The Forgotten Films That Helped Reset Sino-Japanese Relations
Fifty years ago today, on Sep. 29, 1972, representatives from Japan and China signed the Japan–China Joint Communiqué, normalizing diplomatic ties between the two countries after a 20-year break. Six years later, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between Japan and China laid down the political and legal foundation for an even closer cultural, economic, and political relationship.
But in the 1970s, the success of this rapprochement was far from guaranteed. Realizing the promise of a reset took years of work by committed individuals in a wide range of fields. Perhaps no industry better exemplifies this than film — and no film better exemplifies the challenges of reestablishing cultural contact between China and Japan than “The Go Masters.”
“The Go Masters” — the Chinese title, “Yi Pan Meiyou Xiawan de Qi,” literally means “An Unfinished Game of Go” — was initially proposed as a domestic production by Chinese filmmakers, with work on the script beginning in 1978, just two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The film centered around the tale of two go players, one Chinese and the other Japanese, whose friendship is thrown into turmoil on multiple occasions as a result of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s.
After reading the original script, Xia Yan, the Chairman of the China-Japan Cultural Exchange Association and China Film Association, suggested that it be made a joint international production. The next year, Wang Yang, head of the Beijing Film Studio, asked renowned actor Zhao Dan to find a suitable production partner on an upcoming visit to Japan. Zhao found a receptive audience in Tōkō Tokuma Co, Ltd., a subsidiary of one of Japan’s largest media firms. Producers at Tōkō Tokuma selected a Japanese director and screenwriter, Nakamura Noboru, who in turn suggested well-known actor Mikuni Rentaro be cast opposite Zhao.
Although Zhao’s visit was a success, things began to go awry almost immediately. Both Zhao and Noboru Nakamura passed away early in the production process. Zhao would be replaced by actor Sun Daolin, while responsibility for bringing “The Go Masters” to life would eventually fall to director Satō Junya.
Although not the first choice, Satō may have been the ideal director for this experiment in Sino-Japanese joint film production. His 1976 crime drama “Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare” (“You Must Cross the River of Wrath”) was one of the first Japanese films to be officially screened in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It thrilled Chinese audiences hungry for new films, sparking a nationwide movie craze and turning its lead, Morioka, played by actor Ken Takakura, into a pop icon. So, when Nakamura passed away from illness in 1980, Satō, already intrigued by the reception of his earlier film in China, was a logical choice for his replacement.
Almost immediately, Satō proposed major changes, including depicting the horrors of the Japanese invasion head on, rather than making the war a mere background detail. “If you’re going to write about this chapter of history, you can’t avoid the war,” he later explained. “Everybody, whether they wanted to be or not, was all in some way involved in the war. Friendship and romance could no longer exist — they all ended in tragedy.”
To this end, Satō invited two editors from Japan to come work on the script produced by the Chinese screenwriters Li Hongzhou and Ge Kangtong. The Japanese and Chinese production teams agreed on three basic principles. First, the central theme and ideas of the script would not change; the film’s purpose was to describe the friendship between the people of China and Japan as well as Chinese go players’ spirit of determination. Second, the main characters’ personalities should not be fundamentally altered, but details could be adjusted or fleshed out if they were at odds with the characters’ respective cultural backgrounds. Third, the script should not be geared just toward Chinese and Japanese audiences. Rather, its themes should be universal.
Once these basic principles were hammered out, the team got to work on rewrites. The original script devoted a lot of ink to describing how the older generation of Chinese go players worked to revive the community amid the chaos of war, with only a few scenes relating to Japan. The rewritten version placed the focus of the story on the two protagonists’ cycle of tragic separations and joyous reunions during the war years. The original version’s description of the development of go in China during the 1950s was omitted.
Filming on “The Go Masters” officially began in Kamakura, Japan, in January 1981. Though the movie still revolved around the relationship between two go players, the historical context of the Japanese invasion was woven heavily into the rewritten plot. What might have been a one-sided story of perseverance became an exposé of the horrors of war and the story of a friendship between two ordinary people caught in the middle.
On August 26, 1982, “The Go Masters” had a test screening in Tokyo’s Hibiya neighborhood. More than 1,000 people — including then Minister of Foreign Affairs Sakurauchi Yoshio, Minister of Health and Welfare Morishita Motoharu, and the former Prime Minister Miki Takeo — were in attendance. On Sep. 15, the movie hit theaters in both China and Japan. It would go on to win the 1983 Japan Academy Prize for Best Film, the 1983 Golden Rooster Award for best picture in China, and the Grand prix des Amériques at the Festival des films du monde in Montréal, taking in more than one billion yen at the Japanese box office in the process.
Not everyone was eager to see “The Go Masters” succeed, however. A day after the film’s release, a Japanese right-wing activist attempted to prevent a Tokyo screening by setting off the theater’s fire extinguisher system. After being arrested by the police, the activist confessed that his actions were taken in protest at the film’s depiction of the Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of civilians after taking the city — a taboo subject in Japan.
Satō dismissed the Japanese right wing’s attempts to cover up the country’s crimes. “We made a movie like this precisely in the interests of accurately reflecting history,” he said in a later interview. “It’s unacceptable to close our eyes and deliberately avoid the truth. It’s only in this way that a true mutual understanding can form between China and Japan — an understanding that is essential to any lasting friendship.”
“The Go Masters” would not be Satō’s last foray into the Chinese market. Roughly five years after “The Go Masters” hit theaters, he adapted “The Silk Road” from Inoue Yasushi’s novel “Tun-Huang” (also Romanized as “Dunhuang”). Despite the short interval between the two films, cooperation between the two countries had made notable strides in the intervening years. From March to October 1987, the crew scouted for filming locations around the site of the actual Dunhuang ruins. To make the film look as realistic as possible, not only did the production team reconstruct the ancient city of Dunhuang almost to scale, but also, with the assistance of the People’s Liberation Army-backed August First Film Studio, they secured the services of a significant number of active-duty People’s Liberation Army soldiers as extras.
Its grandiose battle scenes and exotic portrayal of northwestern China helped make “The Silk Road” the highest-grossing Japanese film of 1988. It won 10 awards at the 12th Japan Academy Film Prize ceremony, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Male Lead, and Best Cinematography. The film’s influence was such that, in August 1988, when then Prime Minister of Japan Noboru Takeshita visited China, he made a special trip to see Dunhuang. Even the newly invested Emperor Akihito said he was impressed by the movie in an early 1989 interview with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
On the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, Satō’s call for mutual understanding rings truer than ever. Although there is now nothing particularly unusual about Chinese and Japanese production companies, actors, and filmmakers jumping from one country to the other, the tensions that derailed that Tokyo screening of “The Go Masters” have never fully gone away. To borrow a phrase from the film’s Chinese title, the reestablishment of peace and friendship between these two nations is itself an unfinished game of go.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell: Portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A poster for the 1982 film “The Go Masters.” From Douban)