Japanese beheadings in Pacific War movies : questioning the power of “civilized” feelings

, par Julien Quelennec

The second World War seems to provide a set of obvious counter-examples to Norbert Elias theorization of the “civilizing process”. After Auschwitz, after Nanjing, after Hiroshima/Nagasaki, how can you believe that something like a “civilizing process” is at work ? To criticize Norbert Elias’s work in such a way results from a misreading of his analysis, or a misunderstanding of the function of the concept of “civilizing process” in his problematization of long-term social transformations. Elias was fully aware of the contradictory movements within the analysis of such long-term process. It “does not follow a straight line”(Elias, 157). His questions were not what is civilization, and by contrast, what can be considered “uncivilized” or “barbarian”, but “how did this change, the “civilizing” of the West, actually happen”, and “of what did it consist” ? In that sense, the rhetorical use of the opposition between “civilized” and “barbarian” is actually an expression of the general trend towards the formation of self-constraining individuals characterizing the “civilizing process” through changes in modes of behaviour and through affective transformations. This rhetorical opposition refers then only to a vague but obvious value judgement which associates civilization to a state of things, a given state of society which is therefore presumed stable. Elias wants to show that the “civilizing process” can on the contrary only be conceived through a problematization of long term historical transformations that we usually associate to modernity. The hierarchical implications of the use of the rhetoric of “civilization against barbarism” are put into the perspective of the actual interpenetration of standards of conduct between and within societies and the growing network of interdependencies characterizing the “civilizing process”.
This paper does not constitute a commentary or a defense of Norbert Elias conception of the “civilizing process”. But it seems to us that the analysis of cinematographic production is nevertheless articulated to the problematization of the “civilizing process”, because it draws our attention towards a powerful apparatus of the modern regulation of affects. Cinema is indeed an important operator of “refinement” of these lasts, as we become “spectators”. In the films we will discuss, we want to put emphases on the operations of mobilization of the “civilized” structure of feelings, and the relation of the affective regulation produced by cinema to the the discursive opposition set up between the civilized and the barbarian. The representation of Japanese acts of decapitation during the Pacific war is interesting because it shifts the “Western” focus of the “civilizing process” analyzed by Elias towards other historical conditions. How did the translation of the “civilizing process” happened in Japan ? Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Outline of a Theory of Civilization is considered as a foundational text regarding the emergence of a “modern Japanese civilization”, or the transition from a “feudal nation” to an “international force”. The second World War is in that respect in perfect continuity with the so-called “successful transition” of Japan into modernity. Military victories appeared early in the twentieth century as “proofs” of the value of Japanese civilization. The successful formation of a modern State legitimized the nationalist agenda driving internal (threat of the martial law) as much as external regulations (expansionist politics). Such historical process, conceived by Elias as a “sociogenesis of the State”, is based on, as much as it produces, the internalization by the individuals of the “civilizing process”, and so is linked to the transformation of affective structures. It is in that context that the representation of Japanese acts of beheading during the Pacific War discloses the actual tensions at work within this transformation. The risk is to follow the rhetorical distinction between “civilized” and “barbarian” which is, as we will see, sometimes quite obviously framing the choice of filming a decapitation. But we would like to see how representing the beheading of soldiers or civilians by Japanese during the second World War can actually put into question the civilized/barbarian divide produced along the “civilizing process”.
What do we see in a scene of decapitation ? Today, if we mention decapitation, it might remind us the recent scenes of beheading of hostages by “Islamic terrorists”. Filming a beheading and uploading it on internet is meant to scare people. At least we are told that terror is its main goal. So we usually identify a decapitation to a scene of horror. Such action would bear the mark of barbarity, if not savagery. It is supposed to represent the politics of the new “barabarians”, as a politics of terror. The question which is often raised regarding these videos is : should we show them or not ? The “civilized” distinguishes himself from the “barbarian” on a moral ground, through an ethical question regarding the diffusion of such videos, and so in terms of respect for the “victims”, but overall for the expected feelings of the “spectator” (the ability to be “shocked”). To stage a beheading would be to step out of humanity, because it would manifest the loss of a supposed universal feeling (pity), and express the primitive desire to see the blood of the “infidels” flowing. Here is not the place to discuss the function of decapitation in the war opposing “terrorists” to “civilized” States. But we would like to keep it in mind while we discuss films related to the Pacific War in which Japanese soldiers execute by decapitation soldiers as much as civilians ( conditions of a total war). Rather than asking “to show or not to show”, we should think about what is shown in such scenes (production of signification), what is not shown (hidden or implied meanings), and how it is shown (articulation of a “discourse of civilization” to regimes of pictures).

In the movies we will consider, the beheading has a clear cultural determination. It is the signature of Japanese military invasion. It is one of the ways Japanese soldiers mark their territory. We can in that sense see the beheading as a typical gesture of Sovereignty. Wherever Japanese passed by, heads have fallen. A head cut is a head cut by a Japanese. The beheading in itself is not a cultural specificity of Japan. As we said, we associate it today to the Islamic “terrorism”, but it also might recall the “Terror” following the revolution of 1789. There are probably many other historical instances in which decapitation has been a standard practice of execution. Is there a Japanese singularity regarding such practice ? The traditional sword (katana) with which the execution is performed, plays a key role in the singularisation of a Japanese style of decapitation. The sword became a Japanese cultural marker, and the decapitation a “signature”. If we see it, we know that we look at a Japanese officer. Beheading with this sword characterizes a Japanese “style” of violence, as if the object (sword) and the action (cutting heads) are essentially related to each other. Such essentialization of the Japanese use of the sword is patent in recent movies like Sin city, or Kill Bill. In the context of Pacific War movies, if the sword is sometimes used during fights, we have to keep in mind that the beheading is always related to scenes of executions. In other words, it comes after the fight. It is not so much seen in the perspective of an aesthetic of the warrior, as a kind of martial art, but through the lens of the military order (martial rule). In fact, we could say that wearing a sword during the war in the Pacific was somehow inconvenient, if not absurd. It might appear, as the “unknown”, as a rest of the Japanese “feodal” time, as something that the modernization couldn’t completely dissolve. However, should we not rather insist on the re-appropriation of the instrument “sword” in the modern Japan instead of drawing a cultural continuity between the feodal and the modern Japan through the representation of the symbolic sword and according to a “Western” historical experience ? What do the scenes of beheading tell us about the tensions and the discontinuities constitutive of the process of modernization in Japan ?
What is interesting regarding the scenes of decapitation by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific war is that it has been used in films from various origins ( Chinese, Australian, Austrian, American, Taiwanese, Hong-Kongese, Japanese) and related to different contexts. As we said, it is a signature of Japanese military invasion, occupation or colonization. We would like to make first a few remarks about the way it is filmed ( shooting and narrative aspect) in order to see how the cinematographic device can actually, in a practical way, deal with beheading scenes, and if we can draw some kind of typical representation of Japanese beheadings, beyond the diversity of origins and contexts. In the second part, we will come back to the idea of the Japanese “signature”, and try to understand how decapitation becomes a cultural marker through cinematographic representations, and not as something which would be rooted in a “Japanese second-nature”. In that second part, we will focus first on Japanese movies, trying to illustrate the integration of beheading into a process of self-criticism. Then, we will consider how the cultural determination but also its questioning can be produced through an ambiguous comparative device.

Filming a beheading

The obvious cinematographic technique to film a beheading is the use of the cut. Another way of filming it is to film half of the body, so that we can watch the head fall. In a way, the ethical question, to show or not to show, becomes in cinema a simple technical modality. Ethics is part of an aesthetic dimension. It is impossible to reproduce a “real” decapitation, but it is possible to make it look like “real”, without showing it. The problem must be in that sense : how does the director play with the feeling of the spectator, assuming that a decapitation will shock ? To what extent does the expected shock put the spectator in a position where his capacity to reflect on what is shown to him is inhibited, because of a kind of affective saturation ?

The “public” and the “voyeur”

There are two major options used by the directors to stage the beheading : either they use a public who is watching the execution within the movie ( Devils on the doorstep, The human condition, Under the flag of the rising sun) ; or they use the classic cinematographic device of the “voyeur”, the Peeping Tom ( Kokoda, John Rabe, Prisoners of the sun, Hong Kong 1941). There are certainly differences between these two modalities, but in both cases we think that it engages a process of identification of the spectator to the person(s) who is (are) witness(es) of the execution. It creates a gap between the “spectator/witness” and the Japanese executioner. It seems to us that it is here that the repulsive figure of the barbarian and its brutal and cruel features begins to emerge. The step out of humanity ( “we”, spectators, are the humanity) is embedded in this visual device which drives our feelings towards the compassionate identification of the witness with the victim. This technique produces especially powerful effects in the Peeping Tom mode of staging, because it hints at something which was not supposed to be seen, what was supposed to remain hidden or forgotten. The film makes us the witnesses of the exaction. We cannot say that we didn’t know. Moreover, it stimulates the desire to see, even though we might find what we see disgusting and repulsive. What is going on behind this wall or behind this door ? We want to know the “secret” of Japanese exactions.
There are variations in the use of this technique. It obviously doesn’t produce a uniform determination of the meaning of the beheading. We would like to insist here on two movies which make use of this identificatory device in a questionable way, because they somehow tend to manipulate the spectator’s capacity of reflexion. In Kokoda, the Peeping Tom device is articulated in the most unsubtle way to a form of animalization of the Japanese. This film is a tribute to Australian soldiers who fought along the trail of Kokoda in New Guinea in 1942. It is a typical jungle war movie. The scene of decapitation occurs after 30 minutes. Before this scene, we only observed the difficulty of Australian soldiers in front of the advance of the Japanese soldiers. However, we didn’t really see any Japanese. In the whole movie, not once can we actually see the face of a Japanese. They have no human face, and we can feel that the movie begins to tell us that jungle is like their natural habitat. The scene of beheading marks an important step in the sense that it clearly characterizes the resistance of the Australian soldiers as a struggle to survive from the claws of the Japanese beasts. As he is trying to get back one of his soldier left behind, an Australian officer sees through the leaves that this last is already in the hands of a Japanese torturer. The Peeping Tom is meant to show us the torture of Australians by Japanese soldiers, and the beheading is like its climax. It tells the spectator that the Australian were not facing a human enemy. We are watching the fight of humanity against savagery. After he cuts the head of the Australian soldier, the Japanese soldier hear a bomb detonating, and like an animal, he turns his head and runs towards what seems to be the location of the explosion, in a complete mechanical way.
The Peeping Tom is supposed to direct the attention of the spectator towards the hidden aspects of the history of the war. In Kokoda, it reminds the spectator of the war crimes committed by the Japanese against Australian soldiers. In John Rabe, it is the historical controversy relative to a bloody contest to kill 100 people using a sword between two Japanese officers which is reminded for public knowledge. Gallenberger’s movie depiction of a kind of “nazi humanitarism” during the massacre of Nanjing in 1937 is controversial. The will to introduce this contest within the depiction of John Rabe’s story has an advantage : it pinpoints the lack of interest of the director for the historical understanding of the event. The story of this contest certainly deserves to be clarified as it is one of the many points of contention of the memory of the “rape”/”incident” still opposing Chinese and Japanese. However, as far as we know, this story has nothing to do with John Rabe. In the film, Gallenberger makes of Rabe’s driver one of the victim of this “honorable” contest according to the Japanese officer explaining the scene to Rabe. The Peeping Tom becomes in that sense a way to bypass the complexity of the history of Nanjing, to jump out of history while making use of “historical facts”, certainly because the director found it interesting, if not fascinating. This scene is useless from the perspective of Rabe’s biopic. Gallenberger is only pulling vulgar affective strings to strengthen his “humanist” revision of the Nanjing massacre. The use of the Peeping Tom to provide a representation of Japanese beheadings, which means more generally of Japanese barabarity in Nanjing, might confirm that the horror is not so much in what is seen but in the eye of the one who sees.

Stories of resistance

In terms of narrative, it is interesting to observe that in many cases, the beheading is tied up to the rise of a form of resistance to the brutal and cruel invader, and to savagery in general. Decapitation can be used as the crucial and decisive moment in the story of a revolt against the Japanese ( Hong Kong 1941, Victory, No man is an island, Kokoda, and John Rabe to some extent....). Here we have to be very careful, because when we, spectators, identify to the resistance, we also tend to immediately associate the figure of the intolerable to the Japanese identity (cultural determination as resulting from the representation of an homogeneous “Japanese reality”). It is important to notice that executions were not only concerning the soldiers, but also civilians who supposedly helped the enemy, or resisted Japanese occupation. Showing the decapitations would then consist in the payment of a kind of tribute to this resistance, but is it not also sometimes participating in the rewriting of history by the “winners” ? It can indeed contribute to the burial of some other fragments of the collective memory, for example, as we will suggest, of previous or later forms of colonization.
Cinema is an obvious tool of propaganda for the State- oriented representation of history. A beheading sequence can play a key role in the production of a narrative which will contribute to the institutionalisation of such representation. If we consider Victory for example (Mei Hua), we have first to remember that this movie has been produced just after Japan broke its official ties with the Republic of China. The presence of Chiang Ching-Kuo for the premiere suggests that it is the result of the need for a narrative of Japanese occupation which would integrate this new circumstances (State’s approval). In short, the head of the KMT wanted to take revenge on Japanese recent betrayal. The beheading occurs at the beginning of the movie. Some Chinese important local representatives, depicted as a kind of traditional Chinese “gentry”, try to resist the construction of a dam on an ancestral location. They block the way to Japanese troops. They stand in front of them without violence and manifest a spiritual resistance to Japanese material and brutal advancement. Their heads are cut on the spot. This is one of the most unrealistic scene of beheading we have watched. In a way, because of this unrealist representation, the symbolic dimension of this scene becomes apparent. The territorial fonction of the beheading is overturned. By cutting these heads at this exact place, the Japanese military occupation re-institutes the Chinese ancestral possession of this territory, beyond the death of these remarkable defenders of Chinese traditions. It produces a kind of double blow, first in relation to the recent Japanese betrayal, but also in relation to the history of Taiwan which is re-instituted as a Chinese ancestral territory, putting on the side the violence through which the KMT took possession of the island after its defeat in Mainland China against the Communists.
In the movie of Goldstone and Monks Jr, No Man is an island, we also see in a different context the beheading playing a key role in the re-actualisation and re-writting of history. This film depicts the story of George Tweed in Guam Island and its long resistance ( he is “the last American”) to Japanese occupation. We don’t actually watch any execution. Here, the director made the choice of an elliptic reference to the decapitation. We just see two bodies on the ground, an American soldier, the last American companion of George Tweed, and a Filipino civilian who tried to help the Americans to fix a radio. It becomes like the seal of the new alliance between the American army and the Filipino resistance : it reappropriates the territorial function of the Japanese beheading. It builds out of it a possible counter-narrative of war based on equality, but overall on the existence of a common enemy. This film puts the problem posed by the colonial history of the Philippines aside. The question of racism of Americans towards Filipinos is raised several times in the films, especially when American soldiers use degrading names to speak about the Filipinos, but it seems framed by the context of the civil rights movement in the USA rather than from a critical account of American colonial history. Even though the movie was shot in the Philippines, the local actors were not speaking the Chamorro, Guam’s inhabitants main language. One could say that such small historical inaccuracy is a small detail, and that the possibility of equality opened up by this movie remains the most important message. However, we can also take it as a symptom of the limited transformation of the American’s perspective on the Philippines, before and after its colonisation. The sybolic use which is made of the beheading will then be like a screen, substituting to the complex history of American’s presence in the Philippines the image of a common struggle, a common destiny revealed through Japanese occupation and abuses.

Beheading as a cultural marker : the Japanese signature

As we said, the use of a sword might seem absurd in the context of the type of battles raging in the Pacific. It is an instrument of an other time, something anchored in the cultural history of Japan. It works as a symbol of Japanese identity because it is supposed to draw a continuity between the Ancient Japan and the Modern time. In that sense, it is an essential ideological component of Japanese nationalism. The problem is that it can also work as a reminder of the “feodal” period ( “feudal remnants”). From the perspective of the modern civilized and democratic subject, the sword, with its “essential” purpose (beheading), still bears the mark of the old oriental nature of Japanese culture, in spite of the knowledge of the nobility represented by the sword. It shows that, in spite of its economical and military development, Japan is not quite yet modern. It would just have the appearance of a civilization. An execution operated with a gun would be considered much more appropriate to accommodate modern feelings... We certainly are caricaturing the representation of the Japanese sword, but it is made to point at the embedment of such representation within a discourse on cultural differences largely dominated by “Western” categories of understanding (pre-modern/modern). We would like to see how such discourse passes through movies, and how it can also be put into question within the cinematographic regime of pictures.

Questioning the modern constraint : process of self-understanding

We would like to propose first a short and modest historical reminder regarding the use of the sword and the ritualization of decapitation in Japan. Internal wars have been raging during a long time there. To cut the heads of your enemy was part of the military, but also political, game. Pinguet (Voluntary Death in Japan) speaks about a “theatre of cruelty”. At the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, the “pax Tokugawa” has indeed been made after a serie of violent wars during which, for example, 35000 heads of the defenders of absolutism ( of Ieyasu, Hideyoshi’s son) would have decorated the road from Osaka to Edo. One could say that such kind of story suggests that the cruelty of beheading is rooted in Japanese history, and that what happened during the Pacific war illustrates the return of the brutality of this feudal culture. This would mean an integration of beheading into a kind of Japanese second nature. However, this kind of reasoning is misleading. It doesn’t pay enough attention to the social signification of the sword, and the codification of its usage, especially in the cases of beheading (ritual). From the beginning of the Tokugawa period until the Meiji restoration, holding a sword was the mark of the belonging to the samourai “cast”, the warrior “class”. Thus, it is first of all a sign of nobility and prestige. Its use was regulated by an ethical code (bushido). There were decapitations during this period of peace, but it was restricted mostly to two cases : kirisute gomen ( decapitation of a commoner by a samourai if the first insulted this last ; it had to be reported to authorities) and kaizoebara ( seppuku or harakiri assisted by a kaishakunin who will behead and terminate the pain of the protagonist ; it was the norm even before the Tokugawa). There are variations in these practices over the time, different fashions ( in the 17th century for example, keeping the head attached to the body), but what is important for us is that it provides a different angle for the interpretation of the meaning of beheading ( legal, mark of respect and honour, related to ethical practices). In Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, Oshima stages a kaizoebara. The film respects its formal dimension as a ritual. However, it doesn’t aesthetize the scene in order to make it look like the expression of an “authentic” Japanese practice. On the contrary, it hints at fragments of “inauthenticity”, in the sense that it is first a Korean soldier of the Imperial army, not a Japanese, who is asked to execute seppuku. Moreover, this last is condamned because of the suspicion of an homosexual intercourse with a Dutch soldier in the prisoner camp. The supposed essential meaning of the ritual, as a symbol of Japanese identity, is dissolved by the modern context in which it is re-enacted. The identity it is supposed to call for becomes a knot of contradictions.
The Meiji restoration provoked the dissolution of the samourai “cast”. The modernization required a complete reorganization of social roles. The Samourais have been deprived of their status, and even sometimes of their swords. One way to keep it and maintain the existence of the bushido was to enter the imperial army, and to become an officer. This is the moment when the sword became a national symbol. It is also the beginning of the army’s rise to power (control of State policy, passage from “martial art” to “martial law”). We have to keep in mind the existence of internal conflicts and divisions within the army. The Japanese army was not at all unified, except maybe behind the Emperor. The militarist faction eventually took possession of State power, and in a way, the tradition of the warrior’s ethical code got lost in the way. According to Pinguet, the invasion of China manifests the demise of bushido’s importance. “The varnish of bushido was cracking to show the old brutality of the ashigaru foot soldiers who in the fifteenth century Onin war had laid waste Kyoto with fire and sword” (Pinguet, 221). There has been attempt to regain the honour of the Japanese army, to keep the memory of the ancient noble tradition of the samourai. It is a recurrent topic of the movies dealing with Japanese attitude in front of the horror of the Pacific war, when they are compelled to face their responsibility in this conflict. But what is important for us is to understand why the cruelty of the beheading is not necessarily linked to the so-called “feudal remnants”, but can rather be interpreted as a direct outcome of modernity, as a produce of modernization, and as an effect of its dynamic.

To illustrate this proposition, we will consider two Japanese movies in which decapitations are staged. We might take it as a “Japanese perspective” on the question. However, as these movies present a critique of Japanese nationalism, we could also say that they are willing to produce a distance between the self ( of the director, the spectator, the narrator) and a certain given idea or representation of “Japaneseness”, especially regarding its link to militarism. The representation of the beheading becomes an important topos in the process of self-criticism. Emotionally, it triggers an internal resistance to one’s own social organization. It sheds light on contradictions which are much more complex than the idea of an opposition between Civilization and Barbary. In other words, this last distinction dissolves itself, because the tensions lie somewhere else : in the mode of production, or in the political system. In the two movies we will consider, the beheading marks a break of the automatic movement of the ritualization ( through “image-affection”, in close-up ; through slow-motion and changes of regimes of picture). It creates a gap in the continuous time, where it becomes possible to think the heterogeneous dimensions of the so-called cultural identity.
In The Human Condition I : No Greater Love, the stunning sequence of the beheading of Chinese prisonners depicts how the main character, the bearer of humanist and pacifist values, Kaji, reaches an emotional threshold. It is as if the accumulated tensions and contradictions that he somehow tries to resolve throughout the film, especially through his commitment to the improvement of the working conditions in the prisoners camp in Mandchouria, were exploding when he becomes the spectator/witness of the execution of Chinese prisoners who would have tried to escape. His face is shown several times in close-up, and is expressing something like a vision of the horror. However, his gaze constantly turns away from the beheading, and seems to be directed towards the vast landscape, that is to say towards the site of production. What does he really see ? His apparent paralysis (he doesn’t react to the first two executions) contrasts with the facial signs of an internal growing rage. The opposition between civilization and barbary, between humanism and bestiality, does not operate here. What Kaji faces, is the vision of the articulation, or even complicity, between a mode of production ( colonial exploitation) that he tries to “humanize” but also to make more efficient, and the military order imposed through the Japanese imperialism. What is unbearable is not only the execution itself, but overall his own passive participation to its repetitive re-enactement, to the fact that it continues, and will continue. During the third execution, something happens, a dysfunction in the execution of the beheading. The brave Chinese prisoner dares to speak, but doesn’t direct his anger towards the executioners, the soldiers, but towards Kaji, the “humanist”. Then, the soldier in charge of the execution misses the beheading. It makes Kaji able to revolt and to say “stop”. He is not afraid any more, and somehow, he becomes “Chinese”, or at least he passes on the side of the enemy. It triggers a larger movement of the prisoners who start to challenge the Japanese soldiers by walking towards them and calling them “murderers”. We think that the “missed-beheading” plays a key role here because it creates a break, or a breach, in the supposed identity of the Japanese civilization symbolized by this form of execution. It discloses the monstruosity not of the act of beheading in itself, but of the modern mode of production and of its mode of exploitation through military conquest. Kobayashi explores the limits of the humanism and its affective threshold, where it becomes entangled to the exposure of the violence inherent to the modern mode of production. In other words, the opposition between civilization and barbary, as an external distinction between two camps, and two modes of relation to violence, turns into an internal fracture of the self, between thoughts and actions.
The “missed-beheading” seems to indicate a distanciation from the logic of identification produced by nationalism, because it suggests how a well-known cultural marker becomes inoperative if not dysfunctional. In Under the flag of the Rising Sun, Kinji Fukasaku also staged a Japanese soldier, lieutenant Goto, unable to properly execute an American soldier. The feeling of shame resulting from such breach in the supposed Japanese honor of the officer makes this last become crazy. He will then turn his anger against the Japanese soldier through the enforcement of an absurd
authoritarianism. This movie must be situated in the context of the protestation against the Vietnam war. It depicts the story of a woman inquiring about the death of her husband just after the surrender of Japanese forces. He was executed for a supposed desertion, but the records remain unclear. Just before the beheading scene, we see the images of present protests against the war in Vietnam in a Japanese university. The story told by a professor to the widow makes then pass the movie into a kind of documentary regime of pictures. There is a kind of slow transition from a few archives photographies of the massacre which happened on the island to the scene of the execution of the Amercian soldier. The voice of the professor is producing the continuity between the archives and the fiction. But it is also the continuity between black and white pictures contrasting with the colored pictures of the present which creates the feeling of confusion between these different regimes of pictures. Moreover, the missed-beheading suddenly turns the picture from black and white to color, and the use of a slow motion accentuates the confusion resulting from such failure. All these elements characterize a kind of delirium of the filmic syntagm. But at the same time, it is at this exact point that we reach what seems to be the closer account from the truth about what really happened on this island. Fukasaku is certainly criticizing the absurdity of the Vietnam war. But this complex construction is also meant to address the delirium of the Japanese Imperial political system and the absurd loyalty it produced and which persists. The Japanese signature becomes then the symbol of a kind of collective delirium constitutive of the devotion to the figure of the Emperor which characterized, and maybe still characterize, the political institutions of Japan. The imperial system turns into a political machine producing insanity.

Cultural comparison and mutual understanding ?

In the two previous examples, we saw how a cultural marker can be redeployed in a socio-economical and a political mode of counter-discourses. They are expressions of the strong pacifist movements following World War II. They are important because they challenge the moralistic point of view characteristic of the civilized/barbarian opposition. An other typical way to relativize this last opposition is to use a comparative approach. Through the comparison of the modalities of execution of the enemy, we would be able to put into perspective our provincialism and our categories of understanding. This is a major characteristic of what we could call the discourse on cultural differences. We will consider two movies in which the comparative device is used, and we will try to indicate its importance, but also limits regarding its capacity to provide a path for a conciliation beyond the nationalist tendencies of modern cultural formations.
In Prisoners of the Sun, we face the difficult question of the judgment of Japanese war crimes just after their surrender. We won’t deal here with the problem of the political dimension of these post-war trials. In other words, and even if the movie mentions this question, we will not consider the choices made by the Americans to judge this or that Japanese criminal instead of this or that one. The fact that this movie is Australian can indeed help us to put into perspective the so-called “realism” of the American’s post-war international politics. The movie depicts the desperate search for proofs of war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers on the island of Ambon in Indonesia. Captain Cooper, the chief prosecutor, is convinced that some of the Australian have been killed without being court martial, and that the Japanese commander played the key role in this offence of military law. The trials seem to open up the question of the standard law from which these cases should be judged. By introducing a few elements of Japanese military rules and codes of behavior, as a kind of cultural defense against the law of the winner, the movie is somehow entering the domain of comparative law through the discourse on cultural differences. It culminates at the end of the movie, when a direct parallel/contrast is made between the Japanese mode of execution through decapitation ( flash-back of what happened during the war), and the Western one (a firing squad obeying the verdict of the trial). Regarding the question of beheading, we could say that the interest of the movie, thanks to its use of the comparative device, is to show that it is not from the perspective of the act of execution itself that the distinction between barabarity and civilization, crime and justice, operates. What matters would be the process leading to the execution, the rightful application of the rule of law. Moreover, the movie clearly suggests that the execution of the Japanese soldier, Lt. Tanaka, doesn’t restore the balance of Justice, not because the Japanese crimes were too big, but because the officer who is executed is not the “true responsible” of the crime, though he is the one who executed the Australian soldiers. Lieutenant Tanaka plays a key role in the comparative device. Probably because he is a Christian, he is like a kind of bridge between the two cultures. It is through this character that we can also grasp how the comparative device is embedded in a “Western” perspective, not as American, or Australian, but more generally as Christian. In other words, the comparative framework is related to a specific form of universality which would transcend the cultural differences. It is not surprising to see in that sense that the movie needs this figure of the “Japanese martyr”. He is executed but we also learn in the movie that his family died in the bombing of Hiroshima. The comparative device is somehow driving us towards an idea of justice beyond the human laws which remain somehow particular, in spite of its “civilized” origins, limited if not distorted by the human condition. The practice of cultural decoding leads in this movie to a Christian conciliation as the encompassing framework. Therefore, we can see that the decentering effect supposedly produced by the recognition of cultural differences remains limited, if not thwarted.
It seems to us that Devils on the Doorstep presents a more interesting use of the comparative device, because it doesn’t seem to operate within such kind of universalizing framework , even though it can be reappropriated by a general discourse on the so-called universal “human nature”. The movie could be divided in two parts : the first leading to the missed-beheading of a Japanese soldier and his Chinese translator by a supposedly Chinese master of the art of decapitation ; the second leading to the execution of the main character, Ma Dasan, by this last Japanese soldier, but under the order of a Chinese KMT officer. The structure of the movie clearly indicates that the comparison between these two executions plays a key role for the interpretation of the possible meaning of the movie. Here, the perspective from which the cultural differences can be expressed is not universal, because it is elaborated from the complex nexus which articulates the two acts of beheading, as a practice apparently shared by both traditions, the Chinese and the Japanese. What is important is that Wen Jiang avoids the trap of the representation of the differences between the Japanese and Chinese “traditions” of beheading, without at the same time presenting them as equivalent. The comical dimension which surrounds these two sequences prevents the establishment of a “spirit of seriousness” which carries on the common attitudes towards tradition as something existing in-itself and independent from human capacity of actions and transformations. Even if the execution of Ma Dasan produces a rupture from the comical tonality which precedes it ( for example, a pig is interrupting the discourse of the wounded KMT officer who can barely stand up by himself on the stage...), it is immediately re-articulated to the world of ghosts, spirits and legends, as it actually re-enacts a story told in the first part of the movie by the Chinese “beheading master”, about a head rolling and blinking three times after having been cut. One could say that these executions are framed by a Chinese perspective. But it doesn’t mean that it represents a Chinese nationalist point of view, which would consist in an other form of universalization. The movie has actually been banned by Chinese authority. It indicates the potential anxiety this movie can provoke in the spectator’s feeling regarding this so-called Chinese identity. Devils on the Doorstep is engaged in an open process of self-questioning in which the comparative device creates powerful effects of dis-identification. This process starts from the first sequence of the movie, when a mysterious “I” forces Ma Dasan to hide the Japanese soldier and his Chinese translator in his home. We could always wonder who is the “I” : the Communist party, a ghost, the director himself ? There isn’t any definitive answer to this question. Therefore, the Japanese decapitation is not a way to present an exterior point of view on the Chinese one, like an exteriority which would allow the China to characterize its “self”. It operates at the limit of an indefinite self, at the edge of a legendary identity, at a point of de-subjectivation. The self-mockery characterizing the tonality of this movie could maybe be interpreted as a contemporary translation into a cinematographic medium of the “decapitation syndrome” (Wang David, 16) haunting Chinese litterature thoughout the 20th century.

As a conclusion, we can say that the representation of beheading must be problematized because it has an important function in the mobilization of the so-called “civilized” structure of feelings. It is clearly articulated to a discourse operating with the distinction between civilization and barbarism. The cinematographic medium can easily overlap such rhetorical opposition, and therefore intensify the line which divides humanity along these forms of categorization. This line is drawn by the “civilized”, and we know that the “civilized” is most of the time associated to the “Western” modern subject. In other words, it is defined according to the historical experience of the so-called “West”. Here is not the place to discuss the discursive function of this “Western” trope. What is more important regarding our subject, the cinematographic representation of Japanese beheadings during World War II, is that we saw how the saturation of the structure of feelings of the spectator can be a powerful operator of the reproduction of the dividing line, as much as it can reveal the actual tensions produced by the process of transformation related to modernity. In the first case, we tried to show that it requires a kind of supplementary vigilance of the spectator regarding what is shown to him/her, because he/she encounters the risk of being overflown by a form of saturation of affects which disable his/her own capacity to regulate them, or simply put his/her capacity to think. In short, the discourse on“civilization” and the structure of feelings in which it is embedded can easily turn into some kind of fascism. In the second case, it seems to us that the spectator is somehow forced to access to this position of vigilance, or at least there is something like an invitation to distance yourself from your own affective immediate reactions, and so to put into question the division reproduced through the emotional as much as discursive distinction between the civilized and the barbarian. It is there that filming a beheading can become a powerful tool against the mechanisms of cultural essentialization.


Kokoda (2006) by Alister Grierson

John Rabe (2009) by Florian Gallenberger

Victory or Mei Hua (1976) by Chia Chang Liu

No man is an Island (1962) by Richard Goldstone and John Monks Jr

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence or Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu (1983) by Nagisa Oshima

The Human Condition I : No Greater Love (1959) by Masaki Kobayashi

Under the flag of the Rising Sun or Gunki hatameku motoni (1972) by Kinji Fukasaku

Prisoners of the Sun or Blood Oath (1990) by Stephen Wallace

Devils on the Doorstep or Guizi lai le (2000) by Wen Jiang

Hong Kong 1941 or Dang doi lai ming ( 1984) by Po-Chih Leong


- Elias Norbert, 2000 (revised edition), The Civilizing Process : Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Hoboken

- Pinguet Maurice, 1993 (first published in French in 1984), Voluntary Death in Japan, Polity Press, Cambridge

-Wang David Der-Wei, 2004, The Monster That is History : History, violence, and fictional writing in twentieth-century China, University of California Press, Berkeley