When YouTube recommended Blood on the Sun I was not particularly interested until I noticed its star (James Cagney), the year of its production (1945) and the Japanese setting, which added up to some intriguing possibilities. I have little experience of the anti-Japanese films from the war era, and I was curious to see whether and how Blood conformed to their infamously hateful clichés. It does and it doesn’t in a rather complex fashion.
Probably because of the presence of Cagney and co-star Sylvia Sidney, Blood is not a cheap propaganda vehicle and can at least claim to provide a surprisingly believable back lot “Japan.” The story centers on Nick Condon (Cagney), an American editor working in Tokyo in the period leading up to the war. Often at odds with the authorities, chiefly Baron Tanaka (John Emery), Condon is trying to smuggle out the so-called “Tanaka Memorial” that proves the Japanese administration’s plans for conquest.
If the physical environment is convincing, the people are another matter. All of the principle Asian characters are inevitably played by white actors speaking fractured English. A few servants are played by Asians, but in a grim irony, the producers could not have cast Japanese-Americans even if they wanted to, since all would have been interned at the time. Just how malleable international relations can be is demonstrated by the film’s depiction of our current friends the Japanese as at best helpless, at worst ruthless, while our contemporary antagonists the Chinese are good-natured, loyal victims. When it comes to yellow peril, Plus ça change…
The film includes some positive aspects of Japanese culture. Condon has embraced jujitsu, for example, although that a means of fighting should be acceptable almost says more about Americans than the Japanese. More formally, when Baron Tanaka knows he has been out-smarted, he commits seppuku for dishonoring the Emperor, and the ritual is treated with dignity. The ceremony would be moving if it did not feel as if it were included more for its exoticism than for its symbolic purpose. There is also a liberal prime minister, Prince Tatsugi (Frank Puglia) who helps prove the authenticity of the Memorial before being murdered by the villains.
However tangentially related to fact Blood may be, no one could mistake it as anything other than a synthetic fabrication. The romance between Condon and the supposedly half-Chinese Sidney, for example, complicates the action unnecessarily and seems included just to demonstrate Condon’s enlightened racial attitudes. The filmmakers get twisted in knots trying to be “fair” with a melodramatic adventure story that makes “fairness” impossible. The results are too complex to satisfy as simple adventure or propaganda, but on the other hand, the film cannot escape the contradictory, sometimes offensive, often confused attitudes that make that need for “fairness” necessary. In short, while Blood on the Sun’s intentions may be above-average, it cannot transcend its context and purpose.