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Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945

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image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

Historian John Dower titles his book War Without Mercy. Similarly, wartime Hollywood showed no mercy when depicting Japanese. Negative portrayals were often based on actual atrocities, but it was racism to demonize an entire people and culture. The story of how politics in Hollywood and Washington, the conduct of war, and international relations shaped and changed film racism involves a much more complex approach than has been practiced to date. Using archives of film studios, the Production Code Administration (PCA), and governmental agencies such as the Office of War Information (OWI), this article traces the power struggle among them and a new racism which emerged after 1941. Filmmakers now projected favorable images of Chinese to distinguish their new allies from the Japanese enemy. OWI struggled to promote a liberal agenda which saw the enemy as world fascism, not the Japanese people. The article analyzes more than two dozen films to trace the complications in three types of wartime screen racism: (1) "Verbal racism," such as derogating words like "Jap." (2) "Physical racism," which dramatized and ridiculed physical characteristics of Japanese people. (3) "Psychological racism," which saw all Japanese people as cruel and treacherous.


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