Trouble All Over

The horrors of war in Nanking are so overpowering they make the revolutionary Iran of Persepolis seem inconsequential.

All wars are terrible everywhere, but the Rape of Nanking holds a special place in the catalog of horrors. In 1937, four years before the US entered World War II, the armed forces of Japan attacked China, overran the port city of Shanghai, and then turned their attention to the ancient capital city of Nanking.

These days it’s unfortunately understood that civilian populations are fair game for hostilities of all kinds, but what happened seventy years ago to the people of Nanking continues to shock the world. After intensive bombing and a two-week siege, Chinese forces defending the city capitulated and deserted en masse. The rich, including many foreign residents, had already fled down the Yangtze River, and so the city was populated mostly by the poor — scared out of their wits by rumors of atrocities by Japanese soldiers practicing the “Three Alls”: kill all, burn all, loot all.

Their fears were justified. In an orgy of indiscriminate violence, Japanese troops murdered some 200,000 civilians in the first six weeks of the occupation. There were more than 20,000 rapes in the first month alone. Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s US-made documentary, Nanking, tells this sad story with actors (Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Rosalind Chao, Jürgen Prochnow, et al.) reading from letters and diaries by a group of foreigners, mostly missionaries and medical teams, who stayed behind to help care for the people of Nanking. They established a two-square-mile humanitarian Safety Zone inside the city walls in which Chinese could seek protection from the marauding invaders. It’s estimated that as many as 250,000 lives were saved because of their efforts.

Interspersed with the actors’ readings are eyewitness testimonies by Chinese survivors and, amazingly, candid recollections by former Japanese soldiers, in addition to evidentiary newsreel footage of a particularly revolting nature: people being buried alive, beheadings by samurai sword (two Imperial officers evidently held a competition to see who could decapitate a hundred men first), hospital shots of mutilated victims, etc. Corpses littered the streets. Chinese senior citizen Zhang Xiu Hong describes being raped at age twelve. Girls disguised themselves as boys to avoid sexual assault, although that was no guarantee. Suspected Chinese army deserters were tied together and shot or burned alive. And so forth.

Through it all, foreign volunteers such as missionary John Magee (he shot 16mm film at a hospital and smuggled it to the US), surgeon Bob Wilson, and Minnie Vautrin, dean of Ginling Women’s College, tried to intercede with the Japanese using bluff and luck. German businessman John Rabe, who had hung a swastika flag in his garden during the air raids, used his influence as a Japanese ally to save individuals. Ms. Vautrin was forced to stand by as the “devils” selected girls and women from among her students for military brothel duty. Japanese officials openly complained that this was the first time in history that an army had to conquer a place with neutral observers on hand. Undoubtedly, the foreigners made a difference.

The case of Siemens executive Rabe is especially curious. After saving many lives in Nanking, he returned to Germany, where he attempted to give his films of the Japanese atrocities to Hitler. Soon afterward, Rabe was arrested by the Gestapo, who warned him not to discuss the matter further. At the end of WWII, Rabe was arrested again, this time by the Soviets for questioning. When the mayor of liberated Nanking got word that Rabe was reduced to poverty, he traveled to Germany and presented him with cash to live on. It had been collected from those whose lives Rabe had saved.

Although the film is dedicated to the memory of author Iris Chang, whose 1997 book The Rape of Nanking ignited international controversy over Japanese war crimes, Nanking has no other connection with Chang, who committed suicide in 2004. More powerful and moving than any of the newsreel shots or actors’ readings are the accounts of people like Chang Zhi Qiang, who tearfully describes the deaths by bayonet of his mother and baby brother, with his mother trying to breastfeed the baby as she lay dying in the street — he witnessed it at age nine. Nevertheless, the film carefully instructs us not to hate the Japanese, even though fourteen Japanese leaders found guilty of war crimes are memorialized to this day in Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. That is good, reasonable advice, but does nothing to blunt to outrage. This painful documentary ends on a hopeful note, although with a clear view of the cloud over human nature.

The life and times of Marjane Satrapi, protagonist of the new animated film Persepolis, are arguably almost as depressing as those of 1930s China. Ms. Satrapi, who authored the autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based, lived through a turbulent stretch of Iranian history and has a tale to tell. For all its real-world connection, Persepolis takes the sweep of history personally. At times the exercise seems a bit trivial.

As the daughter of a privileged family of Tehran in the late 1970s, young Marjane constructs a spiritual fantasy tableau for herself in which she idealizes the Shah (despite the insistent torture stories) and receives personal messages from god. Her uncle Anoush is exiled to the USSR, and when the Shah is finally overthrown and the Islamic Republic is declared, even her plastic key to heaven seems useless.

There’s very little that’s whimsical about this coming-of-age chronicle, but if we’re looking for political reflection we’re reading the wrong comic book. Punk rock fan Marjane has the option to study in Austria, far away from Iran’s troubles, and after putting up with her anarchist hippie clique, bad boyfriends, a time spent living on the street, and loads of pills, it’s almost a relief to get back to the horrors of the Iraq-Iran war. Almost, but not quite. A life-drawing class with a female model enshrouded in a burqa, fines for holding hands, Republican Guards raiding parties looking for banned alcohol — no wonder she finally quits Iran for France. If the residents of 1937 Nanking had to rely on Marjane Satrapi for help, they’d be out of luck.

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