copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

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] 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.

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 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] 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 (see. fig.17). 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 (see fig.18). While Japanese domestic space is exclusively occupied by Japanese women, Bai’s living room is for both men and women, Japanese and Manchurian.

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.

Women go to the city

Winter Jasmine’s treatment of women who do not succumb to marriage and family seems a radical contrast to another Manchukuo film All’s Well that Ends Well, clearly a remake of Ozu’s The Only Son. This was Ozu’s first film with the Shochiku Ofuna Studio in 1936, where the director of All’s Well that Ends Well, Wang Xinzhai, later had his training (Yamaguchi 1995, 147). “Ofuna flavor,” the women-oriented melodrama, effectively shapes All’s Well that Ends Well.[10]Both Ozu’s and Wang’s films narrate the passage from the country to the city as experienced by a mother or a grandmother. Ozu’s cinematic language is also discernable in Wang’s film narrative. For example, in the scene of the mother’s arrival of Xinjing, Wang uses Ozu’s visual strategy, exhibiting the magnificent capital city with the shots of the cityscape taken from a taxi. Even Wang’s composition of the shot within the taxi is identical to The Only Son.
In The Only Son Ozu tells the story of an old mother’s visit to her son in Tokyo after her life-long sacrifice for his education. In the midst of the city’s abundance and magnificence, the old working-class mother from provincial Japan and her struggling son in the metropolis remain outcasts of Japan’s modernity. Wang’s All’s Well that Ends Well also deals with personal striving within a national framework, although Wang tells a story of satisfaction and Ozu one of dissatisfaction. Not cast out of modernity, the peasant mother in Wang’s story is embraced by modern culture, especially when she visits the Great East Asian Construction Expo in Xinjing (hereafter, the EXPO). A comparative reading of Ozu’s The Only Son and Wang Xinzhai’s All’s Well that Ends Well reveals how the films’ depictions of women’s roles and life style here indicate as well a contrast of different modernities and different gender roles, especially when seen in a transnational context.

The Only Son constructs a mother figure in metropolitan Tokyo; the context is Japan’s rapid imperial expansion. The hard working silk-mill worker, the widowed mother, would sell her land and house in order to support her only son’s education in Tokyo. Though a factory worker her whole life, the mother is a typical woman confined to the familial and reproductive domain, investing her hope in her son’s personal glory. Ozu’s sophisticated opening and closing mise-en-scène in The Only Son bookend women’s confinement in wartime Japan. In the beginning pillow-shot, the opened shoji screen frames a hanging lamp, creating a cramped and static feeling for the family abode, where the mother will later appear (See fig. 21). Following are shots with a street view, the female workers in the factory, the village, and the return to the home where the mother is grinding flour. The organization of this sequence moves from “stillness to movement and back to stillness” (Burch 1979, 178). All the stillness is registered within domestic space, while in public space, on the street and in the factory, movement happens. In the factory, the mother is merely an anonymous figure among the laborers. Only when she appears again at the end of this sequence in the kitchen is her identity discernable. The contrast between stillness and mobility, anonymity and visibility, reveals a domestic gender inequality enforced by the gendered divisions of labor. Although the mother has a job similar to men’s work, she cannot really claim her subjective sovereignty, her capacity to desire or choose, because familial obligation confines her to the household. Ozu’s representation of the mother protagonist does not emphasize her personal achievement at her job or in society, but instead the film’s script focuses on her encumbrances and feminine duty of making her son a great man in the future.

In the film’s finale, the mother returns to her workplace, coming back from Tokyo with disappointment. A long shot displays her wailing in the empty courtyard. The openness of this image is a perfect contrast to the cramped feeling of the film’s opening. While the very first shot of the film seems to trace domestic space as restricted, the emptiness at the end of the film is just as terrifying as her obligations. Because the old woman has neither property nor family, she is indentured to the factory. The scene’s emptiness indicates her poverty and loneliness as a female subject of the Empire of Japan.

Made in 1936, when Japan’s on-going war with China was raging, Ozu does not seem to refer at all to the warfare. However, one intertitle indicates that the mother’s trip to Tokyo occurs in 1936. On February 26th of that year, an attempted military coup prompted the Japanese government to consolidate its power, pursuing a full-scale military campaign (Cazdyn 2002, 187). This revelation of the specific year puts the woman protagonist in the center of historical time when warped capitalist industrialization has pushed Japan further in its imperial colonization and expansion. With this historical awareness, Ozu’s gives viewers a greater understanding of the nameless woman in a film about her “only son.” The empire’s colonial expansion commanded a woman to be “good wife wise mother” to support her men in the war. Feudal patriarchal oppression now is replaced by imperial capitalism, the expansion of which aggravates women’s confinement in the domestic sphere.

In a stylistic contrast, Ozu’s subtle critique of imperialism and gender oppression are turned into an utopian comedy in Manchukuo’s All’s Well that Ends Well. This was probably due to Manchukuo’s severe film censorship.[11] Wang’s most significant deviation from Ozu in All’s Well that Ends Well is his inversion of prevalent gender roles, so that Ozu’s more realistic presentation gives way to Wang’s more idealistic film representation. To a certain extent, All’s Well that Ends Well resembles Chaplin’s “Comedy of Transformation,” emphasizing the immigrant’s conflicting reactions to his own transformation by the host culture (Hug 2001, 215). In the process of Old Lady Wu’s learning urban culture and exploring unfamiliar regions, the audience explores as well the migrants’ assimilation into and resistance to the city. The old peasant mother is not depicted as a stereotypical mother or grandmother encumbered by life’s necessities such as cooking, laundry, shopping or child rearing. Old Lady Wu takes the train by herself to come to the capital city, and there she feels at ease with all its modern facilities.

Half of the film traces her visit to the EXPO, walking around in the park, experiencing the excitement of speed in the amusement park, and visiting the exhibition pavilions. She’s on the move in the city, and this mobility and autonomy all come from her participation in the EXPO.[12] The Xinjing EXPO in 1942 in the film temporarily liberates the old mother from a familial domain. Her identity as a farmer and a mother is no longer tied to reproduction or a fixed location in pre-designated space.[13] In All’s Well that Ends Well, Old Lady Wu’s passage to the city and her passage to EXPO enable the peasant mother to move beyond her agricultural past and domestic conditioning, now getting access to city life, a bourgeois future, and nation construction. In this sense, this film can be considered as a “public fantasy.” Such a fantasy, according to Teresa de Lauretis,

“perform[s] at the societal level and in the public sphere, a function similar to that of the private fantasies, daydreams and reveries by which individual subjects imagine or give images to their erotic, ambitious or destructive aspirations” (Lauretis 1999, 304).

The EXPO, the aspirational narrative of constructing a stronger nation, incorporates the old woman, as an unconventional figure of modernity, into the production of the nation. The film thus endows her with liberty to access different social spheres. The film’s progressive imagination about women’s potential autonomy and mobility were unexpectedly enabled by the crystallization of Japanese imperialism, the EXPO. In this sense, All’s Well that Ends Well defines Manchukuo’s distinctive “colonial modernity.”

The EXPO also came at the tenth anniversary of Manchukuo’s establishment. The national “birthday” and EXPO became a perfect venue for propaganda, through which the colonial government strove to consolidate Manchukuo’s legitimacy. As the only film production company in Manchukuo, Man’ei played an essential role in this campaign. With the representation of the grandiose Xinjing and the splendid EXPO, All’s Well that Ends Well portrayed Manchukuo as a cosmopolitan center in the Japanese imperial project that aimed to mobilize all the region’s citizens to construct Greater East Asia. Though relatively unknown in the United States, this film has attracted Japanese and Chinese film scholars’ attention in recent years. Thus, Furuichi and Ding, two film historians in China, have used formal analysis to indicate the film’s propaganda imperative, and Ding in particular points out its extraordinary portrayal of rural space. Unlike the Shanghai leftist films that eulogized country life in contrast to the decadent capitalist culture in the city, All’s Well that Ends Well shows both the city and the country in a positive light (Furuichi 2010, 95-97; Ding 2008, 146-163).

The first half of the film presents the movement from the country to the city, and then the city is a space where the old lady experiences modernity and modernity’s troubles. Old Lady Wu’s uses of different kinds of modern transportation, and her encounters with all the magnificent urban architecture highlight Manchukuo’s achievements in industrialization and modernization (see fig.25 and fig.26). Meanwhile, the peasant lady also comes across her son-in-law’s suspected affair and her second son’s unemployment. While storylines in the first half of the film realistically present the city and its troubles, the second half of the film provides with a utopian resolution.

The EXPO becomes a symbolic and ritualistic resolution to the conflicts people face in ordinary life. In going to the EXPO, Old Lady Wu joins her grandson in the amusement park, appreciating Western music in a concert hall. The EXPO seems to prepare the peasant lady for modern life. Her country wisdom is not despised in the city; rather, her advice to her daughter and her understanding she shows her son bring about harmony in the extended family. The EXPO inspires everyone to construct Great East Asia, including the old mother. Thus, even the country woman becomes part of nation building as the film touts the importance of agricultural labor in the nation-building process. In the film’s nationalistic idealization, Manchukuo’s modernity, epitomized by the EXPO, is theoretically able to resolve the gender contradiction that Wendy Brown does not think capitalistic liberalism shall be able to resolve.[14]

Because of the EXPO’s unique role in exhibiting power in the industrial and capitalist world, it is also an essential event during Manchukuo’s 10th anniversary. For many imperialist countries, hosting an EXPO is a demonstration of their power (Bean 1987, 554). For most of the East Asian countries that painstakingly battle against imperialism and colonialism, participation in an EXPO is a step toward modernization and national salvation. Historians and anthropologists have elaborated the intimate relationship between world fairs, mass media and tourism, especially their cumulative impact on economy and politics. International expositions and world fairs are venues to flaunt national powers in the areas of construction, industrialization, and scientific technology. They have presented new entertainment media and opportunities for “vicarious travel” in imagining other lands. They aim at

“boost[ing] the economic development of the cities and regions in which they were held as well as to advance the material growth of the country at large” (Ibid., 554).

The world’s fairs in the United States have been an integral part of nationalism, imperialism, and modernist economic and political forces that have dominated U.S society since 1876 (J. Brown 2002, 430). The EXPO in 1942 is Manchukuo’s world debut, which is also a redux of Japan’s 26th centennial celebration. That is, in 1940, before Japan officially encountered the United States in the war, Japanese imperialism reached its apex in the empire’s 2600th anniversary. The imperial government availed itself of mass media, the railway system and consumer culture to reinforce both collective memory and national identity. Imperial tourism and national fairs not only stimulate domestic economy but also facilitate a sense of national pride. Here the 26th centennial mobilized men and women in Japan to devote themselves to the imperial war. In spite of the scarcity caused by the ongoing Sino-Japanese War, Japan’s 26th centennial celebrations created an image of abundance and luxury for its imperial subjects, manifesting its increasing military and economic power (Ruoff 2010, 2-6). With Xijing EXPO, Japan seized the opportunity of Manchukuo’s 10th anniversary to promote its imperial expansion through the glorification of Manchukuo’s modern achievements. It was also many people’s, especially women’s, first time to experience the time and place they were in, as well as the new technology and industrialization that Manchukuo had established. A visit to the EXPO allowed women who rarely ventured beyond the domestic sphere to know that they were also connected to the nation’s modernity and to the world.

Manchukuo’s distinctive colonial modernity is displayed in All’s Well That Ends Well in the level of narrative. For the peasant lady, the EXPO is a ritual through which she gets connected to modernity, and it is also the venue where the previous problematic family gets its reunion. One can say personal sovereignty and family integrity are at the core of the film and both are subject to the sway of Japanese imperialism.

At this point, it is useful to step back and think historically about what the introduction to modernity might mean to a person’s subjective grasp of both the world and themselves. For example, Marshall Berman describes modernity as “a mode of vital experience”:

“Experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils—that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience ‘modernity.’ To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology; in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’” (Berman 1982, 15)

It is in this vein that All’s Well that Ends Well depicts the peasant woman’s first experience of modernity. At the EXPO, she is situated in an environment of excitement, speed and peril, and eventually she goes through her own transformation. As an old mother from the “past”, who represents the feudal agricultural tradition, she is fully embraced by the “future,” the new nation, the modern city and the next generation. The EXPO works as the liminal phase of a ritual, through which a new social identification or new social order is embodied. Warren Susman, for example, is fascinated by world fairs’ ritual function, and proposes its study in light of Victor Turner’s classic concept of liminality. Susman suggests that the 20th century world fairs share several similarities with the medieval pilgrimage. “The modern fair represents [the] liminal stage that Turner assigns to pilgrimage” that prepares the social body with a new understanding of collective identity and a new conception of social order (Susman 1983, 6). During the “liminal phase” of rites of passage, according to Turner,

“the characteristics of the ritual subject are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase (reaggregation or reincorporation), the passage is consummated” (Turner 1969, 359).

If the trip to Xinjing’s EXPO is a pilgrimage to industrial modernity, Old Lady Wu and her family’s participation in the EXPO works as the “liminal phase” of a rite of passage, which connects Old Lady Wu (an attribute of Manchukuo’s past) to the metropolitan city and culture (attributes of Manchukuo’s future).

Turner notes that the liminal condition is “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and the ceremonial.” Liminality is usually chaotic, linked to darkness or wilderness (Turner 1969, 359). The EXPO represented in the film is both wild and chaotic. The sensational stimulus manufactured by the commercial amusement makes everything disordered. In the amusement park sequence, dynamic camera movements exhibit a panorama of the EXPO, in an overwhelming effect. A crane shot in low angle pans from right to left, depicting and highlighting an imposing battleship under the blue sky. Continuing panning left, the shot shows the stirring national flags, and then the camera angle lows a little bit in order to display a crowd of people in the foreground against the monumental architecture at the background. Then, the camera angle lowers further and zooms in, showing the rotating ships and joyful children. The long take delineates euphoria. The sophisticated mise-en-scène stresses the fast speed, the large scale and the abundance of modern city life, stressing the texture of experience, bringing about visceral tensions.

As the crowd encounters this manufactured sensationalism, familial order is jeopardized and people get lost. As soon as Old Lady Wu and her grandson arrive the EXPO, the boy is captivated by the amusement park, refusing to obey his grandma any more. The grandma is forced to follow the boy, riding the rotating planes and ships and even visiting the horror chamber. In fact, a basic fascination with the horrific, the grotesque and the extreme is a typical expression of urban modernity (Singer 1995, 87). In this film, the horror chamber scene not only portrays urban life’s “nervous stimulation” and “bodily peril” (Singer 1995, 77), it but also is “linkened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness,” which “liminality” is always associated with. According to Turner, as liminal beings, people at this stage have no status, no positions in a kinship system; they are waiting to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to cope with their new station in life (Turner 1969, 359). Thus, going through the horror chamber, the grandson goes astray, Old Lady Wu loses her way, her son-in-law is separated from his wife, and the wife gets angry when she sees her husband talking to a younger woman. People lose directions, identities, a sense of security, and their family in the exciting, tempting, terrifying and speeding environment created by the modern ritual.

Transnational participation represents another aspect of EXPO’s liminality and it also offers the resolution and “reaggregation” concluding the ritual. In the park, the Osaka Pavilion and the Tokyo Pavilion are next to the Nanking Pavilion, which temporarily eliminates the hierarchy between the metropolitan state and the colony. The Forest Pavilion is also placed alongside the exhibition of industrial development, reducing the gap between agriculture and urbanity. The Japanese soldiers, the Russian waitress, and ordinary Manchukuo citizens mingle with each other. As Turner puts it, being in a liminal state also means

“being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition. … Secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized” (Turner 1969, 359-360).

An imagined comradeship and egalitarianism, with transnational, multiethnic harmony anticipates a new social order — which in the case of Manchukuo is “The Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.” Thus, everything gets “reincorporated” when the ritual of the EXPO is consummated at the end of the film. The family is reunited at the dinner table headed by the grandmother. The country lady magically gets used to urban culture, endorsing free love, forgiving the lying child and even understanding a pre-marital sexual relationship. The family gets renewed in the new social order when she calls for her children to build the Greater East Asia with her. Thus, the ritual of the EXPO not only helps those from an agricultural past cope with industrial modernity, refreshing the traditional family in the modern society, but also enabling the peasant woman obtain a new identity in the productive space. Old Lady Wu’s temporary liberation from domestic life and her mobility in the public domain help viewers envision gender equality in the new nation, Manchukuo.

This definition of gender and modernity is so progressive that seems to anticipate the feminist debate about gender equality in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, any radical imagination of gender equality and modernity in All’s Well that Ends Well is subject to Manchukuo’s coloniality. The film foregrounds Greater East Asia rather than Manchukuo through the EXPO. In Old Lady Wu’s visit to the EXPO, many shots capture the imperial soldiers in informal dress, revealing Japanese military’s presence inside Manchukuo. A pan across the Japanese kanji, “Demolishing the Brits and the Yankees,” is followed by the third son’s participation in a game while waiting for his mother. Only near the end of the film when everybody gathers at the concert hall is the symbol of Manchukuo, a national flag, is briefly shown as a backdrop.

All these haunting images of Japan reveal the contradiction between liberty and coloniality at the core of Manchukuo’s colonial modernity. As Old Lady Wu ironically says at the beginning of the film, “Changchun has become such a great city. This seems like a lie.” She seems to announce that much of what you can see in Manchukuo is a fantastic story, a lie. If so, how dare Man’ei make such an apparent criticism of Japanese imperialism? How could the film censors in Manchukuo possibly ignore it? The trick lies in the translation. In Japanese, “jiuxiang ge huanghua side/It is just like a lie” is read as “Yume mitaida ne/ like a dream”. Contrary to its phrasing in English and Chinese, this fixed expression in Japanese is an absolute compliment that describes something as truly wonderful. Thus, the hidden meaning produced in spoken Chinese and Japanese translation tells a different story to the film’s multilingual audience. For the Japanese censors and the Japanese audience, this line of dialogue speaks of the glorification of Japanese imperialism, while for the Chinese-speaking audience, this line expresses the fact that Manchukuo sovereignty is no more than a dream in its actual subordination to Japan.

* * * * *

While Ozu’s realistic approach invites his audience to question relations between imperial expansion, gender inequality, and the urban-rural divide in Japanese society, Wang’s direction of All’s Well that Ends Well serves even more compelling interests. Man’ei always faced conflicting allegiances — to the imperial Japanese government, the colonial government of Manchukuo, and the occupying Japanese military, as well as ever-intensifying film censorship in Manchukuo. Balancing these factors determined the director’s ambiguous attitude to Japanese imperialism and his subtle representation of Manchukuo’s sovereignty. The old mother not only has pride in her children but also finds passion in building a new nation. Imaginatively, such a cinematic rewriting of women’s potential mobility in both the reproductive sphere of rearing children and the productive sphere of nation building unintentionally undermines the gendered divisions of labor premised by bourgeois liberalism. Although the old mother is a peasant, she gains a mobility similar to the working woman, Bai Li, in Winter Jasmine, and thus they both personify Manchukuo’s cultural sovereignty. Nevertheless, in All’s Well that Ends Well it is the “Greater East Asia Construction EXPO,” a major project of Japanese imperialism that affords the plot an utopian resolution of any problems caused by urbanization and industrialization. In the film, the EXPO symbolically and ritualistically prepares the Manchukuo mother to be a figure of both tradition and modernity; she is scripted as a figure apparently able to negotiate the intricacy of the city while at the same time using her folk wisdom and maternal authority to resolve a series of family problems (Ding 2008, 159). The mother’s authority, as well as Manchukuo’s autonomy, is ultimately predicated both by and in spite of Japanese imperialism in Manchukuo.


1. Manshu eiga kyokai, aka Man’ei.

2. Minami Manshu Tetsudo Kabushiki Kaisha, known as Mantetsu.

3. “The National Policy Companies [were] a characteristic feature of Japan’s wartime economic system. They were basically private (only partially government-owned) companies whose purpose was to support Japan’s national policy. From the 1930s to 1945, this focused on expanding Japan’s influence in Manchuria…. Accordingly, the National Policy Companies were primarily expected to promote industrial control, increase productivity, and facilitate the economic and political development of the occupied territories” (Otto 2002, 127).

4. Data comes from Furuichi Masako (Furuichi 2011).

5. Sang argues that the “failed modern girl” is usually a lower-class urban young woman who is seduced by the alluring images of the bourgeois Modern Girl but her attempt to ascend to middle-class status is always in vain.

6. The translation from Chinese is mine.

7. Funded by the Manchukuo government and Southern Manchurian Railway Corporation (aka. Mantetsu), the Japanese “East Indian Company” in Manchuria, Man’ei is, however, subject more to Japanese imperial power than to colonial Manchukuo. In addition, the appointment of Amakasu as the second president of Man’ei was the decision from the Ministry of General Management (Somucho) and Kwantung Army, which demonstrated the extent that Japanese imperial power influenced in Man’ei (Kobashi 2015, 136).

8. Translation of reference in text from original Japanese is mine.

9. According to David Bordwell, Sasaki Yasushi started as Ozu’s pupil in 1930 in Shochiku (Bordwell 1988, 25)

10. “Since the mid-1920s, Shochiku films within the megagenre of gendai-geki have exhibited characteristics as a group that transcend or engross the personal styles of filmmakers. Critics designated this shochiku studio style ‘kamata flavor’ or ‘ofuna flavor.’” “Shochiku became the primary force in shaping the two perennially dominant gendai-geki genres of melodrama and shoshimin-geki. Both genres were excellent vehicles for conveying philosophies about suffering and happiness, tears and laughter, ideals and realities” (Anderson and Richie 1989, 244).

11. According to the Regulations of Film Production (Eiga ho/Yinghua fa) enacted in 1937, the prime minister of Manchukuo has the authority to determine the content and subject of film production and he has the authority in the selection of film exhibition and distribution (cf. Article 7). The film exhibition and film distribution are subjects to the ministry of Security’s censorship (cf. Article 5) (Hu and Gu 1990, 226).

12. The EXPO in this film was Xinjing EXPO; it was part of The Great East Asian EXPO (Daitoa hakuran kai/Dadongya bolanhui) in 1942 and also was The 10th Anniversary of the Founding of Manchukuo EXPO (Jianguo shinian bolanhui). The other sites of The Great East Asian EXPO included Beijing, Harbin and Nanjing. In Nanjing, it was the Great East Asian Expo of the War.

13. “Civil society or the economy is natural to man; it is the domain where rights are exercised and individuality is expressed” but life necessity and family obligation confine women in the familial, sexual and reproductive domain(s). Inequality of gender roles is perpetuated in these sets of binary spaces. Man have the liberty to move between public and private domains, while woman can only have either or (W. Brown 1995, 155).

14. The formulation of liberty “requires the existence of encumbered beings, the social activity of those without liberty,” argues Wendy Brown, “it is achieved by displacing the embodied, encumbered, and limited nature of existence onto women” (W. Brown 1995, 154-155).

Work cited

Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. 1982. The Japanese Film, Art and Industry. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Barlow, Tani. 1994. “Theorizing Woman, Funü, Guojia, Jiating (Chinese Woman, Chinese State, Chinese Family.” In Body, Subject and Power in China, edited by Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow. Chicago, IL, Chicago University Press.

Baskett, Michael. 2008. The Attractive Empire, Translational FIlm Culture in Imperial Japan. Honolulu, HI, University Of Hawaii Press.

Bean, Susan S. 1987. “The Objects of Anthropology (Book Review).” American Ethnologist 14: 552-559.

Brown, Julie K. 2002. “Fair America, World's Fairs in the United States (Book Review).” Technology and Culture 43. Pp. 429-431.

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