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Know Your Enemy - Japan (1945)

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9 August 1945 (USA)  »

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Skilful American propaganda film from World War II
6 February 1999 | by (Stockholm, Sweden) – See all my reviews

`Know your enemy – Japan' is an American propaganda film from 1945. It was directed by Frank Capra on behalf of the US War Department. The film is made up of sequences from documentaries with narration and music. There are bits that clearly are re-constructions of passed events but are presented as though they are real news footage. Animated sequences exist. Walter Huston and Dana Andrews do the narration. The film is 60 minutes long. It was shown to allied soldiers serving in the Pacific region during World War II.

The purpose of the film was to inform the allied soldiers about the last enemy that remained in the war after the fall of Italy and Germany: Japan. The idea was that increased knowledge about the history and culture of Japan would create an understanding of the current situation that would cause a positive effect on the allied war effort. Every chance to condemn the Japanese and their ideologies are used in the course of the film. When watching this film, it is crucial to be aware of the state the world was in at the time or else one might draw inaccurate conclusions about the nature of the people who made it.

Early on, the film explains how the Japanese of today are a mixture of races that originally stem from the Ainu (described as "a hairy barbarian") with a touch of Mongolians and Malaysians. Their claims to be a pure race are put down and they become "a well-mixed plasma cocktail". The Japanese social classes and their development for 2000 years are summarised. The endless civil wars between local warlords are described as well as the Samurai system. The Samurai code, bushido, is referred to as "the Art of Treachery".

The film goes on in much the same way.

Frank Capra made films about Germany that were similar to this one. The attitude there is as hateful and uncompromising as in 'Know your enemy – Japan'. It is fascinating to compare these works with other Capra creations from peacetime. Those films are often about ordinary people who love life (`You can't take it with you', 1938; 'Meet John Doe', 1941), people who fight for the right to live life their own way ('American madness', 1932; `Mr. Deeds goes to town', 1936) and good people who fight the establishment ('Mr. Smith goes to Washington', 1939; 'It's a wonderful life', 1946). The contempt for the Japanese individual in 'Know your enemy – Japan' is so striking that it is hard to admit that it is made by the same man. The purpose of it all is obvious. Any thoughts of racism can be discarded by watching Capra's 'The Negro Soldier" from 1944, (this was also made for the US War Department) which is an attempt to ease the friction between the races within the American troops. That film is as loving as 'Know your enemy – Japan' is cruel.

'Know your enemy – Japan' is a very skilful propaganda film. Most of it is comprehensible, direct, informative, brutal and frightening but there are clever sections with fairly advanced symbolism. Frank Capra sticks to the truth but chooses to view the issue in such a way that the purpose of the film is fulfilled. Watching it half a century after it was made allows you to be amused by the style and techniques and be alarmed by the brutality; but the audience it was made for was no doubt very taken by it.


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