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Nanking-City of Life and Death

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Nanking-City of Life and Death

For the 2011 symposium I reviewed Lu Chuan's harrowing "Nanking-City of Life and Death." My interest in the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" by Japanese military forces centers on the ethical decisions military members have to make. In my classroom I strive to develop responsible leaders and citizens. One of the topics I like to cover is the concept of a "lawful order" and the basis for following orders from a superior, or when not to follow them and suffer the consequences. That this movie has a military angle as well as involving two nations we've studied and a conflict that still simmers in international relations today made it a compelling movie for me to view.

For those who aren't aware, in 1937, prior to what American's think of as the start of the second world war, Japanese forces surrounded the city of Nanking and after a siege took control of the city. In the ensuing weeks an estimated 300,000 chinese were rounded up and executed by Japanese forces. Women and children were not spared, in fact, many women were taken as sex slaves for the occupying forces and were brutally raped and abused before being executed. Babies were allegedly bayonetted for sport by the Japanese forces. It is one of the darkest periods in modern warfare and the story is generally unknown among American's and Japanese alike, although it is well remembered by the Chinese.

The film lasts about an hour and forty minutes and is shot entirely in black and white. The english is almost exclusively via subtitles although several of the actors, presumably American's or British serving as aid workers, do speak english. It is eerily reminiscent of "Schindler's List" and I would recommend this movie as an option to replace "Schindler's List" if you wish to get away from a European view. Like "Schindler's List" this movie is very graphic and requires parental permission before viewing. I would also bypass some of the more graphic killing scenes and rape scenes (mins 35, 54 and 84). There is plenty of brutality and ugliness without showing these scenes.

The movie follows two young Japanese soliders, one a mid-ranking military man with some decision authority and the other a lowly foot soldier. It shows their progression and moral decay from the triumphant arrival in Nanking as relative innocents until the movie's tumultous end. In the beginning, the foot solider is horrified by the violence, visited both upon his fellow Japanese soldiers and the people of Nanking. As the violence progresses from the rounding up of male chinese, presumably chinese soliders, and their execution, to the murder of innocents; his demeanor changes. He befriends one of the chinese women intended as a "comfort woman" and there are moments of tenderness between them; but ultimately he is unable to reconcile his feelings or rescue her. She meets the brutal fate of most of the comfort women of Nanking. The higher ranking soldier grows weary of all the death and destruction, including much of which he engages in himself. Unable to change the situation or remove himself from the murder and mayhem, he chooses an alternative, self-destructive path.

THIS MOVIE IS DEPRESSING BUT REALISTIC. I wouldn't show it to anyone but juniors and seniors and only with parental permission and significant warnings about what they are about to see. Despite all this I believe it is important for our students to understand the potential for inhuman treatment of their fellowman and more importantly, understand the conditions that can bring about a situation where that is viewed as acceptable. Movies like Nanking, the Killing Fields, Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List expose our students to the dark side of human existence and serve as a cautionary lesson for them to avoid treating groups of their fellow man (and woman) as "less than fully human"