There are times when watching a film ceases to be an enjoyable experience. In even rarer cases you may stumble upon a film that promises not to be an enjoyable experience, yet demands your attention. In the rarest cases, you may actively seek out a film viewing experience that is in no way shape or form anything that could be called enjoyable.
T.F. Mou’s Black Sun: 731 (Man Behind the Sun) is the rarest of the rare, a film that is horrifying in its portrayal of inhumanity and still manages to document a period in history rarely acknowledged in the western world.
Black Sun: 731 is an important film. It documents the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army Medical Corps against the Chinese and Russian prisoners of war taken in the Sino-Japanese war.
It’s all true.
Mau’s original intention was to create a documentary of the activities at Unit 731 but it is believed that no film from that time in history still remains. If any does it is locked in the deepest depths of a Japanese medical school vault, or in a military installation. Therefore Mau was obliged to bring this story to the screen in docudrama format. That is, fictional stories based around real events where the main idea of the film is the events that frame the story used to move the viewer along to a conclusion. This was popularized with, surprisingly enough, an American made-for-television movie named “Holocaust” that chronicled the Nazi extermination of European Jews during the Second World War.
Mau tells three separate yet important stories in this film. The first concerns the return to power of General Shiro Ishii, the leader of Unit 731 and inventor of the Ishii Battlefield Water Purification Pump (I am not sure the name is correct) following a charge of corruption filed by one of his staff members. The second concerns the coming-of-age of several Japanese Youth Corps members who arrive at Unit 731 at the beginning of the film. The third story follows the attempts of three prisoners to get information about the Japanese act ivies out of the camp.
The acting is uniformly excellent.
All three stories are effectively framed by the closing months of the Second World War as more and more pressure is put on the camp to develop bacteriological weapons for use against the Americans and Russians.
Again, since this film is a docudrama the stories are less important than the frame of the movie, and the frame of the movie is bacteriological (and other medical) experiments performed on prisoners of war, and in some cases, innocent civilians.
Mou pulls no punches with his framing device. His effective use of special effects (and non-special effects... more on that later) offers we in the audience more than a glimpse into the goings on within the camp laboratories. We see frostbite experiments, vivisections, artillery shell, poison gas, and decompression experiments.
His special effects never veer into the unbelievable, i.e. Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” nor do they provide a punch line to an elaborate setup, i.e. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” instead he offers visions of absolute realism. Do not be fooled by this description, what we see is horrible, perhaps some of the most horrible imagery ever put to film, and it is amplified by the fact that all of this was really done to real people in a real place at a real time in modern memory.
I did some homework to prepare for a viewing of this film. I read hundreds of UseNet comments and on-line reviews as well as reviews in other on-line publications that deal with horror films, I read Hal Gold’s non-fiction book “Unit 731 Testimony” and several non-fiction books about other Japanese atrocities, Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking” and “The Good Man of Nanking” the diaries of John Rabe.
This allowed me to view the film with a measure of clinical detachment which is almost mandatory, and if you are thinking of renting or buying this film I urge you to do the same.
I’ve read several reviews of this film and most seem to focus on two events that I will mention briefly here, so, spoilers ahead-
The scene where Ishii tosses a house cat into a room with thousands of rats does indeed contain a real cat and real rats. This scene is disturbing and terrible. However. that said, Mau makes an extremely important point about Unit 731 and the psyche of the Japanese Imperial Army.
Now, I am not one who enjoys seeing animals killed for any reason, even for eating, but within the scope of this film I think this scene is appropriate. It offers in 30 seconds a clear and concise description of conventional, bacterial, chemical, and atomic warfare; it is horrible, brutal, and final. Also, at any time an otherwise benign population can rise up and defeat even the fiercest enemy. The analogy of course is that the Chinese are the rats (numerous and cowed) and the Japanese are the cat (predatory and authoritative).
The other scene that generates the most text concerns the vivisection of a young mute boy.
The scene where the mute boy is vivisected contains a real corpse that Mau procured with the help of the Chinese police. What makes this scene to effective is not the gore, but the fact that the Japanese soldiers and doctors were able to convince the boy to willingly be vivisected. It is a metaphor for the way the Japanese Empire conducted its foreign policy through the years 1921 and 1946. That is, convinced that they were no threat and in fact rather friendly and accommodating, the Japanese Army was put in a position to strike with impunity. As with the Rape of Nanking and even Pearl Harbor this has proven to be the case.
Should you buy this movie? I can’t say yes or no... If you are a mainstream horror fan I say no, if you are a gore and splatter fan I say no as well. However, if you have an interest in history and an insatiable appetite for truth and justice then I say yes.
The DVD from Japan Shock is sold under the title “Men Behind the Sun” and contains few extras. The trailer for the film which in no way prepares an audience for the film it advertises is included. A slide show which would have been better had it not looped the same scream-airplane whine-machinegun fire, chapter access, and either English or Dutch subtitles.