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From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large numbers of people. Since no records were kept of these atrocities, the exact number of victims is unknown. The official Chinese figure is 300,000 dead, which is probably an exaggeration. Some conservative Japanese historians put the number in the tens of thousands, which may be too low.1 Some Japanese nationalists, more interested in their political agenda than historical accuracy, claim that the “so-called” massacre never really occurred at all, but is a fiction of Chinese propaganda.

Such nationalist claims have led to further misconceptions. It is widely believed, for example, that the horrible events of 1937 have been consistently denied by most Japanese, and that the true story only emerged in 1998 with Iris Chang’s US best seller, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.2 This notion of Nanking as the forgotten Holocaust, on a par with Nazi mass murder, was promoted by Chang and her many admirers. For example, Chang likened the brave American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who tried to protect Chinese women from rape and murder, and committed suicide in the US three years later, to Anne Frank. This type of loose comparison, as well as some factual mistakes, made it easier for nationalists in Japan to dismiss her work entirely. Chang took her own life in 2004.

The drawing of parallels between the Rape of Nanking and the Nazi Holocaust actually goes back to the Tokyo War Crime Trials in 1946, when Japanese wartime leaders were held accountable for “crimes against humanity,” thought to be comparable to the planned Nazi genocide. Nanking became a symbol of Japanese evil. And the comparisons stuck. In an otherwise sensible review of the film City of Life and Death, J. Hoberman talks about “the presentation of downtown Nanking as a de facto Auschwitz.”3

* * *

Nanking was not Auschwitz, nor, in fact, does the movie lay claim to such parallels. To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda. Auschwitz is the symbol of a systematic program to exterminate an entire people. What happened in Nanking is that a large ill-disciplined army ran amok among the mostly civilian population of a great city.


iconRobyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This 1937 file photo shows Japanese Imperial Army soldiers about to behead a Chinese man in Nanjing during the occupation of the city.

Far from being forgotten in Japan, the massacre has been the subject of heated debates in the mass media at least since the early 1970s, when the journalist Honda Katsuichi wrote a best seller about it, based on his interviews with Chinese survivors.4 Honda stuck closely to the official Chinese version of the massacre, which prompted his right-wing opponents to denounce him as a promoter of leftist propaganda. But the controversy also spurred serious Japanese historians to reconsider the matter. Even a conservative scholar such as Hata Ikuhiko, who believes that the death toll was closer to 40,000, which is less than most mainstream Japanese historians think, would not dream of denying the atrocious nature of the Rape of Nanking.

There is also a misunderstanding about the official Chinese attitude toward the history of the massacre. Until the mid-1980s, the Communist government barely mentioned it, but not because it wished to maintain good relations with Japan, as some have claimed.5 The fact is that Nanking, in 1937, was the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. The Communists were far away when the massacre occurred. And in any case, Mao’s regime was interested in heroic narratives, not martyrology.

If anything, the Nationalists were often blamed by Chinese for what happened in Nanking. Before the Japanese breached the city walls, the Chinese officer corps, crack army units, and the entire government administration, as well as their families, had already fled the city. Without any government left, the hastily improvised “safety zone,” filled with terrified Chinese refugees, had to be organized by a handful of foreign missionaries and a Nazi representative of the Siemens company named John Rabe, who naively sent a letter after the event to his Führer, informing him of the Japanese atrocities. The Führer was not impressed, and Rabe, on his return to Germany, was detained by the Gestapo for stirring up trouble between allies.

The rest of the Chinese population, including thousands of soldiers who had quickly changed into civilian clothes, was at the mercy of Japanese troops, who were brutalized by their own officers, undersupplied with food, often badly trained, demoralized by a succession of bloody battles, and indoctrinated with views of Japanese superiority and contempt for the Chinese. What occurred, then, was terrible enough without having to reach for parallels with the Holocaust.

Since the 1980s, when China began to open up to the capitalist world, including Japan, a new form of Chinese nationalism began to replace Maoist dogma. The government promoted the idea that only the firm leadership of the Communist Party could wipe out the shame of two centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, and ensure that the Chinese would never suffer this fate again. From then on, martyrology dominated so-called patriotic education. Museums sprang up on the Opium Wars. And in 1985, in Nanking, the Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression was erected. It is something between a museum and patriotic shrine. Adorning the entrance are the words, in English and Chinese: “Victims, 300,000.”

* * *

When I saw that City of Life and Death was dedicated to “the memory of the 300,000 victims of the Nanking Massacre,” I was expecting another standard Chinese patriotic film. There have been movies on the massacre before, some better, some worse. The worst I have seen was a Hong Kong production, entitled Black Sun, made in 1995 by T.F. Mou, who used his previous experience as a director of soft porn and kung fu to turn the historical subject into bloody schlock.

But I was wrong about City of Life and Death. Lu Chuan’s film is highly unusual in several ways. Apart from the dedication and a few scenes of Chinese screaming “Long live China!” before being machine-gunned into the Yangtse River, there is nothing especially patriotic or polemical about the movie. On the contrary, it is almost too easy on the Japanese. The real story of Nanking was far worse than what is shown in this film. A particularly refreshing departure from the usual depiction of squat, buck-teeth-baring, thick-necked, bloodthirsty Japanese villains is the lack of any stereotyping. On the whole, the Japanese soldiers are shown as ordinary young men, rather more handsome on average than they might have been in real life, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. And the main Japanese character, Sergeant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), is a bewildered, naive figure whose conscience is so shocked by what he sees that he ends up shooting his brains out.

However, the development of individual characters is not the movie’s strong point. Lu is better at conveying group behavior. Shot in black and white, the film is made up of a series of sometimes surprisingly poetic vignettes of man’s inhumanity to man. The first scene of collective violence does not even involve any Japanese. We are shown how Chinese military officers fight their way out of the city, by trampling and pushing the lower ranks out of the way. This, too, was worse in reality; Chinese who were trying to flee the city were shot in the back by other Chinese.

The vignettes that follow are historically accurate. POWs and men suspected of being Chinese soldiers in civilian clothes were marched by Japanese soldiers to execution sites and gunned down en masse. Women were gang-raped in front of their families; streets were filled with rotting corpses; Japanese soldiers pulled carts full of loot; children were casually murdered. John Rabe, who managed to use his Nazi credentials to save quite a number of Chinese, may be depicted as a more hapless figure than he actually was. In the movie, he spends much of his time apologizing to the Chinese for not being able to help them. There is one scene of Minnie Vautrin (the “Anne Frank of China”) trying to save women from being dragged away from their families.6

The reenactment of the atrocities, even though in a somewhat muted form, is not what makes this film original, however. More interesting is the way Lu, who served for two years in the People’s Liberation Army, dramatizes the behavior of young men who can switch from moments of humanity, even tenderness, to savagery in a matter of seconds. He makes nonsense of the cultural theories about the Japanese being uniquely and naturally brutal because of ancient warrior codes or whatnot. Instead, he shows how terrifying ordinary young men can be when they exercise their power over people who have none. Anyone who has encountered large groups of soccer supporters, whether they be British, Dutch, German, or Argentinian, recognizes the phenomenon. One minute, they will be singing along, happily enough, and the next minute, sparked by anything at all, they erupt into mob violence, and once that happens brutality can escalate fast. The sight of first blood invites more. It is as if the helplessness of the victims only provokes greater aggression.

In City of Life and Death, the Japanese soldiers, all but two of whom are acted by Chinese, look like Japanese men of their generation: innocently horsing around, singing popular songs, clowning in country dances. And then, those same boys (most are little more than that) turn into savage beasts, pumped up with predatory violence. This cannot be explained by a particular culture or history. After all, in previous wars, such as the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, Japanese soldiers were renowned for their discipline. Unfortunately, men from all nations are capable of extreme viciousness, once the animal inside is unleashed.

Lu is not insensitive to cultural behavior, however. To claim that we can all be beasts underneath the skin of civilized behavior is not to say that all cultures are the same. Cultural expression, whether in art, religion, manners, or ceremony, is often a way of channeling and taming energy that is potentially dangerous. Shinto, literally the Way of the Gods, was officially promoted in wartime Japan as the main manifestation of Japanese spiritual culture. What had existed for centuries as a nature cult, praying to the gods for good crops, fertility, and good weather, was turned into a militant form of chauvinism. One of the vignettes in City of Life and Death shows the Japanese soldiers dancing, banging drums, and chanting in a Shinto ceremony to celebrate the fall of Nanking. Too subtle to blame Shinto, even militant Shinto, for Japanese brutality in 1937, Lu illustrates instead the tenuous borderline between ritualized violence and the real thing. The scene also shows the danger of putting young men, locked in the cocoon of their own culture, in an alien environment, where they can easily come to feel that rules of civilized behavior no longer need to apply.

* * *

City of Life and Death is not an analytical film, however. It is stronger on atmosphere and feeling. When the Japanese Sergeant Kadokawa has his first sexual experience with a Japanese prostitute, Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto), he thinks he is in love with her, and gives her extra rations as a New Year’s gift. She sniffs the sack containing a bottle of sake, and thinks of home. What could have been mawkish is entirely convincing, even moving: two people adrift in a place filled with horror. Kadokawa is still one of the aggressors, complicit in mass murder. But he is also capable of great gentleness.

Lu takes other risks in this film, apart from his refusal to depict Japanese simply as villains. In most patriotic Chinese films, especially ones made in the People’s Republic of China, a traitor is a traitor, and a hero a hero, and there can be no possible confusion between the two. However, the main Chinese character in the film, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), is an example precisely of such a confusion. He is John Rabe’s assistant, speaks some broken Japanese, and does what he can to protect people in the safety zone. A good man, in other words. But he is not just responsible for helping the refugees; Tang is also a husband, and father of a small daughter. Tang thinks he can protect his family by making a deal with the Japanese, informing them that there are Chinese soldiers hiding among civilians. In exchange, the Japanese agree to protect his family from any harm. A traitor? A family man? Both? As it happens, the Japanese still murder Tang’s little daughter, and Tang ends up sacrificing his own life for that of another Chinese. A hero, after all? Such ambiguities are rare in Chinese films.

There are just one or two false notes in the movie. The last scene, for example, descends into sentimentality. After Kadokawa shoots himself because he can no longer stand the awfulness of which he is a part, two Chinese survivors, a man and a boy, walk away from the city toward the woods. Kadokawa, as though to redeem himself for his role in the massacre, had allowed them to escape. They stick flowers in their hair, like happy fauns, and go off laughing with the sheer joy of being alive. I’m not convinced that a story of mass murder and rape should end with this sudden lurch into uplift. Given that Lu has afforded us a glimpse of the darkest side of human nature, which cannot just be foisted onto the Japanese, I don’t think we really deserve it.


  1. The reason for the disparity of views on the number of victims is that many killings took place outside the city limits, and that deaths in battle and deaths by execution are not always distinguished.
  2. Penguin.
  3. City of Life and Death Weeps for the Rape of Nanking,” The Village Voice, May 11, 2011.
  4. Published in English as The Nanjing Massacre (M.E. Sharpe, 1999).
  5. See, for instance, Manohla Dargis’s review in The New York Times, “A Tale of Nanjing Atrocities That Spares No Brutal Detail,” May 10, 2011.
  6. For an excellent documentary film of the role of the foreigners, see Nanking (2007), directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman.
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Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

City of Life and Death
a film directed by Lu Chuan
(first released in China in 2009).

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This article was first published in the October 13, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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