I was recently granted the honor of a telephone interview with Mr. T. F. Mou, director of Man Behind the Sun(about the chemical and biological warfare experimental camp #731) and Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre. Although I speak no Chinese and Mr. Mou speaks limited English we overcame our language barrier well enough to discuss both of his films, the history behind them, and their relationship to current politics. I originally sent 17 specific questions to Mr. Mou with the anticipation that he would answer in writing thus simplifying the interview process. However the language barrier proved too wide, thus I present this interview in paraphrase.
HV: Have you read Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War 2? If so what was your impression of it.
TMF: I know Iris Chang, but I have not read her book. I am very happy that she wrote it because she is a second generation Chinese American and fluent in English. She was able to bring knowledge about The Rape of Nanking to the American consciousness.
In western films dealing with, for example The Holocaust, the Germans are almost always portrayed as vicious animals without a single redeeming quality. Yet, you treat the Japanese with a tremendous amount of sympathy. Why?
I sympathize with people who are educated by someone else, and then commit atrocities under the orders of these people, because they are innocent. Take the United States and Iraq as a current example. Most people accept what the (US) government tells them about Iraq, but there is a lot more to the story that isn’t being told. The American public can’t be responsible for the war because they only know what the government tells them. It’s the same with (Imperial) Japan, the soldiers, doctors, and general population are innocent because they believed their work was for a good reason, good for Japan, and good for the Emperor, because that’s what the government told them. Remember, Japan invaded China to “liberate” it from western influence. The soldiers believed they were doing what was best for both Japan and China.
Even your treatment of General Ishii was even-handed, and some have even said respectful. I am immediately drawn to the scene where he filters and drinks his own urine in front of the entire camp to silence the critic who had him recalled from duty. How hard was it not to turn his character into a maniacal madman? Certainly the events at 731 would have made it easy to present him as an outwardly villanous caricature.
General Ishii was very high up in the chain of command. He wasn’t stupid. I think he believed that he was doing what was best for Japan. People, especially people in high places, think they are doing good things for their country while doing terrible things to others. Ishii didn't think of himself as evil. He understands war and the nature of war. Look at Iraq again. The US wants to “liberate” Iraq, but Iraq must suffer for that liberation. Like soldiers in Iraq now, and soldiers in the Imperial Japanese army, and even General Ishii, they did not believe they were evil. I hold the highest levels of government to blame for both the Rape of Nanking and the events at 731. They allowed it to happen and they are guilty. The others are innocent.
Did you find it difficult to create Man Behind the Sun? Was there ever a danger that you would be overwhelmed by the events and images you were creating? If so, how did you deal with that stress?
Oh yes. The most difficult part was determining which parts to film and how to balance the imagery and the story. If the imagery is too shocking then the audience may not believe the story, if it’s too little then the story fails the truth.
I had lots of trouble making Man Behind the Sunwith the Chinese government. You see China and Japan need one another now. The Chinese need Japanese customers and the Japanese need Chinese goods. When I was making the film in 1986 I had to request permission from the Chinese government to film it. Because of the content of the film, 731, I had to submit a report directly to the Chinese Central Committee and the General Secretary of that committee. I introduced the report by stating “either you are a traitor, or you will let me make this film.” The concern of the Central Committee was that a film about 731 would sour relations between the Chinese and Japanese governments. I explained that I am making a film about the past, it is a factual film, and that although China and Japan share friendly relations now it doesn’t change the fact that 731 existed or that the experiments performed there happened. After that I got the green light.
I had problems with lower bureaucrats in the Chinese government too, especially from the Foreign Office who was most opposed to the production of Man Behind the Sun. They worried that if any trouble happened between China and Japan over the film that the Foreign Office would be blamed and not the Secretary General. I offered to write to the Secretary General and address their concerns, after that they didn’t bother me anymore.
It was worse when I wanted to make Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre. I was allowed to make the film, but during its production the government financed another film about Nanking (Don’t Cry Nanking: 1937) and I was ordered three times to change the title of my film. I refused because I registered the title first. I can’t speak about their film because I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s a love story about a Chinese girl and a Japanese officer set during the Massacre. That’s not the Nanking massacre. That’s not what happened.
I can’t even show Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre in China.
How did you find information about 731? As I understand it most of the known records were destroyed along with the camp. Did you have assistance from Japanese scholars, or former camp personnel?
In 1980 I was working for Shaw Brother’s Studio and didn’t want to make kung-fu films anymore. In 1980’s China you weren’t allowed to make political or sociological films so I asked to make a children's movie. I heard about 731 then and tried to find information little by little.
I found a short book about 731 published in 1954. Then I found information about the Korean War where the US used chemical and biological weapons. Where did they get these weapons? That’s when I learned a little more about General Ishii.
After the end of World War Two Ishii was employed by the US government?
In Fort Detrick, Maryland. He helped the US develop biological and chemical weapons. These were used in the Korean War.
I read of an outbreak of a certain non-native form of hemorrhagic fever in North Korea.
What did you do next?
Very few people knew the history of 731 in China in the 1980’s. Thus I conducted some research which including flying to Japan and found another book written by a Japanese author about the 731 camp. Then I traveled to the United States, to Maryland, the National Archives, and requested information on General Ishii and 731, but they refused because I wasn’t an American citizen. So I had my wife, who is an American citizen, request the information for me.. At that time, some secret documents about camp 731 and Ishii were recently declassified through the Freedom of Information Act, so I read them. Then I went to Manchuria and talked to people around the ruins of the camp. They were old and most of them didn’t know anything about the camp, but some did.
Has Man Behind the Sun: 731 ever screened in Japan?
It was only shown once, in Japan, in one cinema, and after the screening the cinema received a phone call that told them not to screen the film again or the theater would be burned down and I would be killed. Although I didn’t care about my safety, the theater ceased showing the film.
After the film Man Behind the Sun was shown in China, I met some people who worked at 731. They asked how I got all that information because what I showed on screen was so real. Especially the last part. When Japan fled Manchuria they did so during a 40 day stretch of rain. The ex-workers from camp 731 said the last scenes in the movie, with the rain, was exactly like it was. They also said that my scenes inside the camp, depicting camp life and such, were eerily accurate to what they had experienced.
Has it ever been screened at colleges or universities in Japan or the United States?
I showed it to a University class in Japan once. After seeing the film the room was silent, and finally one student said “The Japanese couldn’t have done that. Japan never did anything like that.” I asked them if they had ever studied 731 in their classes and they said no. With me for the screening was a Japanese man who worked at 731, and he stood up and said the film was accurate, it was the truth. He told the students that it was true because he was there.
It was really rather dramatic. The film sold well on video in Japan though.
Have your films ever run in the festival circuit?
I screened it at the Berlin Film Festival and after the first ten or twenty minutes some in the audience would walk out. When I spoke with them afterwards they told me that it (the film Man Behind the Sun: 731) was too real and that they didn’t want reality at the movies. They went to movies to escape reality.
I suppose looking at events such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Hutu/Tutsi holocaust in Rwanda, and the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that one concludes that humanity cannot outgrow it’s tendency towards barbarism. Do you think that films like yours can help prevent such events by reminding us of cruel human behaviors of the past?
I don’t think humanity can outgrow its tendency to violence. Humanity is stupid, it will always happen again. The human brain is smart enough to develop big weapons but not smart enough not to use them for barbarism. Look at a dog, okay. A dog will bite you if it’s scared or threatened, but it will stop and run away once the danger is over. Dogs don’t invent weapons to bite thousands of people at a time. Humans do though. Humans have big brains but very little heart.
Iris Chang, suggests that the Japanese culture of rigid obedience to authority and Emperor Hirohito contributed to the collective mental state that allowed such brutality to occur during the war. Do you think she is correct? What do you think could lead so many people to commit barbarism on such a vast scale?
I blame the education system. The Japanese were told that they were the only humans on Earth. They were taught that all other people were lesser beings.. The Japanese people were brainwashed, and even now that mentality lingers. Do you know the story of the Japanese cannibal who ate his Dutch girlfriend in Paris?
Issey Sagawa, yes. I know of his story. He’s a free man now living in Tokyo.
When that happened a French TV crew went to Tokyo to record the reaction from the general population. They asked several people about how they felt about Sargawa’s crime. They answered that it was horrible, but fortunately the woman he ate wasn’t Japanese.
During the war the Japanese didn’t consider the Chinese to be human. Like the term in my film (Man Behind the Sun: 731) they called the Chinese “maruta”, wood, something not even alive. The Japanese soldiers killed but they didn’t think it was wrong because it was right for their people. And because they were “liberating” China from the westerners, it was right for the Chinese too.
Have your films ever run in the United States?
Man Behind the Sun: 731 ran briefly in a small circle of theaters in New York City. That was in 1986. The New York Post gave it three stars.
What are your future plans. Do you have more film projects in the works?
I intended originally to shoot three Black Sun films in the series; 731, The Nanking Massacre, and No More War, but I don’t think I will obtain financing to make the third.
Thank you Mr. Mou for your generous time for this interview.