On November 9th, 2004, author Iris Chang was found dead. After suffering an agonizing bout with depression, she decided to take her own life. It was a tragic end for someone who had accomplished so much in such a short lifetime. In 1997 she had written one of the most harrowing books of all time, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Within its pages, Chang recounted in vivid detail the events that took place during the Japanese occupation of 1937. Much more than a retrospective, it’s a detailed expose about what she described as the “six weeks of Hell,” where humanity was completely stripped bare, and suffering existed on an astronomical scale. Using the word rape to describe a military occupation might seem harsh, but when one confronts the evidence of what occurred, there’s no other term to articulate what happened. Chang threw back the veil that sometimes hid these events from the public eye, exposing them to many people who might have not known, or simply chose not to.
One admirer of Chang’s was a director from Taiwan named Tun Fei Mou. “I know Iris Chang,” he recalled in an interview with Horrorview. “I am very happy that she wrote it… She was able to bring the rape of Nanking to the American consciousness.” Mou’s body of work as a filmmaker might have been relegated to obscurity if not for Hei Tai yang 731 (Men Behind the Sun, 1989). His graphic depiction of Unit 731, Japan’s biological unit, is one the most controversial films ever made and has gained a polarizing reputation over the years. Although some regard it as nothing more than an exploitation film, others, including myself, see it as a very honest look at one of the worst crimes ever committed. Beneath its visceral content lies a narrative that deals heavily with indoctrination and ideology.
Mou returned to the Second Sino-Japanese war by taking his own journey into Nanking with Hei Tai yang: Nan Jing da tu sha (Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, 1995). In the years since Mou addressed the war crimes of the Japanese, a great deal had changed for the director. His follow up shows an impressive amount of progression in both storytelling and composition. While it retains much of the shocking content its predecessor did, there’s no denying its historical accuracy. A stark depiction of the depravity of war, it’s a chilling look into the events surrounding the Japanese occupation of Nanking. Telling the story from both sides of the struggle, Mou allows the viewing audience to engage with the tragedy as a whole. He documents the suffering that existed, as well as the outlook, actions, and ideology of the Japanese army.
Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre is sometimes referred to as Men Behind the Sun 4, which is somewhat misleading. Following the release of Mou’s original film, Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho released two efforts to capitalize on its success. Ho, who is best known for films such as Ninja Terminator (1985), brought his campy style to the saga of Unit 731. While an audience does exist for both of his efforts, Hei Tai yang 731 xu ji zhi sha ren gong chang (Maruta 2: The Devil’s Laboratory, 1992) & Hei Tai yang 731 si wang li chi (Maruta 3:Destroy All Evidence, 1994). There’s little quality to be found in either of them. Aside from Gang Wang reprising his role as Shiro Ishii and lifting ideas and footage from Mou’s original film, they’re quite forgettable.
Despite the confusion, Black Sun remains the definitive follow up. While Mou breaks away from the theme of indoctrination, he once again delves deep into the ideology of the Japanese with a documentary style approach. The non-linear narrative is comprised with a heavy amount of stock footage, which coincides with dramatized events in the film. Mou, who is also credited as cinematographer, does an outstanding job at balancing the two, and both methods of storytelling compliment one another. He also explores the lives of those who suffered through the ordeal, and the few who strived to make a difference. Mou doesn’t hold back from illustrating the human experience, or the appalling ferocity that the occupation brought with it. Aside from a few errors in historical detection, and a few moments that feel exploitive, Mou creates a realistic portrait of the past.
Much like its predecessor, the film begins with very little fanfare. After the opening titles, stock footage is shown depicting the battle for Nanking and the subsequent occupation that followed. A narrator gives a brief history of the events leading up to the massacre, and the film then cuts away to the inside of a Buddhist temple. As one of the monks enter, he mentions that the war(referring to the battle for Nanking) is over. An elder monk remarks, “Who Knows what the Japanese are doing?” The younger monk asks, “Aren’t the Japanese Buddhists too?” “It’s not the same,” the elder retorts, establishing the clash of cultures that’s about to take place.
Little time is wasted with depicting the brutality of the occupation. While stock footage is utilized to show the battle for the city, the dramatization that immediately follows displays the bleak nature of its aftermath. Troops are seen marching through the city, walking over the bodies of defenders and civilians alike. We’re then introduced to Jean and John, two young children living in the city. They sit at home with their parents, grandmother, and uncle. The rest of the family members aren’t given names, like many of the fictional characters in the film.
Meanwhile, General Tani Hisao, occupier of Nanking is introduced. In order to increase the morale of his men, he orders that all regulations be suspended for three days. In a chilling statement of what’s to come, he talks of establishing comfort houses. Remarking, “Every home in Nanking is a comfort home, and every Chinese woman is a comfort woman.” The term “Comfort women” refers to women pressed into prostitution by the military. There were over 20,000 accounts of rape in Nanking, making it one of the most widespread incidents of mass rape in history. Hisao then orders a clan up operation, in which the army mops up survivors still resisting in the city. This sets up a barrage of sequences involving many people being rounded up and executed.
It’s during this operation that another character is introduced to the story. Like many of the supporting characters, he doesn’t have a name. (I’ll refer to him as “the turncoat.”) As the Japanese army assembles in the town square, he listens closely to their plans to weed out soldiers. He tells his son the most important thing to do is to stay alive. They soon join the throngs of townspeople converging in the square. He then speaks the crowd, telling them that the Japanese plan to kill people with short hair, or are suspected of being soldiers or insurgents. The Japanese, seeing he can speak their language, immediately conscript him to be their liaison. Moments later, the rest of the crowd is gunned down with a hail of machine gun fire.
Immediately after the crowd is massacred, soldiers enter the house where Jean and John live. Their parents are murdered by bayonet, and the two children escape with their uncle. This was a scenario that played out all over the city. It seems hard to believe that so many would sit in their homes while widespread murder occurred. Some of this can be attributed to a massive propaganda campaign executed by the Japanese. Flyers were distributed via air, promising food and safety in exchange for cooperation. The pamphlets had slogans that read, “When the Imperial Army arrives, so will safety!” Many families bought into this, and many more simply had nowhere to go.
While the army prowls the streets inflicting brutality, the generals in power make their own preparations. Mou captures the cultural xenophobia the Japanese had, and their overall contempt for the Chinese as subhuman. This is exemplified in a scene where General Nakajima Kyogo (though in reality his name was Kesgao Nakajima) occupies the headquarters that once belonged to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek. His aides begin to brief him on the progress of the occupation. Stock footage is intercut with the briefing to show the Japanese military on the move, as well as the problems the army faced with the large amount of prisoners of war that were being taken. It’s at this moment where the film addresses one of the most controversial facts about the Nanking massacre. General Kyogo mentions an order from Prince Yasuhiko Asaka to murder prisoners of war. Asaka’s infamous order of “kill all captives” is something that is still highly debated by many scholars. It’s unsure weather or not Asaka gave the order, or it was forged by one of his subordinates. Either way, it was one of deciding factors in the occupation, and also one that went unpunished at the end of the war. As a member of the royal family, Asaka was never brought to trial, and lived in relative comfort during the post-war years. When the Japanese surrendered, most of the officer class would shoulder the blame for the actions of the nobility. In his book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, author Herbert Bix examined the Emperor’s involvement in the Second World War. By 1937, at the time of the Nanking massacre, the emperor was very much involved with the operations of the army. Asaka’s appointment was even issued by Emperor Hirohito himself. Whether or not he was fully aware of what happened in Nanking might never be known. One thing is for certain: the royal family had blood on its hands.
The scene also touches upon one of the most savage events of the Japanese occupation—the killing competitions. Like school children comparing their toy collections, the Japanese held a competition to see who could decapitate the most Chinese. The act was a contest of unbridled sadism. The Japanese media even covered the event; much in the same way a modern publication might run an expose on a sporting event or automobile race.
While Mou’s talent as a filmmaker had progressed by 1995, he falls into one of the traps he did in Men Behind the Sun—he includes scenes that are exploitive. One of the most infamous of these is when four soldiers attack a pregnant woman, and an unborn fetus is ripped from her womb by bayonet. While it was well documented that this was something the army did, its overall presentation looks like something out of a low-grade horror film. The image of a Japanese soldier with a fetus on the end of his rifle even graces the cover of some releases. Once again, the controversial imagery overshadows the story.
Attention than shifts to the beheading competition that Kyogo alluded to earlier. During the contest, the press arrives to interview two of its participants, Nuda Iwa and Mukai Toshiaki. Both men were credited with decapitating over 100 people during the contest. Before the journalists can take photographs of the two, Tanaka Gunkichi comes marching by at the head of his unit. When it’s disclosed his death toll surpasses 300 men, the reporters chase after him, eager to capitalize on the story. Iwa comments, “Reporters are so perverse.” An interesting statement—in the midst of killing several innocent people, the two are insulted about the press going after a more sensational story.
Mou also reminds the audience that the Nanking massacre wasn’t just a story of mass murder. Throughout the endless killing there was hope found from the unlikeliest of people. Established in the city during the battle for Nanking was the refugee zone, set up by many people from western countries. The most unique of these was Jonathan Rabe, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party. Rabe’s story is one of the most complex to unfold during the massacre. Although his role in the film isn’t prominent, his place is history is. There are many accounts of Rabe brandishing his swastika armband to ward off soldiers and protect the innocent. His selfless actions saved many, and today he’s considered a hero. However, Mou glosses over an important historical fact–Rabe’s allegiance to the Nazi party. The film focuses on Rabe’s humanitarianism, and depicts him as a staunch anti-Nazi. Nothing could be further than the truth. Rabe was devoted to the party, and was even head of the local chapter in Nanking. He even went so far as to apply to Hitler for aid during the massacre. Nothing ever came of Rabe’s plea, and when the Gestapo eventually intervened, it was only to Arrest Rabe to prevent him from speaking out. It’s most likely that any documentation Rabe wrote after the war would have included attempts to distance himself from his old allegiances. Aside from Jonathan Rabe, there were several others. Reverend John McGee, who was a key part in the stability of the zone, is briefly introduced, but not much is developed with his character, or his actions. It’s the tireless efforts of Dr. Robert Wilson that are shown via actual footage shot by McGee. In a remarkable act of humanitarianism, Wilson worked tiresome hours, tending to the wounded at Go-Lou hospital. Although the real scenes of injured civilians are hard to look at, they show how much suffering the people of Nanking endured, and how the refugee zone made a difference.
Illustrating the ideology held by the upper chain of command is another example of Mou’s progression as a storyteller. He ties together two distinctive time periods of Japanese history. For centuries, Japan was dominated by a code of laws established by the Samurai known as Bushido. Many of its doctrines would be upheld until 1947, when the Samurai were all but abolished. Many Japanese officers considered themselves to be modern incarnations of these feudal warriors, with some even carrying the coveted tachi and katana blades into battle. Even fighter pilot Saburo Saki would name his memoirs Samurai! as a tribute to the bygone era.
This difference between these two outlooks is made apparent in one the films most memorable exchanges. Kyogo holds a meeting with a visiting Samurai named Takayama Kenshi. Their frank conversation of ideals reflects the sharp contrast between the Samurai, and the reigning military class that’s currently at war. The entire conversation is centered on two types of swords—The Kamagura and the Masamune. Kenshi speaks of the Masamune’s purpose as a sign of power, and not as a tool for killing. Kyogo talks of the Sino-Japanese conflict as a holy war, and not a place for ethics. Kenshi says fighting is for gaining victory. He speaks of Kyogo’s inability to fully grasp the long term plans of an occupation, and that, “Winning a war is easy, but winning peoples hearts is not.” Kyogo insists on using the Kamagura in order to subdue the Chinese by force, and rehabilitate them for a new Asia.
In his book, Japanese War Crimes: The Search for Justice, author Peter Li reveals the character of Kenshi to be fictitious. His whole reason for being present is to have a sympathetic Japanese figure. Li was also outspoken against Mou’s film, chastising it for being far too exploitive. On the same note, he praised it for not injecting a melodrama into the story. Aside from the dialogue in the sequence, the shot composition is very well executed. Starting as a long shot, than gradually closing in on both subjects as their conversation intensifies. Kyogo and Kenshi sit on opposite sides of a very long table; the placing of both parties is a subtle way to express two opposing viewpoints.
As the two men conclude their meeting, Kyogo’s aide informs him that the materials to test his new sword have arrived. As the two men journey outside, Kenshi objects when he sees Chinese prisoners blindfolded and bound. Kyogo informs Kenshi that there are no regulations in Nanking, and uses his sword to decapitate one of the prisoners. Kenshi then leaves in a state of complete disgust. As he raises his sword to dispatch his next victim, a title card reads that Kyogo killed 7 prisoners with his Kamagura sword during the massacre. Afterwards, a photograph is shown of an actual decapitation.
As the film returns to the Buddhist temple from the beginning, it shows some of the execution methods carried out by the Japanese. As the monks sit and pray, they’re summoned outside one by one. When they leave the hall, soldiers standing in position gun them down. When it’s time for the temple elder to take his turn, he slowly marches out and makes eye contact with each of his executioners. He then turns his back to a Japanese officer, and kneels to pray. He draws his pistol, but just before he fires a shot, the scene cuts to a real photograph of a monk’s execution.
One of the most barbaric events to occur in Nanking was the subjugation and treatment of its female population. As previously mentioned, during the occupation there were 20,000 documented cases of rape, possibly more. The victims ranged from the ages of 8 all the way up to 80 years of age. Some had their genitals sliced open, some were raped to death, and others were simply left to die with bayonets embedded in their private parts. Photographs were even taken for wartime souvenirs, the same way one might photograph a landscape while on vacation. There were also several documented incidents of forced incestuous acts that the Japanese made families perform for their own perverted amusement. Children were forced at gunpoint to have intercourse with their siblings; fathers were forced to rape their own daughters, no one was safe from suffering horrible indignity.
Considering how graphic some of the content had been in Men Behind the Sun, and Mou’s background as an exploitation filmmaker, he handles this subject matter in an interesting way. As the cameras travel to one of the many brothels set up by the army, a woman hides her face behind her hair in shame. A shot of a Japanese flag crossed with swords hanging on a wall immediately follows. Many Asian cultures from the time period considered sexual purity more valuable than human life. Many victims felt nothing but shame, and kept their secrets, and many ended up taking their own lives after the fact. Coming forward to talk about enduring this indignity was highly frowned upon. Mou doesn’t show the face of a single victim, nor does he show the animosity of assault. The actions are implied, rather than shamelessly trotted out in some horrific orgy. The violence on screen consists of soldiers removing two corpses from the brothel. While the implication of rape is there, it also displays the attitude that the Japanese had towards these women. They weren’t viewed as human beings, just a commodity. When one outlasted its usefulness, it was cast aside and replaced.
Arriving later in film is Matsui Iwane, commander of the Japanese army in central China. Mou integrates footage from a propaganda film shot by the Japanese while the massacre was still occurring. Unlike the stock photography and the footage shot by McGee in the hospital, the sequence has a very different tone to it. Iwane enters the city on horseback like a Feudal warlord examining the spoils of war. The whole event plays out like some sort of medieval spectacle full of pomp and pageantry. It’s sickening to think that while Iwane played up for the cameras, mass murder was continuing in the city. When the newsreel footage ends, Iwane is seen holding a meeting with the rest of his staff. He sits at the head of a long table, his subordinates bowing their heads around him in obedience. Iwane stresses the importance of obeying international law, and chastises his men for letting affairs spiral into an orgy of blood and chaos. Both Kyogo and Hisao attempt to justify their actions, even going so far as to describe mass murder and rape as necessities for being both a man and soldier. Iwane’s role in Nanking has been one of debate amongst historians. It’s well known he was shocked upon learning about the massacre. Mou depicts Iwane as a noble soldier, outraged at the crimes of his fellow countryman. Weather or not Iwane was actually repulsed by what he saw is irrelevant. As a man of high rank, he bore the responsibility for his men’s actions. He would be executed at the end of the war for them.
What follows is another example of Mou falling into pseudo-exploitation territory. He depicts with brutal accuracy a true event that occurred in the refugee zone. As soldiers enter the zone, they give chase to a young Chinese woman. Attempting to elude her attackers, she runs into a nearby building where a young mother and child are located. The child is forcibly torn from his mother and boiled alive in a vat. Much like the bayoneting scene from earlier in the film, it’s inconsistent with the majority of events. With so much material that conveys that bleak aspects of the occupation, it feels like senseless filler.
What happens afterwards, however, is anything but filler. The woman, who narrowly escapes the soldiers, is cornered in a small building. They immediately attack her and she begins to resist. Enraged by her defiance, she’s hit with a rifle, and then pierced several times with bayonets. The onscreen violence is minimal, and the film immediately cuts to footage of the real life victim who was recently on screen. The young woman is identified as Ms. Li Xouyin. The footage was filmed while she recovering from her attack. Her body was horribly scarred, and her face is almost unrecognizable, but she survived. During the Nanking massacre, the greatest act of resistance was survival.
Making their return are Jean and John, the children from the beginning of the film. They seem to have found their way to the refugee zone, and to safety—at least temporarily. As the two sit for a moment’s peace, Japanese soldiers appear, escorting women out of the zone. McGee and Rabe immediately attempt to stop them. Rabe walks up to them and orders them away, pointing to his swastika armband. The sequence is problematic for a few inaccuracies. One of the solders tells Rabe, “We understand why you Germans treated the Jews that way. We hope you would understand us Japanese, too.” By December 1937, when the Nanking massacre was occurring, the full brunt of German persecution of the Jews had not fully materialized. Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), when several Jewish synagogues and shops were destroyed or burned, didn’t occur until the following year. Rabe says he doesn’t like his armband, alluding to his disgust to the Nazi party, which, as I was mentioned earlier, was not the case.
We’re then taken away from the city to the banks of the Yangtze River, where massive executions have been taking place throughout the course of the film. The camera pans over the dead, who seem to stretch out for miles. Soon, the Japanese are underway to dispose of their victims. Soldiers hastily throw gasoline upon them and set the corpses on fire. While the film has its flaws with sometimes being a bit exploitive, Mou’s cameras capture the entirety of the macabre spectacle. Utilizing long camera shots and aerial photography, he shows how large this undertaking was. The funeral pyre rages into the sky, and seems to be endless.
Jean and John’s uncle then approaches the safety zone, looking for his niece and nephew. While searching, he stumbles upon the aftermath of a crime. The camera cuts to a room where a Japanese solider is adjusting his uniform. An old woman sits in the corner, a look of complete shame upon her face. The scene implies another rape has taken place. The uncle enters the room, startling the Japanese soldier. He insists he’s just a civilian, but is promptly slashed across the face and falls dead.
Making his second appearance is Noda Iwa, the man credited with beheading 100 Chinese citizens. Iwa stands in an open field with several decapitated prisoners at his feet. Surrounding him are several solders, gazing upon him with a sort of reverence. He tells them that having live humans to practice on is invaluable experience. Members of the Japanese press soon arrive to capture his exploits for the papers. The press asks to take a photograph of Iwa in action, but he tells them that there are no more prisoners left. The turncoat is present with his young son, and against his wishes the photographers talk him into posing for a picture. The turncoat then kneels before him, and Iwa strikes a dramatic pose with his blade. The first attempt at a picture fails when the child screams, and breaks the composure of the scene. The photographers urge them to try one more, and Iwa prepares his sword. He raises his blade for the picture, and as the turncoat looks up, Iwa abruptly decapitates him. This repulses the press, as they weren’t expecting him to actually kill him. The turncoat’s son gasps in horror and drops a Japanese flag he’s holding. Iwa laughs sadistically as he adds another confirmed kill to his tally.
Jean and John make their way home to reunite themselves with their grandmother, but not before narrowly escaping a Japanese patrol. Events then shift back to the remnants of the funeral pyre on the Yangtze. As the fire dies out, a survivor rises from the riverbank and slowly makes his way to the shore. A narrator announces that the man is named Liu Yong-Shing, and he would later go on to testify that “at the river bank the Imperial Army burned 5,000 corpses and injured persons, and only a handful survived the conflagration.”
Jean and John return home, barely surviving the whole ordeal. Their grandmother lays out the corpses of the family, and begins to douse them with kerosene. As the children embrace their grandmother, she tells them that she can’t go on living, and they must leave to ensure that the family line survives. Their reunion is short lived. Japanese soldiers break into the home, and attempt to rape Jean. She pleads for her grandmother to save her; John is thrown out of the house and urged not to come back. As John cries outside, their grandmother knocks over a lamp, igniting a fire. The house soon becomes engulfed in flames, and kills everyone inside. John runs away into the night, crying over his departed family members.
Another title card is introduced, explaining that on Christmas Eve a religious service was held in the safety zone, praying for peace. At the same time, Kyogo and his staff held a celebration of their own, all the while the suffering continued. The safety zone holds a solemn candlelight vigil, while “Silent Night” plays in the background. Meanwhile, the Japanese laugh and drink to celebrate their moment of triumph. At the while, stock footage of the massacre is shown, as are flashbacks from some of the films earlier scenes of mass murder.
In the final moments, Mou chooses not to end with a definitive conclusion, but one of uncertainty. The son of the turncoat is shown walking along a city street, removing an armband given to him by the Japanese. John passes him, and briefly takes a look back at the child as he walks away. As he heads into an unknown fate, a brightly lit corridor lies in front of him. This one moment comes to represent Mou’s film as a whole; a brief look into the past, in hopes for a more peaceable future. The moment slowly fades to black, and the movie ends. A final title sequence reflects on the Japanese occupation, referring to the events as “not as a war, but an intentional, planned, and organized massacre.” It also reminds the audience that the actual events that occurred in Nanking were much worse than what was depicted on film. Finally, the fates of the many criminals are detailed. Matsui Iwane and Tani Hisao were both executed in 1947, Nodi Iwa, Mukai Toshiaki, and Tanaka Gunkichi were also executed, and only Nakajima Kyogo was never brought to trial, as he died of natural causes in 1945. The ending titles have no soundtrack to accompany them; as if one is meant to have a moment of silence to reflect on the atrocities and injustices they’ve just watched.
Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre was the last film made by Tun Fei Mou. He has been noticeably absent since its release in 1995, and it’s still banned in China. Aside from appearing in a short documentary about his work, he’s more or less retired from the art form. He intended to make a follow up, Black Sun: No More War, but due to lack of funding, nothing has ever materialized. It’s safe to assume that if it ever does, Mou will once again force us to confront the past, as well as the darker aspects of humanity. We must never forget the Nanking massacre, and always strive to ensure that crimes such as these never happen again.