Hei Tei Yang 731 (Men Behind the Sun) (T. F. Mous, 1987)
[originally posted 19Jan2001]
On November 17, 2000, a small, unassuming man in a grey pinstriped suit took the stand in District Court 103 in Tokyo, and for two hours he stunned a courtroom with details of atrocities that made the testimony at Nuremberg seem like a description of a Sunday picnic. In the days between the Sino-Japanese war and World War II, this man, Yoshio Shinozuka, was a member of the Junior Youth Corps of Unit 731, the Japanese chemical and biological warfare division headquartered in a Japanese-occupied section of northern China. Until then, many had considered the T. F. Mous/Godfrey Ho-directed trilogy of films based on the actions of Unit 731 to be equal parts sick fantasy, documentary, and pure saidsm. As it turns out, the opposite was true; even Mous and Ho hadn’t shown it all.
Men Behind the Sun (known under four different names in America: Man Behind the Sun, Men Behind the Sun, Squadron 731, and Unit 731—spelled in English, the original title is Hei Tei Yang 731) focuses on the last days of World War II, after Unit 731 head Shiro Ishii—demoted for corruption in 1943—has been restored to his position as the head of the Unit, a few weeks before the bombing of Nagasaki. While the film is legendary for its scenes of gore and brutality, anyone buying this (or, if you happen to live in an area with a video store debased enough to carry it, renting this) expecting an hour-long gorefest a la Guinea Pig 2 will be disappointed. Mous uses, all in all, less than ten minutes of truly explicit fake-blood-drenched sequences, preferring to highlight the atrocity of those scenes by contrasting them with life in the Japanse army in north China in 1945, roughly akin to doing Siberian border patrols during the sixties—incredibly boring most of the time, with short periods of extreme stress.
The movie is painfully badly dubbed, but with the amount of dialogue in here, it’s nice someone tried, at least. There actually is a plot, to some extent, though it gets picked up and left off at various times; Mous seems to want to balance the story of the whole unit with the story of Ishiguro, one of the youth corps who is simultaneously a rabid nationalist who takes to the idea that the Manchurians are inhuman experimental fodder and a friend to a young local mute boy. Either of these stories would have made for a fine film in its own right; the combination of the two weakens the whole.
Much of the gross-out factor here seems to come from the commonly-held belief that some of the special effects in the movie are actually not effects (the one most commonly noted is a scene late in the film where a cat is thrown into a room full of bubonic plague-infected rats and is torn apart); rather like Guinea Pig 2, it’s hard to imagine these effects are actually real, and for the same reason (the cat wouldn’t have survived as long as the one does in the film, it seems to me). [ed. note 2013: Mous confirmed in a subsequent interview that the cat scene was fake and, at the time, the cat in question was still a pet in Mous’ household.]
It’s hard to know how to rate this one. For one thing, Mous exposed what may be the worst-kept secret of World War II over a decade before Japan was willing to acknowledge it (the U.S. first found out about it in 1989. Interesting that the atrocities of 731—which were used against American soldiers in the Korean War, which Ishii was involved in—never got the same press as the Nazi medical experiments). For another, the documentary style of the film is surprisingly novel in the genre. Seems someone would have come up with this idea before. On the other hand, the characters are just a shade deeper than cardboard, the dialogue lapses into serious silliness at times, and the cinematography leaves something—okay, a lot—to be desired. But in a conscious attempt to avoid basing my rating on dashed expectations of nonstop brutality and bloodshed for all, I don’t want to overrate it. I’ll settle on a good, solid *** and hope that Laboratory of the Devil is the **** ½ massive gorefest I was hoping for.