Trash Talk


“See girls forced into gilded Geisha palaces!” promised the ads accompanying the 1943 RKO release Behind the Rising Sun. And if that wasn’t enough to satiate anti-Asian sentiment: “See captive women treated with unspeakable barbarity! See cruelties of war committed against even babes in arms!”

The picture came a year after RKO’s anti-Germany propaganda film during the height of World War II, when there was little time to waste in instilling hatred in the heartland. “The studio had done Germany with Hitler’s Children, so they figured it was Japan’s turn,” says Greg Huggins, who will put three anti-Japanese films in context at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library when Behind the Rising Sun is shown August 14.

Though the picture ranks on the bottom tier of RKO’s prestigious library, Behind the Rising Sun is alternately praised for being jaundiced yet nostalgic, or pummeled for being shamelessly exploitative. It stars B-film biggies like Tom Neal and Margo in an Edward Dmytryk-directed story about “a publisher who alienates his son with his extreme political views.”

“And they didn’t even use Japanese actors,” Huggins says. “J. Carrol Naish, who is one of the stars, is Mexican.” It will be shown with the short My Japan and the Warner Brothers cartoon, Toyko Jokio.

“Their purpose was to enrage people about the Japanese. In the cartoon, they are depicted as wearing coke bottle glasses and having buck teeth. It’s

definitely racially inflammatory but historically interesting,” he says, adding that My Japan begins like a pleasant travelogue about Japanese customs “and then slowly darkens and becomes sinister, showing Japan to be a horrible nation.”

The library has been showing RKO features since April. What makes the series unusual is that the films were snatched from a garbage bin outside a local television station. Though King Kong and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane were the exceptions to the trashed cache and not among the RKO movies found, they will be shown in September. “And in October we’re doing what I call “Orson Kong”: Son of Kong and Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons,” says Huggins. “And these prints are gorgeous.”