Winston Churchill once described Russia as, “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” This same analogy could be used to describe western attitudes about Japan for many years. Until admiral Matthew Perry opened its gates to foreigners in 1854, Japan was a society completely closed off from the outside world. A country ruled by feudalism, the Samurai code of Bushido, and self-imposed xenophobia– Japan was an island unto itself, both literally, and figuratively. Even up until the early 20th century, outside perceptions were somewhat misinformed. The Japanese were thought of as a very polite culture; a dainty, toy-like people, whose customs hadn’t changed much since the Middle Ages.

By the 1930s this had proved to be a grave misconception. In order to accumulate more resources to coincide with an ever-growing population, Japan had begun to flex its military muscle. The country had launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, in what’s known today as the second Sino-Japanese war. That same year troops marched into the city of Nanking, and committed one of the most vicious atrocities of the 20th century. For six days, the Japanese army laid waste to an entire city. Over 300,000 people were murdered, and thousands of women were raped and pressed into military prostitution. By turning the city into a virtual slaughterhouse, they had given the world a glimpse of what was to occur in the next decade—unparalleled inhumanity on a scale not seen before.

Two years prior to Nanking, the Japanese had begun preparations for a new research laboratory in occupied Manchuria, then called Manchukuo. The town of Pingfang on the outskirts of Harbin was the perfect location for this top-secret operation. Germany had set these wheels in motion during the First World War with chemical warfare, due to their extensive use of mustard gas on the front lines. While The League of Nations had outlawed the use of chemical weapons, this wouldn’t stop the Japanese from developing their own. This was the start of what would be known as Unit 731. Headed under the command of an ambitious medical officer named Shiro Ishii, one of the most barbaric chapters in human history was about to be written. Much like Nanking, one that went unnoticed by many at the end of the war.

Disguised as a center for disease prevention and water purification, it existed for a completely different purpose. From 1941, until the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, extensive testing was done with chemical weapons and the development of a bubonic plague strain to aid in the war effort. The majority of the testing was done at the expense of human life. Chinese, Russian, and Korean prisoners became lab rats and living test subjects. To further the secrecy of these operations, their captors referred to these prisoners as “Maruta.” (A term roughly translating to “log.”) It allowed the actions to be carried out in secret, with higher ups inquiring about death counts with phrases such as “how many logs fell?” It also completely stripped their victims of humanity, and relegated them to nothing more than a commodity for research.

As the Japanese had demonstrated during previous military campaigns, human life wasn’t something held in the highest regard. In her book, The Rape Of Nanking, author Iris Chang dissects this common outlook that many in the Japanese military possessed. For them, all life was meaningless when compared to their divine emperor. For generations, the Japanese soldier thrived on xenophobia and regarded the foreigner as nothing more than a repugnant insect. In short, the army was pre-conditioned to be completely thoughtless regarding their enemies. What had been building for centuries was brought to a boiling point.

This look into the mindset of the Japanese soldier helps us understand the men of Unit 731. Although members of the Kwangtung army (the Japanese army in Manchukuo), they were highly educated men, and some of the most gifted medical minds Japan had to offer. In their eyes, they were doing their duty for the good of the empire. It was this outlook that allowed them to carry out these actions with the same casual mentality one might have when changing a tire. In short, the victims were simply means to justify an end. Helpless “Maruta” were given injections of various bacterial strains, subjected to sub-zero temperatures, and female victims were forcibly impregnated by rape. In order to get a close look at the results, victims were subjected to live vivisection, often times without the use of anesthesia. While the after effects were meticulously documented in intricate detail, the suffering continued without end. In one of the grossest miscarriages of justice, these very records would go on to become a bargaining chip at the end of the war, with Ishii using them to obtain immunity from prosecution. Six years later, he would be assisting the United States with biological weapons during their conflict in Korea. While the world had taken notice when the camps of the Third Reich were liberated, the actions of 731 went largely unnoticed. Even today, they seem to be conveniently swept under the rug and remain absent from many academic courses.

Taiwan-born filmmaker Tun Fei Mou unleashed his depiction of Unit 731 in Hēi tài yáng 731 (Men Behind The Sun, 1989). One of the most graphic and controversial films ever made, it’s often misrepresented. Many label it an exploitation film, and dismiss it as a product that only exists to shock. One prominent DVD release compares it to Faces Of Death (1981), and describes it as “certain to offend everyone.” While the overall nature of the film is highly provocative and unnerving at times, there’s a purpose behind it. Mou isn’t trying to needlessly offend—he’s trying to be honest, and force us to confront the past, and all of its horrific content. Never before had a filmmaker attempted to explore this part of history, let alone deliver an expose that strikes the audience like a napalm attack. The accuracy in the detail is astounding, and veterans from Unit 731 have even attested to this. However, the content isn’t without its faults, and more than once it crosses the line into pseudo-exploitation territory. Despite this, when one strips away the graphic content, we’re left with a narrative that deals with ideology, indoctrination, and gives us a first-hand look into one of the most shocking crimes against humanity. It’s also a reminder that these weren’t the actions of thoughtless killing machines, or inhuman monsters. Personally, I find one of the most disturbing attributes about the Holocaust, as well as most genocide in general, is that they’re the actions of ordinary people. Human beings have free will, and the freedom to make their own choices. It goes without saying that the choices made by the men of Unit 731 still resonate today.

The film focuses on two distinctive plots. The first is a group of young soldiers who are part of a youth brigade. They travel to join Unit 731 to become trained and indoctrinated into the ideology of the Japanese army. This part of the story primarily focuses on one soldier in particular named Ichikawa, assumedly no older than 13. The second follows the men of Unit 731—focusing on Shiro Ishii, his staff, and their day-to-day operations. In between these two are the experimentations of Unit 731 recreated in very graphic detail. The subject matter Mou chose to address is very bleak, and his film reflects that. Credit is due for his willingness to not shy away from certain details.

The film opens up with very little extravagance. While nothing appears that foreshadows the rest of its content, it’s very indicative of Mou’s overall intent. A simple title card reads: “Friendship is Friendship; History is History.” This alludes to some of the problems Mou faced with getting his film released. The Chinese government, not wanting to damage relations with Japan, specifically warned him about the subject matter he was addressing. To which Mou responded: “You can talk about friendship, I’m here to talk about history.” While there was no diplomatic backlash from the film, there were a few angry people. Mou received death threats from a few Japanese citizens, claiming his film had viciously slandered them. Following the title sequence, a brief history of Unit 731 is given, and a scene of Shiro Ishii en route to his command, brushing his finger slightly.

We’re then introduced to Ichikawa and the youth corps, waiting in the cold to be transported to their new location. Mou’s depiction of youth is one that helps emphasize the film’s theme of indoctrination. As they arrive at the unit, their new leader, Sgt. Kawasaki greets them. Kawasaki is a cruel mentor, who embodies the ideology of the typical Japanese soldier. Arriving at the same time is Ishii, much to the delight of the rest of the unit. Chinese actor Gang Wang portrays Shiro Ishii, and his performance possesses all of the traits and characteristics that history has associated with him. Ishii was a charismatic and methodical leader, as well as someone who was devoted to Japan and his personal mission. History also describes him as both unscrupulous and intimidating, with an imposing stature. Ishii was also incredibly xenophobic; as a member of a very wealthy family, he was known to look down at others not in his social class.

Arriving by train in the dead of night are a group of Maruta. The film wastes little time in showing the horrible treatment they received. One young woman arrives with her child, only to have it suffocated by a soldier moments after arrival. The Maruta in the film are treated the same way as they were in real life. No details of their individual backstories are revealed, and none of them are given names. (With exception of one with glasses who is just known as “specs” to one of the other prisoners.) Because the story is told from the perspective of the perpetrators, it relegates the prisoners to just another commodity to be used. A key example comes early on in the film: Kawasaki brings the youth brigade to a sauna were several of them are bathing. Kawasaki grabs one, and asks the children to identify what they see before them. They first refer to him as a “man” and then a “Chinese man.” Kawasaki describes him as a log, and literally slaps it into the children to teach them. He then orders them to shout “Maruta!” before they taking turns in beating him unmercifully. It’s here where the seeds of ideology are first sewn.

Indoctrination and ideology aside, the underlying effect of Men Behind the Sun is provocation—it’s supposed to stir your emotions and leave you feeling angry, repulsed, and shocked about the events that it’s portraying. This is demonstrated in one of the films most infamous sequences. The youth brigade is given a guided tour of a research facility where many experiments are carried out. The demeanor of the doctors to the young men bears a resemblance to that of a school field trip. As the children watch, a woman is subjected to a frostbite test. The woman, who is held outside in freezing temperatures, has water poured on her arms for several hours. She’s brought before the children, and her limbs are then submerged in boiling water. Moments later, the flesh is forcibly stripped from both of her arms as she screams in terror. Ichikawa and his companions attempt to look away, but are ordered by Kawasaki to watch the whole ordeal. This is similar to the audience watching this movie; we’re forced to confront the past. This is followed by another frostbite experiment, where a young man has his frozen arms battered until they shatter into pieces. Although the previous scenes are hard to sit through, and just about anyone would cringe at them—what follows next reinforces Mou’s theme of indoctrination.

As the experiment concludes, researcher Tanamoura invites them to his house for a Sunday dinner. While the youth dine with the family, the discussion of whether the Maruta are human or not is brought up. Ichikawa and a photographer named Marita soon become embroiled in a bitter argument regarding the subject. Marita asks Ichikawa to describe the difference between a child of a Maruta and a Japanese child, using Tanamoura’s pregnant wife as an example. Ichikawa flies into a rage, appalled that someone would even compare the two. Marita describes it as a matter of humanitarianism, whereas Ichikawa describes it as a matter of duty and racial superiority. These three characters all come to represent different results from indoctrination. Tanamoura is only concerned with his research, and pays no attention to suffering. To him, it’s simply a means to an end. At the other end of the spectrum, Marita sees the error in the ways of the regime and looks beyond procedure and doctrines to examine humanity. Ichikawa, who’s still learning the rules is naïve, and simply believes what he’s told.

In an interview conducted with Horrorview, Mou spoke candidly about portraying the Japanese in a fair and balanced way. He wished to distance them from the way mainstream films had portrayed Nazi Germany. He also went on to state that he had sympathy for those who had been educated by someone else, and those who had committed crimes under orders. Mou even compared the youth corps of Unit 731 to the American public during the invasion of Iraq. This method of portrayal reinforces the fact that those who committed these crimes were ordinary people, and not all of them were complicit in their actions.

If there’s one moment that signifies the beginning of Ichikawa’s character arc, it’s the film’s vivisection sequence. Earlier in the movie, Ichikawa plays a game of catch with a mute Chinese boy who lives outside the compound.  The scene is even accompanied by lighthearted music, as if to suggest that both of them forget their roles, and decide to be children for a moment. It’s one of the few sequences with any accompanying music.

In the scene preceding it, Tanamoura talks with Kawasaki and others over a meal about using a small child for research. Their conversation is very matter of fact, and furthers the complicit nature that some the medical staff possess. Kawasaki subsequently tricks Ichikawa into delivering the mute child for the experiment. The child, completely unaware of his reason for being there, has a very playful demeanor. The doctors fool the child into disrobing, and then assist him in climbing onto an operating table, after which he’s sedated by what appears to be chloroform. The staff immediately starts operating on the child, carving him open and removing his organs. When the procedure is complete, the soldiers celebrate a job well done and even promise Kawasaki to buy him a few congratulatory drinks. The child’s remains – bloody and contorted – are given to Ichikawa on a cart as he waits outside the door. He brings them to a crematorium, so they can be burned with the corpses from other experiments. When the cart reaches its destination, the ball that the two children played with falls into a heap of torn flesh. It’s at this very moment where Ichikawa’s childhood ends.

This whole scene, while shocking on its own, takes on a whole new level when the truth behind it is unveiled. The vivisection is almost completely real. In a move that seems absolutely unheard of by today’s standards, a real autopsy of a recently deceased child was performed on screen, with the physicians dressed as Japanese doctors. Scenes of a pig dissection were also integrated to show close-ups of a beating heart. For all intents and purposes, the vivisection scene serves as an important moment in the film. Despite its cringe-worthy content, it ties important aspects together. It serves as the catalyst for Ichikawa’s turn from indoctrinated youth, to someone who begins to question leadership.  After the vivisection takes place, the youth corps stages an attack on Kawasaki, ambushing and beating him severely with clubs. Kawasaki survives, but his bruises are visible throughout the rest of the film. More importantly, it’s also the perfect example of Mou’s capability to balance imagery and story, which he’s often gone on record to say was the most challenging thing for him to do. It’s also an accurate recreation of one of the main tests that Unit 731 was known for. A great deal of evidence exists of various unit members committing this operation. There’s even a photograph of Ishii performing one, looking straight into the camera.

Although Mou deserves credit for showing the callousness of the Japanese, it’s impossible to overlook his use of animal cruelty. Both in the vivisection sequence, and what’s considered by many to be one of the most controversial scenes in the entire film. A cat is thrown into a room filled with rats, which are used to generate fleas for Unit 731’s bubonic plague virus. The rats swarm all over the feline, and devour it in an orgy of violence. For many years, Mou claimed that the scene was staged, and the cat was only covered with honey. However, it was revealed years later that the scene was real, and the cat was killed during production. Needless to say, the scene is problematic for a number of reasons. While Ishii’s line, “A rat can beat a cat, germs and fleas can defeat bombers and guns,” reinforces the motive behind his ultimate goal—it also comes across as completely senseless and unnecessary.

It’s ironic that Mou made a film to provoke thought about the history of Unit 731. What often gets discussed in lengthy detail isn’t so much the history, but the graphic content, animal cruelty, and real autopsy footage. Needless to say, the controversy has kept this film as a topic of discussion. In its own way, it’s made more people take notice of Japanese war crimes. Though it’s often debunked as being a film with no educational value, it’s done just that—propel this part of history into further discussion.

Following the cat scene, the film immediately cuts to several Maruta attempting to escape from the compound. They come close to succeeding, but are massacred by machine gun fire. Moments later, Ishii berates one of his subordinates for killing the Maruta, and stresses their importance in helping 731’s objectives being carried out. Ishii isn’t upset because people were killed; he’s upset because it prohibits experiments from being conducted. At the same time, other Maruta are being transported to a field to take part in a test involving bombs carrying plague-ridden fleas. In another instance of art imitating history (several documents exist depicting this type of test), the prisoners are strung up on crosses so planes overhead can drop their payloads. However, the experiment doesn’t go according to plan. Many manage to untie themselves and make a run for it. The Japanese then follow in pursuit, and many of the prisoners are cut down and murdered. As the unit returns to base, Marita smuggles one of them out of harm’s way. When they return home, he sneaks him into the compound. Marita’s character as a whole is an interesting one. Throughout the course of the film, he comes to serve as the personification of morality.

After the failed experiment, events outside the compound have altered the course for Unit 731. Following the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Soviet Union declaring war, Unit 731 is ordered to retreat before they fall into the hands of the Red Army. The film’s final act follows Unit 731’s downfall, and their subsequent attempt to cover up their actions. Ishii holds a meeting with the members of his staff. He discusses what the possible plan should entail. At first, he suggests mass suicide of his subordinates and their families. This was a practice performed by many Japanese during the war. Many opted for killing themselves rather than fall into enemy hands. Although somewhat barbaric to western minds, this practice can be traced back to the code of Bushido, and the ritualistic suicide is known as Seppuku. Dying by one’s sword was considered honorable, and much more dignified than capitulation.

While they decide against committing suicide, they proceed with a “scorched earth” tactic. (This is when a retreating army destroys the land and resources behind them, so not to be used by an opposing army.) As the brigade goes about destroying evidence and making preparations to hide their crimes, Tanamoura has other ideas. He attempts to salvage the data that’s been collected over the years, but is stopped by Ishii. Tanamoura offers his pistol to his commander, telling him that if he wishes to destroy the data, he’ll have to kill him first. Ishii relents for a moment, and then kills him anyway. This is a scene used strictly for dramatic effect, since it’s well known Ishii returned to Japan with most of the research. However, it does illustrate Tanamoura’s blind dedication to his ideals, his work, and his mission—right until the very end.

As the remaining Maruta are murdered by poison gas, demolition crews immediately get to work destroying the buildings within the compound. The corpses of the Maruta are thrown into a mass grave, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Biological weapons are destroyed, and in another example of animal cruelty, the rats from earlier catch on fire and scurry about shrieking. By all accounts, this is very close to what actually happened, according to the testimony of 731 veterans. While the chaos ensues, Marita attempts to sneak out the Maruta he rescued during the bomb test by disguising him.

Afterwards, the Japanese, along with their wives and families, begin to retreat. In another instance of the film’s accuracy, the long envoy slowly makes their way to a train station during a torrential downpour. The procession has a very solemn feeling that emanates from it, almost like a funeral march. The group slowly trudges forward, as looks of defeat are visible on their faces. As the camera pans away from the possession, it cuts to Ishii, sitting in his car stroking his right hand, just as he did in the opening of the film. As Tanamoura’s widow begins to go into labor, Ishii addresses his men one final time. As he has done throughout the movie, he speaks with poise, dedication, and ruthless ambition. He tells his men that their mission is not over, and that the empire of Japan must persevere. He forbids his men from disavowing any knowledge of what they’ve done, and forbids them from taking up government posts. (Both of which several of them went on to do.) As he concludes his speech, the Maruta that Marita’s been hiding is discovered by Kawasaki. A struggle ensues, and Kawasaki is killed by a lethal gash to the chest. As the Maruta makes a break for it, he’s shot by one of Ishii’s officers. A soldier than impales him through the neck with a Japanese flag attached to a splintered post. As he pulls the object from him, blood shoots up and lands upon the flag, and Tanamoura’s wife gives birth, only to subsequently die during the final moments of labor. Ishii views the whole spectacle with an expression of perverse enjoyment. As the prisoner dies, Ichikawa makes eye contact with him, then clutches the blood-stained flag, crying into it. Burdened with guilt over the actions he has been a part of, he hangs his head in complete shame.

The train departs from the station, and Unit 731 disappears into the night. The film concludes with a text crawl, describing the dates of the retreat, Ishii’s post-war deal with the Allied powers, and a bubonic plague outbreak that occurred around Pin Fang and Harbin years later. It goes into brief detail about a cover up, and Ishii arriving in Korea in 1951 to assist the United States in their biological weapons program. The final text reveals all prisoners were killed, and that there were no survivors. A final question of “Did they all die in vain?” appears on the screen, and the film comes to its conclusion.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Men Behind the Sun. Since its release, news reports of atrocities have continued to flood in from all over the world. Human tragedy has escalated with the world still watching in disbelief. And still, Japan has never been held fully accountable for its actions committed in Harbin all those years ago. No matter what one might think, there’s no denying Men Behind the Sun elicits a reaction from anyone who sits down with it. It’s very unlikely that Mou’s film will ever rise above the exploitation label placed upon it. As shocking as it is, the truth behind the real events will always be more harrowing. Even if one chooses to ignore the work of Tun Fei Mou, the story of Unit 731 certainly shouldn’t be.