By Jerome Reuter
When The Birth Of A Nation was screened at the white house, Woodrow Wilson described is as ‘writing history with lightning.’ If that’s the case, Men Behind The Sun writes it with napalm. There’s no getting around it, this is one of the most shocking and controversial films ever made. It sets out to address one of the darkest parts of human history, one you weren’t taught in history class.
Men Behind The Sun is a dramatized account of war crimes committed by unit 731. Although some liberties were taken, it parallels events that actually took place. Much like the 1985 Soviet film Come And See, some characters anf events are fictional. What occurs in the film however, is firmly based in reality. Because of the graphic portrayal of some of the events in question, this film sometimes gets grouped in with the exploitation genre. However, I feel there’s much more to this one. First of all, we need to look at what unit 731 was.
During the Japanese occupation of China, a biological weapons research unit was set up in Harbin. Commanded by Shiro Ishii, this unit was responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity, not only of WWII, but also the 20th century. Using human beings as test subjects, Ishii and his staff began a vast array of bizarre experiments. These included vivisection on live human beings, injections with the virus that carried the bubonic plague, frostbite prevention, and experiments on young women after being sexually assaulted. The victims of these atrocities were Chinese and Russian prisoners, known as ‘Maruta.’ By giving them this nickname, it stripped them of their humanity, making their exploitation easier to carry out.
Several experiments were conducted with rats and fleas, the old messengers of the ‘Black Death.’ Several years after the war, breakouts of Bubonic plague were reported in the surrounding areas. The crimes of Unit 731 had left its mark on the area for all time. To this very day, Japan has not accepted responsibility for the actions of this battalion of blood.
Ishii himself would avoid prosecution after the war. One fact that’s often times swept under the rug is the condition of his immunity. He would bargain his freedom to provide the US military with the data 731 had gathered. Even going so far as to aid the US during the Korean conflict.
When adapting a story such as this to celluloid, there’s not easy way to do it. The challenge lies in being honest about the facts, and presenting them in a way that doesn’t have the appearance of a snuff film. The first thing that needs to be said regarding the subject matter is this; it’s shocking. It’s not for the easily squeamish. I think there’s a purpose behind that. This isn’t a film that wants to provide commentary, this is a film to provoke, to stir ones emotions regarding past injustices.
The film itself isn’t entirely focused on war crimes. The story surrounds a group of adolescents being assigned to Unit 731 as a ‘youth corps.’ They’re present to be indoctrinated into the ideology of the unit, and the ruling powers. They become witnesses to the actions of 731, and get tied up into a world were all innocence is lost. The thing with children is that they’re naïve. Over the course of the film, they become witnesses to genocide, and eventually cogs in the machine. This is one of the reasons why I don’t consider this an exploitation film. This itself is a commentary on the ability to retain empathy, even when it’s almost completely absent. Several of the young men adopt the mindset that the Maruta are mere tools to serve research, while others see the Maruta as human beings just like they are. Evil isn’t born, it’s taught and manufactured.
The behavior of the adults of unit 731 is what you might expect. They see the importance of their test subjects as a means to an end, nothing more. The only thing they care about is getting results from the experiments they perform. One of the more disturbing aspects of this, is just who these people are. They’re educated people, physicians who have put their minds to use for such an inhumane purpose. If they were inhuman monsters, the horror could be easily explained. When the horror comes from fellow human beings, it resonates with us on a larger scale.
When it comes to the experiments, this is where the film almost borders on exploitation territory. These are scenes that are genuinely disturbing, and aren’t easy to get through. We have sequences of people being used as test subjects for the plague, conventional weapons, live vivisection, and even a scene were a frostbite victim has the flesh torn from their arms in graphic detail. It might be easy to slap the exploitation label on these scenes, and think of them as just there for shock value. However, I disagree with that entirely. These scenes are meant to shock, and they’re meant to provoke. There’s a reason behind that; this is a part of history that so many would like to forget. By forcing us to bear witness to such inhumanity, we’re forced to remember.
A film like this doesn’t serve as an educational piece, or an exhibition of gross out imagery. This is a provocative work, one that shows us just how despicable the human race van be, and how low those depths are.