A Chinese kung fu master tears a Japanese soldier in half with his bare hands. An injured soldier throws a hand grenade into the sky, taking down a Japanese fighter plane. A man on a bicycle pedals into mid-air and onto an oncoming train to escape Japanese agents on the chase.
Television dramas about China’s anti-Japanese war are known for their over-the-top violence and implausible plot events. But these were not the things that most struck Iwata Takanori, a Japanese man who compiled an encyclopaedia of the dramas.
“The most impressive things in anti-Japanese drama were the female officers of the Japanese army, who all happened to be beautiful women. Because, in fact, there were no female soldiers or female officers in the Japanese army,” Iwata told HKFP.
Iwata, an information system administrator who lives in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture, initially had no interest in China.
While on business trips in Shanghai, he was motivated to learn Chinese after he witnessed scammers on the waterfront tricking tourists into spending thousands of Chinese yuan on tea. “Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught to fear in 100 battles,” he said, citing the ancient Chinese military sage Sun Tzu.
His love of anti-Japanese war dramas, however, came from a childhood interest.
“I love action movies. When I was young, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were my favourites. Whenever kung fu movies were played on television, I would play kung fu with my classmates the next day,” he said.
“In 1970s and 1980s Japan, it was the golden era of badass police action drama. However, Japan’s long recession forced television production budgets to be cut, and action dramas were no longer produced,” he continued.
“That’s why when I started learning Chinese, I picked Chinese action dramas – anti-Japanese dramas – as a teaching material.”
Iwata became so fascinated with the shows that he spent a year of his free time compiling an encyclopaedia of them while working full time at his IT job. He called it The Chinese Anti-Japanese Drama Reader: The Unexpected Anti-Japanese·Patriotic Comedy. It covered 21 dramas, which contained a total of 678 episodes, with a total play time of 30,180 minutes.
“Complete disregard for the era’s background! Even the Communist Party was angered! Anti-Japanese propaganda yet almost a joke!” the book’s promotional slogan reads.
One scene analysed in the book was set in 1938 and featured a “secret document” in Japanese, on which was written the names of Japanese prime ministers, voice actors and porn stars who only existed after the war.
Lines in such drama series have sometimes become targets for ridicule, such as: “My grandfather was brutally killed by the Japanese when he was nine” and “Regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the means, we must bring Sharapova back in one piece,” a name apparently borrowed from the famous Russian tennis player.
Another contender for most ludicrous line is: “Comrades, the eight-year anti-Japanese war has now started,” a line spoken when no one could have possibly known how long the war would last.
In China, where scripts are often censored to ensure they fall in line with the official ideology, the ridiculous plots of anti-Japanese drama have gained a cult following. But the Chinese government has been trying to crack down on them for years.
Just this week, a commentary in state media People’s Daily criticised the genre once again, saying that the purpose of anti-Japanese war dramas should be to use lively artistic language to “revisit the history of blood and fire and promote the great spirit of the anti-Japanese war,” but “super powers detached from common sense should not be transplanted into them.”
“We cannot use history as a joke to consume history, to make history into entertainment – it will only cause the real anti-Japanese war history to be diluted, forgotten and twisted,” the commentary said, as it called for stricter censorship.
Even though there may be nationalists in both Japan and China who were angered by anti-Japanese war dramas, Iwata said they do not offend him at all.
“Because I know they are just fiction,” he said.
Iwata was sympathetic towards the creators of anti-Japanese drama, saying that he believed they worked hard.
“They want to make something remarkable, but in order to earn a living, they have to rely on viewership, and they have to pass censorship. They are like conductors in classical music who try to compete artistically in a fixed format,” he said.
He recalled the “Nikkatsu Roman Porno” format in 1970s Japan, in which directors could make any kind of experimental movie, as long as there were naked female characters to boost box office earnings.
“Some famous directors directed Nikkatsu Roman Porno movies when they were young,” he said. “That’s why I am rooting for those who write shit scripts now – they may become great creators in the future.”
Iwata said he enjoyed watching the dramas, and even included a Chinese-Japanese glossary in the book to teach readers how to speak like a character in a wartime drama.
“In Japanese and American dramas, the protagonist fights the villain. But in anti-Japanese drama, there are often many different forces, like in the historic novel the Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” he said. “The appearance of multiple factions in the Republic of China era makes the stories more attractive.”
“I am also enjoying the gap between China’s portrayal of Japan and actual Japanese culture.”
Iwata said a friend of his who wrote The Grand Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Amusement Parks introduced him to a publisher.
But he said his interest was a small niche in Japan and he was blogging by himself for a long time: “I only met friends who also loved anti-Japanese drama on social media after publishing the book.”
Iwata, a mountain biking enthusiast, does not go on business trips to China any more, but he continues to travel to China every year himself.
“Last year, I went to Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia on an overnight train,” he said. Manzhouli is a city located on the border with Russia.
Asked to describe his impression of Chinese people, Iwata again drew upon TV dramas. He said that, although Japanese right-wing groups hate anti-Japanese dramas, Japanese women love Chinese palace dramas.
“Many Japanese people have complicated feelings towards China. Tourists going on shopping sprees, Chinese people who live in Japan committing crimes, and territorial disputes all contribute to negative impressions,” he said.
“However, positive impressions have also formed from things like the economic growth and advanced technology in China. The different images are such extremes that they leave us very puzzled.”