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Annika A. Culver, Glorifying the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo.

Annika A. Culver, Glorifying the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013. xii+268 pages.

Tackling the intriguing question of why many Japanese leftist artists, writers, and intellectuals became enthusiastic supporters of Japanese imperialist expansion, Annika Culver's Glorifying the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo examines the cultural production and professional trajectories of Japanese writers, photographers, and artists who produced modernist reflections of Manchukuo (i.e., Manchuria) during the period 1932-45. She argues that these leftwing intellectuals were drawn to Manchukuo for its political experiment, its exemplification of East Asian modernity, the prospect of creating new cultural forms, and the opportunities to project their various dreams. Culver treats their Manchukuo-themed art as a form of "unofficial propaganda" (5) that intersected with Japan's official propaganda and finds that their representation of Manchuko fit the Japanese government's ideological paradigms. Attending to the complex political and social context and the multiple forces that existed in interwar Japan, Culver replaces the binary notion of resistance/collaboration with a more nuanced account of the motives governing this intellectual and artistic posture.

Culver's first chapter investigates how the Southern Manchurian Railway Company (SMRC) enlisted high profile Japanese intellectuals to produce positive accounts of Japanese-led development in Manchuria during 1909-31. Tours sponsored by the SMRC had their effect on figures like Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who depicted the Chinese pejoratively and whose writings highlighted Japanese modernity. The distinction between a civilized Japan and a moribund China served as a template for future depictions of Manchuria by leftist intellectuals. Culver finds that most avant-garde artists in Japan originally had a radical political agenda and sought an ethic that went beyond the state-promoted ideal of modernity. When the social and political realities of the late 1920s undercut their hopes for a utopian modernity in Japan, supporting the colonial project in Manchukuo became a convenient way "to recant their political ideals" (32) and pursue a more viable project of social reform that not incidentally intersected with the Japanese state's fascist agenda. Culver argues that their artistic enterprise extended their earlier experiments in modernist form, but their support of Japanese imperialism replaced their radical political agenda.

Chapter 2 examines the political conversion (tenko) of Yamada Seizaburo (1896-1987), who began as a proponent of proletarian literature and became a supporter of cultural reconstruction in Manchukuo. Culver argues that Manchuria was a culturally crucial component of Japan's mission to "civilize" Asia and establish its own cultural dominance through modernization and pan-Asianism. Culver argues that as Japan's approach to Manchuria shifted from a commercial to an imperialistic one, the Manchukuo-related propaganda apparatus enlisted avant-garde writers to create a distinct Manchurian culture. Yamada, for example, upheld the Manchurian colonial project by fostering multi-ethnic literature and involving himself in the Concordia Association--a cultural organization that supported state policy by hosting cultural activities and promoting racial harmony in Manchukuo. He wrote about Japanese rural development in Manchukuo, edited collections of Manchurian literature, and articulated a cultural framework for Manchukuo.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 deal with visual artists. Culver explores the contradictions in Manchurian-themed works of surrealist artists like Fukuzawa Ichiro (1898-1994), Shimuzu Toshi (1887-1945), and Suzuki Yasunori (1891-1974) during the mid-1930s. She suggests that tours of Manchuria gave them opportunities to show that they had renounced Marxism and to boost their careers. She argues that their oil paintings both romanticize the region as a multi-ethnic rural paradise and reveal an equivocal attitude toward the region's Han Chinese coolies, thus embodying the contradictions of the Japanese attitude. Culver argues that their art criticizes the human cost of Japan-led development and modernization while retaining an implicit faith in "Manchuria" as a potential utopia of development and modernity. The career of avant-garde painter Ai Mitsu (1907-46) is the focus of Chapter 4. Culver argues that although Ai was drawn to Manchukuo for commercial reasons, his oil paintings, which circulated images of Japanese urban development and architecture, functioned as propaganda. Culver proposes that Ai fused Japanese modern and Chinese traditional techniques and that his style symbolized the Japanese-led cultural construction in Manchukuo. In Chapter 5, Culver turns to avant-garde photographer Fuchikami Hakuyo (1889-1960), proposing that his photographs visually propagandized for the reconstruction of Manchukuo by idealizing Chinese coolies as the logical workforce in the modernization enterprise and emphasizing the spiritual qualities of Japanese settlers. Culver argues that he filtered Japan's imperial project through a distorted lens, obscuring the violence of the colonial state and romanticizing Manchuria as a timeless utopia (while downplaying the reality of the modern multiracial Manchukuo).

Chapter six addresses the discourse of Manchukuo culture between 1938 and 1943 by focusing on how Muto Tomio (1904-98), the director of Manchukuo Publicity and News Bureau, enlisted intellectuals as participants in the war of words and images. Influenced by Nazi Germany's use of images in film, art, and literature, Muto employed the Concordia Association to carry out the political and cultural ideals of Manchukuo colonization and fostered a fascist culture by publishing writings promoting Confucian-inspired corporatism between 1932 and 1938. He centralized the management of propaganda and coordinated the propaganda and intelligence activities of the Bureau. After publication of the Prospectus for the Guidance of the Arts and Culture in 1941, the Bureau controlled all cultural activities in Manchukuo. Culver argues that Muto steered cultural production in Manchukuo toward fascism and that the cultural activities of 1942-45 were governed by the dictates of total war.

In her last chapter, Culver explores Kawabata Yasunari's (1899-1972) promotion of Manchurian literature in between 1941 and 1944. She maintains that the state's earlier promotion of Manchukuo cultural uniqueness and independence during the period 1932-37 was subsumed by wartime exigency. From 1938 onward, Manchukuo's cultural activities were manipulated to showcase ideals of Japanese empire. She finds that Kawabata was transformed by the fascist atmosphere of Manchukuo and wound up promoting multi-ethnic literature for the purpose of constructing a pan-Asian imperial culture. Culver argues that with the advent of total war Manchukuo cultural activities become inseparable from Japanese political, cultural, and military strategy.

Culver's book relies on Japanese sources and constructs a convincing account of a lesser known episode in Japan's modern cultural history. Elegantly written, it broadens our understanding of the often invisible interconnections between cultural enterprise and nationalist enterprise.


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Author:Ma, Yuxin
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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