BEIJING – Koji Yano, a Japanese actor in his 30s well-known in China but unknown in his home country, has played a series of parts in Chinese movies as a “Guizi” (devil), a term still used in China for members of the Japanese military before and during World War II.
Yano, who hails from Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, worked as a movie extra in Japan after graduating from senior high school before moving to Beijing in 2001.
He decided to go to China after playing the part of a Japanese student studying in China in a Chinese movie shot the previous year. Its lively set attracted him.
In China, dramas about resistance to the Japanese military air almost daily, and Yano has performed in 12 dramas. In seven of them, he played a Japanese soldier or officer.
“I may have a negative image in China because I have played the role of a soldier and officer so many times,” he said.
He has often become disgusted with the roles, in which his character shouts angrily at Chinese and kills them, but he has nevertheless kept taking the parts, making him gradually known among Chinese.
He has received steady coverage in newspapers and magazines, and now is the most famous Japanese actor in China’s drama community. His reputation has been rising, too.
On a set in Shandong Province, he experienced discrimination when a Chinese actor called him a “Xiao Riben” (short Japanese), a derogatory Chinese term for a Japanese. When he asked the Chinese actor to call him by the name of the character he was playing, the Chinese actor appeared to feel awkward and fell silent.
Producers of resistance dramas do not necessarily have strong anti-Japanese sentiments themselves. Such dramas can be counted on to draw an audience, especially among elderly people, and are produced rather like Japanese historical dramas.
Yano faced even worse hostility from other Japanese in December 2004, when a resistance drama titled “The Proof of Memories” was broadcast.
When information that he had played the role of a Japanese officer in the drama reached Japan, his Internet home page was flooded with messages. One said, “Shame on you,” while another said, “Never return to Japan.”
“It is regrettable that they are looking at me automatically with animosity,” Yano said.
“The Proof of Memories” was an epoch-making work, he said. Many of the performers were Japanese, and nearly half of the dialogue was in Japanese. Japanese soldiers are typically depicted as cruel and evil, but the Japanese officer that Yano played was troubled by abuse of Chinese. It was selected in China as the best drama of 2005.
It was produced by Yang Yang, a female director in her 40s.
“As a child, I felt the Japanese were scary,” she said. Her views about Japanese changed when she went to Japan as a staff member of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) to produce a drama called “Dragon Spirit” for NHK, which was broadcast in 1993.
“Japanese people were very polite. When I asked for directions, they tried hard to show me. They worried that I might go off in the wrong direction, and kept watching me from a distance,” she said.
She became a Japanophile. Whenever she has a long holiday, she goes to Japan. She tells her friends, “In my old age, I intend to live in Japan.”
In 1998, Yang produced modern dramas with such unusual themes in China as divorce and adultery, and won many prizes, establishing her credentials as a drama producer.
“Many Chinese know Japanese vehicles through TV programs and movies,” she said of why she chose to do made a resistance drama. “But while at school, they learn little about Japan. I wanted Chinese to get to know real Japanese figures.”
Before shooting “The Proof of Memories,” which used about 20 China-based Japanese actors, she told the Chinese staff, “Never use impolite words to Japanese on the set, such as ‘Guizi’ or :Xiao Riben.’ “
The drama, which took about four years to make, was broadcast by CCTV in prime time and generated a great deal of buzz.
In 29 episodes, it tells the story of Chinese who were taken to Japan for forced labor toward the end of the Pacific War. Yano’s Japanese officer, using Chinese forced laborers, carries out secret work preparing for the landing of U.S. troops on Japanese soil.
Just before the work is finished, the Chinese riot and most are killed. While investigating the truth about the slaughter, a grandson of the only surviving Chinese falls in love with the granddaughter of the Japanese officer.
Japanese who saw the drama in China said it did not accurately depict the transportation of Chinese to Japan for forced labor.
This is a misunderstanding, she said. “I would like the drama to be broadcast in Japan so that I can hear frank Japanese impressions.”
Since the drama was aired, Japanese characters depicted in Chinese dramas have changed, Yano said. A recent drama showed a Japanese trying to save the life of a Chinese. “That is something I could never have imagined before,” he said.
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