Controversial 1940s film China Nights (Shina No Yoru) was released during the second Sino-Japanese war, just as Japan initiated its Sankō Sakusen (kill, burn, and loot all) policy against China. Even without full historical context, China Nights’ propaganda couched in soap opera conventions makes for awkward viewing. Hase, a Japanese boat pilot on leave in Shanghai, rescues and tries to win over Chinese war orphan Keiran (Ri Kōran/Shirley Yamaguchi) who despises the Japanese. Everyone at the Japanese hotel Hase lives in, including paragon of Japanese femininity and potential love interest Toshiko, joins him in trying to win over the fierce, sullen girl, but despite their kindness Kieran refuses to put aside her prejudice.
The root of Kieran’s hatred becomes tangible as she walks through war-zone wreckage of her family home, mourning her father’s violent death. She runs into saintly Toshiko tending her brother’s grave, the only reason Toshiko remains in China. Toshiko tries relating to Keiran, saying they’ve both lost loved ones – the stark, unmentioned difference being Keiran stands on ancestral land amidst ashes of her former life, while Toshiko tends a grave marking a soldier’s fall. Both men died in a hail of bullets, making Toshiko’s words ‘they gave up their lives for the peace of both nations’ ring gratingly false.
Keiran continues spitting in the face of Japanese kindness until the film’s turning point – Hase finally snaps and slaps her across the face. Keiran’s sudden look of adoration and claim ‘It didn’t hurt…I’m GLAD you slapped me’ must have been a slap in the face to the Chinese audience, for whom the Rape of Nanking was barely two years past.
Thereafter Keiran is a model woman, though the film briefly detours into spy thriller as she’s suspected of collusion when used as bait to lure Hase into revealing his shipping route to Chinese nationals. Keiran and Hase marry, but their joy is brief as Hase is called back to ship – only to be attacked upriver by the aforementioned Chinese Nationals. Hase is presumed dead, and Keiran’s grief is so great even the sudden reappearance of her lost mother can’t assuage her – Chinese filial piety trumped by new Japanese spousal devotion. Two endings were filmed, one for Chinese audiences where Keiran nearly drowns herself but halts at the shouts of her living husband, and one for Japanese audiences where she walks into the water, joining him in death.
It isn’t clear whether China Nights was an official National Policy Film, as it’s less absolute than other propaganda. Adding to the confusion, actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi wasn’t Chinese, a fact not known in China until after the war. Known by the Mandarin name Ri Kōran, Yamaguchi spoke Mandarin and Japanese, which, combined with her European-trained singing voice and looks made her a perfect tool for these ‘Chinese Continental Friendship’ films. She later joined Japan’s Parliament, bringing attention to and condemning Japan’s war atrocities.
The film’s ham-fisted presentation of blossoming love-as-metaphor for national relations overrides any subtler touches, but it’s worth watching. China Nights is a wonderful time capsule of Shanghai’s international confluence and is full of small graces, finding beauty in crowds and bombed-out ruins. —Danielle Burgos