Probing a Void in Documentary Film History (2/2)


The above is an outline of filmmaking in Indonesia under Japanese military rule, based on surveys in which I participated. In reality, the previously described group was not solely responsible for making films, and films like Calling Australia, which the army produced directly, also exist.

Until now, almost all research on film production in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation has been done from the perspective of contemporary Southeast Asian history. Kurasawa Aiko’s work is representative in this respect, and she first confirmed the existence of these films in the Netherlands Audiovisual Archive (Nederlands Audiovisueel Archief, abbreviated as NAA) in the 1980s. Her paper “Nihongunseika no jawa ni okeru eiga kosaku” (“Japanese Film Propaganda in Java 1942-45”) published in the Japan Society for Southeast Asian History’s journal Tonanajia: rekishi to bunka 18 (“Southeast Asia: History and Culture” 18, 1989) and other achievements are well known, and are groundbreaking attempts at understanding the Japanese army’s construction of propaganda for the south. Attempts to determine and analyze the film content and to clarify the distribution and screening system were already underway at this point. In addition, occupation-era magazine Djawa Baharoe was reproduced in 1991 through Kurasawa’s efforts, and we now have a basic bibliography that casts light on the situation of propaganda directed toward Indonesia.

However, until now there has been limited work on understanding these production activities from the perspective of film history. Former director of Sinematek Indonesia Misbach Yusa Bilan’s article “Nihon senryoka no Indoneshia eiga” (“Indonesian Films under Japanese Occupation”) in Senso to nihon eiga (“War and Japanese film”), volume four of Koza nihon eiga (“A Course in Japanese Film,” ed. Imamura Shohei, Sato Tadao et al., Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1986), and Nyusu kamera no mita gekido no Showa (“Tumultuous Showa as Seen by the News Camera,” ed. Nihon nyusu kiroku iinkai, Tokyo: Nihon hoso kyokai, 1979) featuring the recollections of Takaba Takashi, who was a central figure in Nichiei Jakarta, are two exceptions to the rule; however, there has been no film history research in response to these works. Also, the staff structure and production system for each work has not been made clear. The fundamental problem that the films themselves are absent from Japan, as well as the disappearance of materials on Nippon Eigasha due to repeated ruptures in management could have much to do with this. However, in recent years, the video screening of Nichiei Jakarta works borrowed from the NAA featured in the YIDFF ’97 special program entitled “Imperial Japan at the Movies” has been an important stepping stone toward this research.



In March of this year, I stood at the site of the Indonesian National Film Studio (Produksi Film Negara, abbreviated as PFN), located in the Jatinegara district of eastern Jakarta. Multifilm Batavia, Nichiei Jakarta, and, for a short period, Berita Film Indonesia were located here, and this is where Sutarto established the PFN following the war for independence. Listening to the PFN employee point to the tall tower ahead and explain, “The Japanese built that water supply tower,” I couldn’t help but be stunned by the unexpected breadth of the concept of “Japanese cinema.” Ketika Hari Kelahiran J.M.M. Tenno-Heika di Tanah Djawa, the sole print remaining in the film center, was shot when the occupation period had just begun by dispatching staff from this area to Bandung. It didn’t feel real that this “southernmost tip of Japanese cinema” could survive even today as a film studio.

Going around to the back of the studio, also built by the Japanese, there was a relief of Japanese soldiers mistreating Indonesian film workers. I was told, “There used to be many more, but since the buildings have been reconstructed a lot, this is the only one remaining.” Two days after my visit, March 9, was exactly 60 years after the Japanese army that landed on Java forced the Dutch army to surrender. It is hopelessly difficult to find traces of the Japanese army administration in today’s Jakarta, which underwent violent baptism by urbanization under the Suharto administration. Opposite from the relief, this studio is presently used to record a television quiz program.

Entering the building adjacent to the studio, there was a film school classroom proudly displaying a poster for Garin Nugroho’s Love in a Slice of Bread (1991) and a small room for the archive section. The archive supervisor, who said he had some rare films, showed me editions one through three of Raden Mas Sutarto’s Berita Film Indonesia. These films did not exist even in the Netherlands during my research there last year. I viewed them on video, but the archivist said the films are available too.

I watched only three films, but could understand many things from them. First, there were many similarities with Nampo Hodo, the news films produced until Japan’s defeat. The only difference was the disappearance of Japanese language and people from the screen, and everything from the typography to the rhythm of the editing strongly suggests that the same people were involved. This lets us understood that the Nichiei Jakarta staff continued working without any changes for their new boss Sutarto during the short period (thought to be until October) before they were incarcerated in POW camps by the returning Dutch army. Films found separately in two places link together cinema history, the colonizer and the former colonizer in the strangest of ways.



The war gave “Japanese cinema” new and different features. Japanese cinema overthrew the unspoken assumption that it was something viewed by within Japan by Japanese people who understand the Japanese language. The war provided a new form of propaganda completely different from that of the era during which Taiwan and Korea were annexed. As this research demonstrates, it meant the arrival of an unprecedented period that used a broader category of “Japanese cinema,” with films shot in Japan to be viewed in Indonesia, films shot in Indonesia to be viewed in Japan, and films shot in Indonesia to be viewed by Indonesians. This continued for three years and five months, or three years and seven months if the short period when the staff continued to work for Indonesia’s independence is included.

As a result, the Nichiei Jakarta staff left not a small impression on the post-independence Indonesian film world, similar to the Japanese staff from the Manshu Eiga Kyokai (Manchurian Film Association, abbreviated as Manei) who remained after the war to give technical assistance to the revolutionary Chinese. However, we must note that it was a group of individuals involved in cinema, and not Japan as a nation, that left these impressions. It is already widely known that as an occupation force the Japanese army forcibly commandeered laborers (countless Indonesian laborers lost their lives at the Taimen Railway construction site) and comfort women, and caused structural famine through inadequate economic policies. As a glance at the YIDFF ’97 catalog shows, the word “romusha” (worker) remains in the Indonesian language even today.

On one hand, postwar Indonesian cinema authority Usmar Ismail (quoted in Kurasawa) has said that “With the Japanese period, people realized the function of cinema as a method for social communication for the first time,” and Raden Mas Sutarto strove to establish the PFN as the head of the Ministry of Information’s film communication division. Although not limited to cinema, the fact that the Indonesian people did not retaliate against those who collaborated with the Japanese speaks to the existence of a relatively “tranquil” environment. The fact that they could continue production without a hitch at a time when air raids over Japan were becoming frequent and the Okinawa war was going on shows that “Nichiei Jakarta in 1945” was an exceptional era even within Japanese cinema history.

Whether it is Manei or Nichiei Jakarta, there is a sense that some areas of film production outside Japan became new havens for leftists and liberalists. In Jakarta, this probably applies to Ishimoto, who certainly played a central role. A group of filmmakers, including people who did not necessarily believe the government of the time, had been sent to Indonesia by militarist Japan and had no choice but to continue making propaganda films to persuade the local people. The Japanese taught Indonesians methods for preventing malaria, but at the same time they were also teaching techniques for using bamboo spears, and asked for the delivery of “romushas” to participate in the construction of the Taimen Railway. Now especially we must take an honest look at the dynamics painted within each film. It is easy to assign superfluous meaning to the Indonesian occupation these days, and the Nichiei Jakarta works are an important testimonial that displays—whether with or without our consent—the multi-layered structure of the ideas behind propaganda acts.

One day, after submitting a fake plan for a film called “Remote New Guinea Islands,” cameraman Kobayashi Yonesaku fled Jakarta and lived in hiding with a local tribe on a lakeside in New Guinea during the roughly two year period until Japan’s defeat. He was concerned about his own safety, as there were many Allied attacks in the beginning of the occupation, and cameramen who boarded warplanes were frequently killed. In the many photographs of the New Guinea period that Kobayashi keeps even today, there is a Nippon Nyusu (“Nippon News”) flag instead of a nameplate at the entrance to the small house where he lived. After recognizing Japan’s defeat by the types of airplanes that flew overhead, Kobayashi once again island-hopped his way back to Jakarta and learned to bake bread during his time as a prisoner of war under the Dutch army. That experience is brought to life in Ikiteiru pan (“Living Bread,” 1948), a Nichiei film made after his demobilization. Kobayashi was the cameraman, with Okuyama Dairokuro, Kobayashi’s former colleague at Jujiya Production, as director and Ishimoto handling production.

The irony that the Jakarta propaganda experience was turned into this outstanding work announcing the revival of postwar Japanese science films is something that we need to discuss. The greatest loss for this is that Takaba Takashi, a key figure in Nichiei Jakarta, passed away in 2000 before I could talk with him. Furthermore, Kikuchi, who related valuable stories about the publicity division period, passed away on June 4 of this year. Kikuchi, who was active as Kamei Fumio’s cameraman, hardly ever spoke about being a member of the group that landed at Java. It is my humble wish to offer this essay before his grave (the contents of this interview are also published in an essay collection published in memorial to him.)

Even so, it cannot be emphasized enough that this study was made possible by the good fortune that the Netherlands government has preserved the surviving films for over half a century. The original inflammable film was all treated to be noninflammable, and the difficulties of preserving these trophies of war over the years have been immeasurable. These works need to be repatriated to Japan as soon as possible so that they may be used for research in film history and contemporary history research. This must not be video, but rather in the form of 35mm prints that preserve the vestiges of the original.


* This manuscript is a broad revision of an essay in Kaigai ni zanson suru sensenki no nippon eiga ni kansuru chosa kenkyu hokokusho (“Report on Survey Research Regarding Prewar Japanese Film that Remains Abroad” 2002), published by the National Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. I relied heavily on previous research for the text, and obtained much information from Nippon Eiga Shinsha and materials from the YIDFF Tokyo Office. I wish to sincerely express my thanks here.

* The above report lists the films preserved in the Netherlands. Many aspects of the issue remain unclear, starting with Nichiei Jakarta and Japan’s colonies in South-East Asia. In the future, I hope to receive information and materials from those who were involved at the time.

—Translated by Ann Yamamoto


Corrections and additions to the data on works in YIDFF ’97 “Imperial Japan at the Movies”

Items with corrections to titles:

Call for Romusha (Workers) and The Life of Romusha (Workers) are the first and second reels of Labor Troops (“Barisan Pekerdja,” production year identified as 1944, two reels); the opening of the first reel is missing.

Tonari Gumi and Tonari Gumi, Tongan are the first and second reels of Tonari Gumi (two reels). The film Tonari Gumi, Tongan does not exist.

Political Participation of Indonesia is the first reel of The Road to Political Empowerment (“Menoedjoe ke-arah Memgabil Bagian Pemerintahan Dalam Negeri,” two reels).

Nampo Hodo No.1 (“Volunteer Army for Defense, etc.”) is the first reel of The Song of the Volunteer Army for Defense (“Tentata Pembela,” two reels) from the opening until 6’6”; from that point onward, it is a section of Nampo Hodo No.4 (produced in 1942). (The time refers to the timecode from the tape owned by the NAA.)

Tojo Hideki’s Visit to Djawa is a section of Berira Film di Djawa No.7.

Corrections and additions to other information:

Berdjoang (Hope of the South) is the second of a total ten reels (the first and fourth reels are also preserved in the Netherlands).

Jaesjio (misspelled as Jaesjo in the catalog) has been identified as a 1944 work produced by the 16th Army publicity unit, not Nippon Eigasha.

Berira Film di Djawa No.7 is the missing section from the middle of Tojo Hideki’s Visit to Djawa.

To Our Friends in the South has been identified as a 1942 production; it was produced by Geijutsu Eigasha, not Nippon Eigasha.

Good Children of East Asia is the correct title of this film whose original title was unknown; however, the Indonesian title is unknown because the opening is missing.
Nampo Hodo No.26 (Japanese Speech Contest) has been identified as a 1945 production

Nippon Presents (a.k.a. Nippon Calls) has been identified as a 1946 production produced by the Netherlands Indies Government Film Unit, not the Australian Army (the cast is almost entirely Australian).


Okada Hidenori

Assistant curator at the National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, where he has been involved on documentary film projects such as “Glimpses of Nippon” and “Twentieth Century Japan as Captured by Film.”