Japanese actors ‘dying’ to get into China’s film industry

Japanese actor Hirotaka Tsukagoshi Photo: Weibo.com

With his warm smile and shy demeanour, Japanese actor Hirotaka Tsukagoshi doesn’t look like a villain.

But as he gets into character, lowering his voice to a demonic growl and cruelly arching his eyebrows, you begin to see hints of the man who has raped, murdered and pillaged his way through almost 30 Chinese movies and television shows.

The 36-year-old is one of about a dozen Japanese actors who make their living in the country’s entertainment industry as “Japanese devils”, China’s slur of choice for invaders during the second world war.

Tsukagoshi first played one of the roles in 2005. His character, a lieutenant, is executed by the Japanese army. “They pushed me out into the snow in my underwear and burned me to death,” he said. “That’s when I first truly felt like an actor.”

But his big break came while filming on location in a rural part of the mainland. With the cameras rolling, an elderly woman, who had been recruited as an extra, began to strangle him. “I didn’t know if it was part of the script or not, so I just went with it,” he said. “Just when it really started to hurt, the director yelled ‘cut’.”

The woman, Tsukagoshi later learned, was a local villager who had lived through the Japanese occupation. “She was crying and choking me at the same time,” he said.

The director was so impressed with Tsukagoshi’s performance that he gave him a contract the very next day. It was an invaluable introduction into a thriving industry.

In 2012 alone, Chinese companies made more than 200 productions about the country’s occupation by the Japanese, a period lasting from 1937 to 1945 and known on the mainland as the “War of Resistance against Japan”.

Beijing accuses Tokyo of failing to properly atone for its wartime aggression, straining ties but making business even brisker.

Tsukagoshi has already appeared in four productions this year and is now filming a television show in Beijing. He says it is one of his best years to date.

“Japanese devils” have appeared in Chinese war movies since the 1950s. But in the genre’s early years, Chinese actors filled the roles, sometimes fitted out with buck teeth and thick glasses in accordance with the stereotypes of the day.

Japanese actors didn’t begin to regularly appear in the films until the late 1980s, according to Professor Timothy Tsu, an expert on Chinese cinema at Japan’s Kwansei Gakuin University.

At the time, China was trying to improve relations with Japan and made a series of films emphasising the wartime suffering experienced by ordinary people in both countries.

While Chinese actors continued to play most parts, the addition of Japanese performers into key roles made the productions more international and more believable.

“They talk differently. They bow differently. They even stand differently,” according to Xi Xi, a casting agent who has worked on television programmes for China Central Television.

But the era of good vibes was short lived. By the early 1990s, “Japanese devils” were back, and worse than ever.

While depictions of Japan’s war crimes were “almost entirely absent” from Chinese films about the war made during the Mao Zedong era, today’s films feature “very graphic and even exploitation-type depictions of Japanese violence”, Wu said.

The reason for the change, he believes, is “both commercial and political”.

On one hand, “you have an audience out there that would soak up any anti-Japanese action movie”. On the other, the government’s “very strict controls” on the movie industry mean that “people just fall back on this quote unquote safe topic.”

Chinese viewers, Tsukagoshi says, sometimes have difficulty separating the violent fantasies from reality. A Chinese fan once posted a comment on his blog praising him for “teaching people about history”.

He quickly set her straight. “You can’t learn anything from this stuff,” he wrote back. “It’s just entertainment.”

He takes no responsibility for the effects his work might have on Sino-Japanese relations, but he does hope it will help people understand “war is bad”.

The thought isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Although the “Japanese devil” remains a popular stock character, portrayals of the soldiers have become more nuanced over the years.

In the 2009 dark comedy Cow, Tsukagoshi plays a meek Japanese private who helps a Chinese peasant care for a sick cow. He’s a college student who loves his family and crickets. But some things never change. The character is ultimately shot to death.

“I almost always die,” Tsukagoshi said. “My mom won’t watch anything I appear in. She hates seeing me get killed.”

China, on the other hand, can’t get enough.

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