The word “nisshiki” (Japanese style) can often be seen on storefront signs in Taiwan to indicate chic, high-end products. It’s a little similar to what we in Japan associate with luxury items from France, though “nisshiki” is a holdover from the days when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895-1945).
Documentary filmmaker Huang Ya-li tells me that Taiwan is currently in the throes of a “Japan nostalgia boom” that recalls the colonial days with a degree of fondness he doesn’t quite understand.
“Personally, I don’t get this Japan nostalgia thing and I was never that enamored with nisshiki in the first place,” Huang says. “Having said that, I’m fascinated by the interaction of the two nations, in particular the years that Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule. That’s what led me to make this documentary.”
His film is titled “Le Moulin” (Japanese title: “Nichiyobi no Sanposha: Wasurerareta Taiwan Shijintachi”), and it’s a hefty 160-minute account of Taiwan’s modern poetry group of the same name. In Japan, the group was called Fushashisha — a movement of young Taiwanese poets that emerged in 1930s Tainan, 40 years into colonial rule. While Le Moulin’s members held French surrealists in the highest regard and tried to emulate their spirit and methods, their language and poetry style was completely Japanese. Three of the four core people involved had studied in Tokyo, and spoke and wrote the language with incredible fluency, a fact that filled them with pride, but also bitter resentment.
During the half-century of Japanese imperial rule, assimilation was imposed on every tier of Taiwan’s education system. As a result the Taiwanese who dabbled in the arts and literature spoke and wrote excellent Japanese, and the elite (political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek among them) often studied in Tokyo. The ability to speak, act and think like a Japanese was a prerequisite to success, and Huang notes that Le Moulin was formed to protest the idea of the “cultural superiority” of the Japanese.
“This superiority was enforced on Taiwan,” he says. “In order to get ahead in the art world or gain any kind of foothold in international society, assimilation was key.”
Very little bitterness surfaces in Huang’s film, however, even with references to the “ironic sadness” of Le Moulin members striving to create their own literature movement in a foreign language.
“The poets wanted to create their own Taiwanese literature movement, but their own language was not sufficient for modernist poetry and the only way they could work was to write in Japanese,” he says. “It may not have been the best choice at the time, but it was the only way they could make progress with the movement. They must have figured, ‘Well, if we’re going to be under colonial rule anyway, we may as well use the language.'”
Huang tells the story through a collage of archival footage of Tokyo before World War II, interviews with the surviving family members of Le Moulin poets, voice-overs that are primarily in Japanese and consist of Le Moulin’s poetry, and excerpts from the works of surrealists including Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust. The film itself unfolds like one epic poem, not always easy to comprehend but a glorious experience for literature lovers. Japanese audiences will be astonished by the sheer beauty of the language deployed by the Le Moulin poets. No one speaks like this anymore, but even less Japanese write like this, with such refined elegance and gentle wit. In the production notes, French literature critic Kunio Iwai calls the poetry “an unwitting and beautiful co-conspiracy that sought to bring about awakening and enlightenment in Taiwan.”
“The postwar generations have different memories about this period,” Huang says. “Growing up, we were taught different versions of history, with varying accounts in school textbooks. Later, a Japanese friend told me that the exact same thing happens in Japanese schools: History is altered to fit the times. So here we are, two nations whose fates had been so closely intertwined. Now, more than seven decades later, it seems we still know very little about each other. Especially about the time when we were living together under one roof, so to speak, in Taiwan.”
The year was 1933, and Le Moulin poetry group met together on Sundays — the only day in the week they had off. The core members — Yang Chih-chang, Li Zhang-rui, Lin Xiu-er and Zhang Liang-dian — went for long walks in Tainan, discussed surrealism in poetry and published slim volumes of their work. According to the film, it was a happy and productive time for the group, but 18 months and four issues later they were forced to close down.
“This was the early ’30s and the en-vogue literature of the moment was proletarianism,” Huang says. “The era was moving rapidly toward war and people had little patience or need for art and romance. The Japanese colonialist government certainly frowned on such things.”
In Japan, modern literature was elbowed aside in favor of military propaganda, and even liberal, romantic writers like Osamu Dazai wrote fiction that praised Japanese machismo (at least on the surface) for fear of imprisonment under the infamous Peace Preservation Law.
Le Moulin disbanded, though the poets continued to write secretly in their homes. Lin died of consumption one year before the Japanese surrender, and Li was accused of political activism and executed in 1952.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the poetry of Le Moulin was unearthed from among the wreckage of forgotten history. The poems were translated into Mandarin, providing valuable material in understanding the artistic world of prewar Taiwan.
“For me, it was like putting together a detective story,” Huang says. “There is just so little material evidence of the poets to work from, and at first I couldn’t get any cooperation from the surviving families.”
He persisted, though, and managed to figure out, for example, that Li had been involved in another poetry movement when he had been studying in Japan.
“According to his brother, Li was possibly involved in publishing a book titled ‘Sasayaki’ with a Japanese friend, but I couldn’t confirm that with anyone in Japan,” Huang says. “But it was enough for me to get acquainted with these poets, and to piece together a fragment of history that very few people know about.”
Huang adds that a number of Japanese academics have described their shock in discovering the poetry of Le Moulin.
“They said it was as if a bomb went off,” he says. “No one in Japan was aware that modern literature had even existed in Taiwan, much less that it had all been written in Japanese.”