Starring: Shirley Yamaguchi, Kazuo Hasegawa, Kamatari Fujiwara
Director: Osamu Fushimizu
Running Time: 90 mins
China Nights is a Japanese film about a poor woman in Shanghai who is taken in by a Japanese marine officer during the years of the Japanese occupation of China in the Second World War. As she becomes used to his own view on the world and way of life, their relationship becomes more and more intimate.
Surprisingly, for a film fully intended as a propaganda vehicle, China Nights is an engaging watch. It has an interesting story that delves into a part of the war that’s not covered much on the big screen, and although the message behind it may not be a glowing box of morals, it’s a very interesting film to watch when looking at the relationship between Japan and China at the height of the Second World War.
But let’s start on the simpler side, with the story at hand in this movie. In effect, it’s a romantic drama that takes place in the middle of a warzone. Although the romantic side of the story may come about incredibly abruptly, with one character completely changing their view on another with little more than a slap in the face, the story is surprisingly engaging throughout.
With a strong performance from Shirley Yamaguchi as a Chinese woman who is taken in by a passing Japanese officer, there’s some interesting insight into the fears and issues that faced many Chinese at the time of the Japanese occupation.
Again, it’s a story line that may be resolved in the only way a propaganda movie can, but in the first act, the depth of insight that we get into Yamaguchi’s character is actually very interesting, and something that I have to say that you really don’t see in many propaganda movies from any side of World War Two.
Although the out-of-nowhere romance is a little bewildering at first, it’s another part of the story that works relatively well, and makes for a simple and engaging ride to the finish, with an impressively emotional finale that makes this film really stick in the memory above so many other propaganda pieces of the time.
The one thing about this film that takes a bit of historical background to understand is the way it portrays the Sino-Japanese relationship during the war. Of course, the two sides were at war, but in occupied areas, the Imperial Japanese were advocating a policy of Pan-Asian Cooperation (i.e. Japanese, Chinese and all other Asians in occupied territories working together for the better of the East Asian sphere).
That’s effectively what this film is, towing the line that Japanese and Chinese need not be enemies, and instead come together at this difficult time. As a result, the film is filled to the brim with Japanese and Chinese cultural mashups, including Chinese-styled music sung in Japanese, the romantic relationship between a Chinese woman and a Japanese man, and the somewhat patronising story line in which the Chinese woman comes to realise the ways of the Japanese for the betterment of her and everyone’s life.
On the whole, it’s always difficult to judge propaganda movies in the same fashion as the norm. That said, this is definitely one of the better propaganda pieces to come out of the Second World War, as it features an engaging character assessment early on, as well as an engaging romance story in the second half. Looked at from a historical perspective, it’s even more interesting to watch, and although it may not be the most morally sound film ever made, there is a lot to look at in this film, and that’s why I’m giving China Nights a 7.2.