Horror in the East (2005)


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Documentary Description

Horror in the East

An examination of atrocities and depredations committed by Imperial Japanese military forces from 1931 to 1945.

Events in Japan played a huge part in forming the overall story of World War II, with HORROR IN THE EAST attempting to document them in this fascinating program on the atrocities that unfolded. What sets this apart from the usual World War II coverage is that it tries to examine the motivations behind the gruesome scenes that took place, with Japanese and British correspondents spoken to at length about the events. Some vintage footage has been exhumed from the vaults to help offer a visual representation of Japan at this time, while interviews are conducted with a number of key witnesses who played a vital part in the war.


While many histories of World War Two have recounted the grim atrocities performed by Japanese soldiers on civilians and POWs, few have attempted to explain how and why such barbarity could have occurred. What led to the assault on Nanking? How could one in four Allied POWs die in captivity? Meticulously researched, using Japanese and British consultants, Horror in the East examines the political and economic factors, as well as the mindset of those involved. Rarely seen archive footage and interviews with former Japanese soldiers, kamakazis, Allied POWs, and victims of the notorious cruelty reveal the complex truth behind the horror.

Viewers Reviews, from Amazon.com

Mike Allensby

"Horror in the East" is a 2-part BBC documentary attempting to explain why the Japanese Army turned from being a westernized, "civilized", military which treated its prisoners well during WWI into the brutal military which fought against the allies in WWII. It is not intended as an account of the Pacific War or a detailed documentation of the numerous atrocities committed by the Japanese. In terms of achieving its aims, it is admirably successful. During the First World War, the Japanese Army followed an Imperial decree that captured prisoners were to be treated with respect. Subsequently, with Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations and its turning its back on the West, it developed a highly militaristic culture which emphasized brutal, inhuman discipline among its vastly expanded army. Wanton abuse of subordinates was encouraged among the ranks. The humanistic aspects of the Code of Bushido were deliberately downplayed or removed from the military code of ethics. Its most violently belligerent parts were promoted instead. This together with its adoption of a racist policy similar to that of its Nazi allies made for its total conversion from the civilized army the allies had known and fought alongside during WWI to the barbarous army they encountered during WWII. It is an excellent 98 minute documentary which comes with 2 other hour-length documentaries, one on The Indian Army and its contribution to the war and the other, on the War in Burma, also known as the Forgotten War.


Usual British treatment of WWII in Asia and the Pacific is typically extremely myopic and narrow in scope in that the War in Europe was obviously their primary focus during the war and remains so in historical retrospectives. When the Asia-Pacific Theatre is dealt with I find that most time is spent portraying the Japanese, to a man, as ultimately unknowable, opaque, and rapacious automatons whose high degree of self-sacrifice on the battlefield and their frequent abuse of Allied POWs is stated but simply taken as a given but Japanese conduct - nasty though it often was - is never really explained. While this episode had other flaws admittedly it did at least try and give background to the behavior of the Imperial Japanese Army in particular from 1941-45. Ultimately though, the theme of the episode has mostly to do with Japan's treatment of POWs from the opening scenes while other aspects that colored the actions of the Japanese military during the War and before (as far back as the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when the Imperial government and armed forces were established) are glossed over. Japanese domestic politics, the effect of that politics on Japan's decision to invade China first with the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and later with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, as well as a more thorough examination of the motives Japanese Imperialism in general from the 19th century to 1945 are largely alighted. To have really done the huge multifaceted and thoroughly fascinating subject of Japan's role in WWII justice the producers ought to have thought of doing a multi-disk episode - unfortunately I fear this is all we get on Japan and probably not much more on the Pacific Theatre as a whole. Again though, such cursory treatment of half of WWII is largely a function of any British documentary which neccesarily will have a Brits twist on past events as well as a typical Brits idea of what events are of greater importance. Doubtless, however, more could have been done on the topic.

Now for the good points. Though the episode limits much of its focus to Japanese wartime atrocities rather than other topics noted above it does depart from ill-informed assumptions made by British documentarians about Japanese wartime behavior in past productions. The episode notes that the Japanese treatment of German POWs during WWI was quite good (though no mention is made of Russian prisoners during the Russo-Japanese War who also were treated well but this a small matter - at least they made a point that needs making more often) and was at odds with the kind of treatment given Western and Asian POWs after the 1930s. The standard explanations are given for this change in attitude toward prisoners (Emperor worship, resentment of predatory Western Imperialist powers, the shame of surrender - notwithstanding the fact that these factors existed in Japan its armed forces during the same time that Japan entertained its earlier benevolent treatment of war prisoners) but at least they indicate that there was indeed a change.

I also appreciated the widespread use of Japanese veterans and historians who actually give voice to the Japanese side rather than hearing their Allied opponents give their second-hand opinions of the Japanese side. The interviews of Asian victims of Japanese atrocities was a nice addition as well and one that is all too often missing from most documentaries though no mention was made of Unit 731 or Japanese bio-warfare experiments in China. Nevertheless, the prisoner issue, while certainly deserving of coverage, was just one part of Imperial Japanese military history in the first half of the twentieth century. While this episodes excels in a few narrow areas it is not nearly comprehensive enough. World at War had several episodes on Japan which I beleived filled out the topic much better and gave it the attention and scope which it is due.

I actually found the bonus documentaries on Burma and Indian troops during WWII to be very good however. In these cases though, the producers were examining the war as it related to people and places of the British Empire and in so doing were coming at the subject from a much more informed and nuanced vantage point.

Robert D. Harmon "bobnbob3" (Mill Valley, CA)

I've done considerable research on Japanese occupation in WWII and can affirm that the main feature is a rare and illuminating look at Japanese conduct and mindset behind these abuses, something that Ken Burns' recent "The War" series only touched on. This documentary takes a rare look at the brutalized training of the Japanese soldier, a factor in the abuses in the China and Pacific wars. The documentary also examines the Japanese Army's forced suicides of civilians on Okinawa, the subject of a current (Oct. 2007) controversy over school history texts there.

The interviews with British survivors and Japanese participants is an important, if chilling, contribution to the historic record. The location photography is effective and haunting, but does not distract from the main point.

However, I would add that the two supplemental features, BBC programs on "Forgotten Volunteers: The Indian Army" and "Burma: The Forgotten War" make this DVD a must-have for the history-minded. The Indian Army that served the Allied cause seems to have had little coverage or appreciation since WWII, and the documentary also mentions the Indian National Army that fought on the Japanese side. The Burma feature covers a little-mentioned but bloody chapter in WWII, particularly the defense of the Imphal/Kohima stations just over the border in India, as well as the battle at Mandalay. Given the current interest in the Myanmar/Burma uprising, this segment provides at least some history, and recent footage, from that troubled land.


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