Empire and the late monarch of Manchukuo, the film perpetuates China as “a timeless ‘before’” — and forever “the other” to western modernity (Chow 1991, 18).

Sang’s “failed modern girl,” the victimized young women in modern East Asian films, and the feminization of Chinese culture in contemporary Western film all demonstrate an interpretation of women’s relation to modernity, in which “modern” Chinese women are subject to capitalism and imperialism instead of feudal patriarchy. As Sang points out, stagnant social and class mobility prevent lower-class women from ascending to the middle class. Sato, Wada-Marciano, and Kim’s studies also reveal that a still-patriarchal society does not provide an equal opportunity for women to participate in the public sphere. This is why professional women in East Asian magazines and tabloids are usually depicted as decadent modern girls and portrayed as victims of industrialization and urbanization on the screen. Rey Chow further reveals that not only are Chinese women “otherized” to western modernity but also China and Chinese culture are otherized through feminization.

Seeing modern women’s obstacles in the 1930s, the Jiangxi Soviet, a fugitive regime that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established inside the Republic of China at that time, promoted women’s empowerment in order to mobilize peasant women in the war against the Kuomintang regime. Their policy helped “the peripheralized sign of woman” stand also for independence by making women into “a category of political praxis” (Barlow 1994, 270). Using funü/woman to replace nüxing/woman, the state’s political practices designated funü/woman to have a more democratic position “through democratic rhetoric within a renovated statist family.” Even peasant women “achieved revolutionary transformation through social production” (ibid., 272).

While CCP’s utopian experiment politicized the reconstitution of the rural family by resolving gender inequality, cultural production in Manchukuo, the experimental regime installed by Japan inside of Chinese territory, also aimed at women’s empowerment for the sake of nation building. Manchukuo’s cinema resonated with its magazines and newspapers, creating an image of a modern woman who is embraced by the modern city and urban culture. She joins the capitalist working force rather than being the modern economy’s victim. At the same time, this image of the independent working woman contradicts the image of “good wife, wise mother” that Japanese imperialism imposed onto Manchukuo. Official gender policy in Manchukuo demanded women’s subordination. The “Women’s Association of Manchukuo’s National Defense” called for women to

“champion women’s virtue. In the domestic sphere, [women] should maintain the virtue of Oriental women for the purpose of facilitating family life. In the public sphere, [women] should be loyal to the emperor and the country for the purpose of supporting national defense” (Shan 2013, 16).[6]

In contrast to this imperial promotion of “good wife wise mother,” intellectuals in Manchukuo argued that men and women should share equal responsibility in both the domestic and public spheres. Since men and women were equally independent citizens in the society, they appealed to the “good husband wise father” to achieve gender equality (Xu 1944, 38). This appeal for gender equality was meant to defy official versions of womanhood. Nevertheless, the image of the independent woman was allowed in Manchukuo because Japan’s imperial expansion in East Asia relied on Manchukuo’s industrial and agricultural production, thus needing Manchukuo’s female labor.

However, seeing the working woman on the screen left room for Manchukuo audiences to imagine sovereignty, from the personal level to the national level. One might consider my interpretation as too ideal and think, to borrow Siegfried Kracauer’s analysis, that such an image “disguises the sites of misery in romantic garb so as to perpetuate them” (Kracauer 1995, 295). Yet, Manchukuo was not Weimar Germany; the contradiction between its own longing for sovereignty vs. Japanese colonialism also made it different from Korea or Taiwan, Japan’s other two colonies. As a newly established nation-state, the people of Manchukuo had to construct their own nation and define their national identity, and this national identity was not necessarily Japanese. In these circumstances, an enunciation of independence and personal sovereignty in Manchukuo’s cinema constantly deviates from the dominant imperial discourse. And usually in film this enunciation is tied to a woman.

Independence and sovereignty personified by working women betray the intrinsic paradox of Japanese imperial policy in Manchukuo. On one hand, imperial power strives to consolidate its domination in the colonial state; on the other hand, the empire is determined to legitimize its colonization of Manchuria through the installation of a nominal nation-state. This contradiction is also reflected in the establishment of Manchukuo’s film industry. As a national policy company in Manchukuo, Man’ei encounters a dilemma of allegiance. A national policy company in Japan indubitably serves Japanese national policy, which is Japan’s expansion in East Asia. However, Man’ei is a national policy company of Manchukuo; thus, it is supposed to champion Manchukuo’s national policy, which includes the construction of Manchukuo’s national identity and the promotion of Manchukuo’s national independence. Funded by Mantetsu, Man’ei is compelled to serve Japan’s imperial interests.[7] Meanwhile, Man’ei is also the “motion picture corporation of Manchuria,” “to produce films for Manchukuo’s people” (Yamaguchi 2006, 132-133).[8] To make film for the Empire of Japan or to make film for Manchukuo? This is the question Man’ei faces.

In this essay, we will see how such a contradiction of allegiances unexpectedly allows the image of working women to become the cultural representation of Manchukuo’s colonial modernity. At Japan’s periphery, Man’ei’s cinema creates an unprecedented space where independent working women are able to personify Manchukuo’s autonomy. This is what makes Manchukuo cinema unique in East Asia at the time. Thus, one productive way of reading Manchukuo’s unique colonial modernity is to approach women’s roles on Manchukuo screen as working women. Their roles as productive workers, autonomous and mobile in public space, best exemplify Manchukuo’s political claims of national sovereignty.

Because most of Man’ei productions were not accessible after World War II, previous scholarship on Man’ei cinema mainly studied the joint-productions between Man’ei and the major Japanese film studio. Thus, Man’ei is usually simplified in that it is described as an exceptional branch of the Japanese film industry. These studies also tend to focus on the propaganda function of its most famous star, Ri Koran (aka. Li Xianglan, or Yamaguchi Yoshiko) as well as Man’ei’s notorious president, Amakasu Masahiko. Thus, the studies usually ignore the representation of Manchukuo society and people in the actual cinematic texts (Sato 1985; Yamaguchi 1989; Stephenson 1999; High 2003). Other scholars, writing from the perspective of Chinese film history, believe Man’ei was the agent of Japanese imperialists, culturally enslaving local peoples (Hu and Gu 1999). With an emphasis on transnationality, for example, Michael Baskett contextualizes Manchukuo’s film industry as an integral part of Japanese imperialism, soliciting the people of Japan-occupied East Asia to actively participate in the Japanese imperial enterprise (Baskett 2005). The Man’ei study by Furuichi Masako in Peking University is the most recent Chinese-language scholarship, which, reiterates such a theme about Man’ei cinema’s propaganda imperatives (Furuichi 2011). Even Ri Koran’s film image is invariably read, in the multilingual scholarship on Manchukuo cinema, through the lens of Japanese imperialism.

Doubtless, Japanese imperialism is a foundational factor of Manchukuo film production. Doubtless, too, the subordination of women is an aspect of imperial enterprise and colonial projects. However, one cannot ignore the fact that in many Manchukuo films, women enjoy equal liberty to the male citizen. This imagination of gender equality transcends its historical limitations by challenging the sexual division of labor perpetuated by liberalism as it relates to industrial capitalism. That is, as Wendy Brown points out perceptively in her critique of the hidden gender bias of liberalism,

“[Women are] bound over time [not only] to relationships they are born to honor and tend, confined spatially to caretaking and labor in the household, but women are also bound symbolically to the work their bodies are said to signify; in this sense, [they] are without the mark of subjective sovereignty, the capacity to desire or choose” (W. Brown 1995, 154).

Interesting, as an historic contrast, while Brown is pessimistic about liberalism’s gendered nature, its denial of women’s right to “desire or choose,” the working women in Manchukuo’s cinematic imagination seem capable of taking the opportunity that modern liberal society provides and claiming their personal sovereignty in the film world.

Here are a few examples: On screen, a Manchukuo woman can appear as

Freed from the domestic domain, these female characters participate in social production as model citizens. Whereas consumer culture has appropriated female desires through commodification and early Hollywood film solicited women as consumers in a way that opened a space for expressive agency, Manchukuo’s cinema defines women as producers, rather than consumers of modernity (Hansen 1991, 14, my italics).

Below, I shall scrutinize the cinematic construction of women in Manchukuo’s cinema, situating its representation of new gender roles between the processes of Manchukuo’s nation-building and Japan’s imperial project of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” One Man’ei film, Winter Jasmine, will be a gauge of my comparison of the image of working women in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Osaka Elegy (aka Naniwa hika, 1936), and Kurosawa Akira’s The Most Beautiful (aka Ichiban utsukushiku, 1944). Another Man’ei film, All’s Well that Ends Well(aka Jie da huan xi, dir. Wang Xinzhai, 1942), will be read side by side with Ozu Yasujiro’s The Only Son(aka Hitori musuko, 1937) and form the foci of my reading of women’s mobility and her relation to the nation’s modernity.