AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 410

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Session 410: Epistemological Limits of the Colonial Archive: Reconsidering Transcolonial Coproductions in the Japanese Empire

Organizer: Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Duke University, USA

Discussant: Takashi Fujitani, University of Toronto, Canada

This panel considers epistemological limits of the colonial archive and the controversial question of “colonial collaboration” by examining recently unearthed transcolonial filmic co-productions. Half a century after its collapse, the legacies of the Japanese empire are still wrought in controversy and are rarely engaged across postcolonial divides. The irony is that many colonial subjects were mobilized to actively participate in the imperial project heralding a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The colonial modern discourse of “co-prosperity” and “cooperation” which emerged in the shadow of Western imperialism was captured in imperial slogans such as “One Body of Japan and Korea” and “Harmony of Five Races” and mobilized “fellow Asians” against ”Other” empires of the West. The rise of what we call “transcolonial co-productions” such as Long Distance to Happiness, Homeless Angels, Volunteer, and Spring in the Korean Peninsula, from the empire’s filmic industries appear to reflect imperial desires to propagate a spectacle of “harmony” across ever-expanding imperial borderlines, and postcolonial assessments of these films have largely dismissed them as traitorous collaborations. This panel proposes to reevaluate the significance of such “collaborations” among the colonized and the colonizers by paying attention to fissures, paradoxes, and failures that emerge when such films are read against their grain. Relying on archival materials scattered across postcolonial borders and only recently made available, we consider the problems of accessing the voices of colonial “collaborators” who attempted to engage in imperial projects as well as the politics of postcolonial memories.

“Epistemic anxieties”: Ontologies of Colonial Cinema in Late-Colonial Korea
Hieyoon Kim, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Just prior to being absorbed into the Japanese empire, the film industry in colonial Korea was awash with two co-production projects: Angels in the Street which ended up facing the censorship board twice for failing to meet official standards in Japan, and another film, Long Distance to Happiness, which was the first co-production between Manchuria and colonial Korea and which ultimately failed to attract both local audiences. With these co-productions, a colonial Korean film producer aimed to expand the colonial Korean film market throughout East Asia within the Japanese empire. He struggled to promote the position of colonial Korean cinema as not just one among the other colonies, but also as a strong foundation for networking among Japan-Manchuria-Korea. Despite such efforts, these coproductions could not overcome the barriers of Japanese censorship or the limits of the ideology of equality and fraternity under assimilation and imperialization. This paper examines why these transcolonial projects could not but fail during the time of total war, and what such failures tell us about the irreducible contradictions of Japanese colonialism. In the anxious rush to fulfill the empire’s demand through these projects, colonizers and the colonized ultimately faced insurmountable barriers which were built upon epidemic anxieties—on what the colonial state and empire did not know and/or did not want to know about the colonized and colonial cinema. By paying attention to discourses surrounding these projects, I attempt to read against such epistemic anxieties to look at the tangled ontologies of colonial cinema around 1940.

Language, Ideology, Collaboration: Reframing the Colonial Archive
Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Duke University, USA

This presentation examines shifting conditions of filmmaking in late colonial Korea (1930s-40s) to reconsider controversial legacies of “co-production,” “collaboration” and “code-switching” in-between imperial Japanese and colonial Korean filmic worlds. A time of assimilation (Naisen ittai) and imperialization (Kōminka) of colonial Korea into the imperial Japanese body politic, emergent colonial cultural productions negotiated complex, unstable, and often contradictory imperial policies. A time when colonial censorship and education policies were repressing opportunities in the colony, many colonial cultural producers were set in motion across what appeared to be fluid boundaries of the ever-expanding empire. Addressing multiple audiences in a complex linguistic landscape, the cinematic texts “co-produced” via colonial “collaboration” are inscribed with pychizoid imperial demands both on textual and metatextual levels. Cinematic productions that emerged from unsavory and shifting borderlines of empire triggered deep anxieties at the sites of production and consumption, from the colonial period to the postcolonial aftermath. Emerging from a liminal space somewhere between the colony and metropole, between Japanese and Korean languages, between repressive regimes of censorship and propaganda as well as opportunities ironically enabled through colonial subjection, films from these uncertain times reveal symptomatically schizoid, multiple and self-conscious points of view that leave many provocative and open-ended questions for past and present spectators across (post)colonial divides. Relying on recent archival fragments scattered across (post)colonial divides, I engage the significance of the fissures, silences, and failures revealed through these controversial filmic texts and epistemological limits the colonial archive.

Between Ideology and Spectatorship: ‘Ethnic Harmony’ of Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation, 1937-45
Sookyeong Hong, Cornell University, USA

Right after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation (Man’ei) was established in Manchukuo, the so-called Japanese puppet state in northeast China. Aiming to be the “Hollywood of the Orient,” Man’ei operated as the only legitimate film corporation, whose activities included all aspects of film production, distribution and exhibition in Manchukuo. Studies on Man’ei have mostly tended to describe its activities as part of the colonial project unilaterally implemented by Japanese officials and ideologues. However, the negotiations and contestations involved in the Man’ei project render any simple interpretations impossible, especially in the broader historical and political context of the Japanese Empire. Here, I intend to explore how the theme of “ethnic harmony (minzoku kyōwa)” came to be the core issue for Man’ei. Furthermore, I examine the complexity of pursuing “ethnic harmony” through films in terms of the problem of spectatorship. Li Xianglan (Ri Kōran), a transnational movie star at the time, gives a clue to this issue: even though she represented the multi-ethnicity of Manchukuo or Pan-Asia, “mainland romance films” starring Li Xianglan were considered to be inappropriate for the audience of Manchukuo, who are mostly from mainland China (Mankei). This attitude was also closely aligned with an increasing tendency to withdraw the ethnographic gaze, which was initially employed in filming the landscape and people in Manchuria. Ironically, the theme of ethnicity or “ethnic harmony” came to be marginalized, while entertainment films considered “safe” for Mankei audiences came to preoccupy the feature films of Man’ei.

Colonial Language in Imperial Films
Jaekil Seo, Kookmin University, South Korea

Until recently, studies on films from colonial Korea in the Japanese empire have been accomplished primarily by focusing on secondary texts such as memoirs, journal articles, and newspaper and film reviews. A turning point in scholarship occurred with the discovery of original film texts such as such as Sweet Dream (1936), Military Train (1938), Volunteer (1940), Homeless Angels (1941), and Straits of Korea (1943) from archives in Japan, China, Russia, and elsewhere. As many of these films became widely available on DVDs, new scholarship emerged based on these newly released versions. However, juxtaposing these texts with other archival sources reveals significant differences among various extant versions. For example, a newly discovered scenario reveals that there are important segments missing in the propaganda film Volunteer in the new version. There are also important differences among dialogues in the original scenario, the film version, the synopsis and the Japanese subtitles. Some dialogues uttered in the Korean language, which might be interpreted as ambivalent toward imperial policies, were completely silenced for imperial audiences through strategic omission of Japanese-language subtitles. Some scripts written in Japanese were also drastically transformed from the Korean-language dialogues. Piecing together fragments from the colonial archives, we might conjecture that Korean audiences and Japanese audiences may have consumed very different films in the empire’s complex linguistic landscape. This paper aims to examine the significance of such fissures apparent in so-called transcolonial coproductions.