Men Behind The Sun: A History Lesson
Dir. Tun-Fei Mou (1988)
I'm a huge history buff, and I absolutely love the interesting things that your teachers never taught you in school. History is full of fascinating facts and stories, interesting anecdotes that never seem to fit into the standard curriculum in most schools. Maybe if you were really lucky, and managed to get a true student of history for a teacher, then maybe you got to learn some really cool stuff. If not, then you've probably had to do what I've done and find your own way to learn about our past. For many, Men Behind the Sun was an introduction to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II.
One of the things that I found most interesting about the concept of this movie is that, quite frankly, most people don't seem to focus on the Japanese side of things during the Second World War. We hear, obviously, about the Holocaust, or Germany's invasion of Poland, or about Stalin's murder of millions in Russia. Almost everyone has heard of the terrible and inhuman experiments performed by Josef Mengele's group of scientists and soldiers in Europe. Hell, in Salo, the first film I reviewed on this site, we were given a look behind the curtain of the fascist movement in Italy during that time period. The actions of Japan's Unit 731, however, get little to no acknowledgment as one of the most horrific war crimes in history. This is, in large part, because there were never any charges pursued against them, and most of their work remained a secret to the general public.
Men Behind the Sun showed us a graphic and dramatized version of atrocities committed by Unit 731, the Japanese research team dedicated to studying biological and germ warfare. Their experiments ranged from exploding grenades at varying distances from their captives to study the damage done to their bodies, to the vivisection of living subjects to study diseases and the effects they held on the body. Another scene showed a woman and her daughter, who were tied to a chair in a room that was flooded with poisonous gas. The most famous scene involved a temperature test, where a woman was forced to have her hands frozen, standing outside in the snow as buckets of freezing water were poured onto them. Once her hands were sufficiently frost-bitten, she was brought inside the laboratory and had her hands stuck in boiling water. Then, the lead doctor pulled all of the skin off of her arms, revealing her bones. Another involved a man being subjected to a decompression chamber, which forced his intestines out of his body. All of this was explicitly shown, and, supposedly, based on actual experiments performed by the real-life Unit 731.
The movie's plot revolved around a group of Japanese teenagers who were brought into Unit 731. They were forced to take part in the experiments, and were trained by the doctors and soldiers to view the captives as "maruto", or logs. This is a real practice that was used by Unit 731 to dehumanize their subjects and allow the soldiers involved to feel a lack of remorse. The cover for the facilities they operated in was a lumber mill, so by calling their subjects "maruto", they could kill two birds with one stone, achieving the aforementioned dehumanization, as well as making it easier to hide their true intentions in official documents. The extent to which even the young boys buy into this line of thinking is fairly disturbing, and is also clearly fairly effective.
This film was interesting because it was a cross between a disturbing exploitation flick and a historical documentary. It was clearly a re-enactment, so it wasn't along the lines of Faces of Death, which had portrayed itself as real (and some of it was). That being said, while it was interesting, it was also a little boring. It was fairly well acted, at least for the type of movie it was, but it really didn't hold my interest. For a movie that showed everything from baby murder to a "real" scene of a cat being eaten alive by ravenous rats, that's truly saying something. But it really was kinda boring. It moved along at a kind of boring and monotonous pace, and I found myself reading more about the movie online than actually watching it. I made it through the whole thing, but more because I wanted to honestly say I had seen it than for any other reason.
At the end of the movie, the camp is destroyed to erase all evidence of its experiments. After the fact, though, we learn that the lead doctor, who had at one point advocated for the mass suicide of all involved to protect the camp's secrets, had given all of his notes to the United States in exchange for immunity to prosecution for war crimes. This ultimate act of hypocrisy led to his continued service in the Japanese military, where he used a lot of what he had learned to continue to wreak havoc on the war front. It also led to a lot of what we know about the extents of human endurance, as did the work of Dr. Mengele. While there is nothing that is worth the human lives and suffering that these experiments cost, one can argue that the invaluable information that we have learned could not have been documented any other way. Who knows the countless advances in medicine and warfare that have come to pass because of these horrible experiments. While we certainly want to learn our lessons from history (lest we be doomed to repeat it and whatnot), how far are we really willing to go to advance human learning?
Bottom Line: Must watch, but don't expect to be enthralled. Rather boring storyline, but important.