When on one of my recent lectures on North Korean propaganda I demonstrated a North Korean feature film Story of a Blooming Flower, during a break I was approached by a puzzled South Korean student. “Seonsaengnim, are you sure that this film was made in the DPRK?” he asked. “How come that the Japanese characters are so nice here?”
I do not blame the student for this confusion. Indeed, this film, screened in 1992 seems to break the steady stereotype of North Korean propaganda according to which the Japanese ought to be portrayed exclusively as bestial creatures with crooked teeth, thin mustaches and sadistic smiles. From the first scenes of Story we see totally different Japanese characters. These people are perfectly shaved and checked by the dentist; they are beautifully dressed and well-behaved; they are connected by loving loyalty, sentimental friendship and closely knit family ties. Their lives are focused on meaningful and spiritual things, such as a creation of a new sort of flower, or unification with the other peace-loving Japanese in order to protest wars, or repayment of moral duty to one’s deceased mother.
If the student had watched the film The Country I Saw, screened in 1988, a few years before The Story, he would been even more perplexed. The protagonist of this film, Takahashi Minoru, is a progressive Japanese journalist, a sophisticated representative of the Japanese intelligentsia with refined manners and a love for philosophy and culture. His daughter is a beautiful young lady, who is upholding moral norms in the uncompromised style of an idealized Korean virgin in a regular North Korean narrative.
In fact, both films, as well as many creative writings about virtuous Japanese (such as, for instance, in the short stories “The Second Briefing” (Tuponchchae kija hoekyon) by Ryang Chang-cho (2000) or “The Flag of the Republic” (Konghwakuk kibal) by Kim Song Ho (2008)) testify to the interesting phenomenon which enwrapped North Korean mass culture from the late 1980s-early 1990s: The emergence of the genre of “good foreigners” in North Korean mass culture.
WHAT MAKES A FOREIGNER GOOD
Before the late 1980s, “good foreigners” were a rare commodity in North Korean narration. In the 1950s this niche was occupied almost exclusively by the “Soviet liberators,” with few other foreign faces visible; even the military intervention of China in the Korean War on the side of the DPRK failed to change this pattern. In the 1960s-1980s the North Korean cultural field stayed mononational. Most foreigners who appeared at this period on North Korean screens or pages were villainous Americans or demonic Japanese with the familiar crooked teeth.
In the late 1980s, however, the situation has begun to change. North Korean mass culture has widened its international outlook and begun to portray foreigners from an inclusive perspective.
The artistic quality of these new narrations about “foreign friends” was pitifully low, which was little surprise: To a regular North Korean author, film director or actor, a foreigner was an artistic object as outlandish as a unicorn. North Korean authors vacillated between the over-exotization and excessive Koreanization of these alien creatures. In one such narration, a contemporary Ecuadorian could be portrayed as an expressive believer in the Inca Sun God; in another story of this type, a German lady could take care of her German mother-in-law in the typical fashion of a dutiful Korean daughter-in-law, with frequent bowing, massaging the feet of the older woman and serving tea to her and her guests.
Like the local Korean positive characters, the ‘good foreigners’ had to serve as recipients and benevolent mirrors of the official political line
Despite this uncomfortable novelty, however, the new foreign personages of North Korean mass culture were expected to play quite familiar roles. Like the local Korean positive characters, the “good foreigners” had to serve as recipients and benevolent mirrors of the official political line, and more importantly, as a backstage for the all-around good guys, the North Koreans. Often, narratives which involve positive foreigners in allegorical form describe important political messages and also define good and bad models of behavior in contemporary political circumstances.
When portraying positive foreign characters who share or sympathize with the “correct” ideology of the DPRK and the Great Leader, North Korean soldiers on the cultural front do not limit themselves with the frames of particular nationality or race. Even representatives of traditional enemies, such as Japanese or Americans, can be “good foreigners” if they accept North Korean values. In Kim Chongsu’s short story ‘My Arirang’ (2002), Kim Il Sung warns his subordinates that “we should separate militarism and the Japanese people.”
VIRTUE IN BLOOM
The film describes the long process of enlightening one such Japanese supporter of North Korea. A protagonist of the film, Japanese florist Masahide Shimozawa, belongs to a family of distinguished florists. His mother, a devoted anti-fascist, spends her life creating a new sort of flower; yet when after her death her son is forced to sell the patent of the flower for financial reasons, the flower, a result of the mother’s life-long efforts, by the power of immoral commerce, had been turned into a symbol of Japanese courtesans. The son feels crushed by this sacrilege. He decides to concentrate his efforts on repaying moral debt to his mother and create his own floral masterpiece: the red begonia hybrids.
In search for bulbs of rare authentic begonia, Shimozawa hikes highlands of Andes and barely survives in an avalanche. While raising precious hybrid he endures many hardships.
After many years of hard work, the protagonist finally reaches his goal, but at the same time finds himself deeply disappointed in the life around which is ruled by greed and money. Alongside with his personal drama over his mothers’ flower, he witnesses many tragedies around him caused by the lack of money. His conductor in the Andes, a famous mountaineer, has lost his friend during a dangerous show made for money by a greedy producer. Shimozawa’s close friend, a talented opera singer, is seriously sick and unable to search for a cure due to a lack of money; his own daughter, a beautiful innocent Hanae is rejected by the rich family of her boyfriend because of the shaky financial status of her father. The protagonist is attacked by the commercial suggestion that he sell his new flower; Hanae, who is crushed by the demeaning treatment of her future in-laws, pleads him to accept these suggestions. Yet, the character hesitates.
Surely, the major message a North Korean viewer is supposed to take from the film is the superiority of the seemingly humble yet decent and equitable DPRK
Following persuasion by his closest friend, the philosopher Takeda Tosayuki, a director of the institute of juche idea, Shimozawa, somewhat unwillingly decides to visit the unknown land of the DPRK. He finds this place to be totally different from the dirty and cruel capitalist environment of Japan. Pyongyang is filled with love, social justice and content, amiable people. The botanist is touched by the wise and moral leader of this place. He decides to donate the flower to Juche Korea and give it the name Kimjongilia, in honor of the beloved leader.
Surely, the major message a North Korean viewer is supposed to take from the film is the superiority of the seemingly humble yet decent and equitable DPRK over the posh but cold and individualistic Japanese capitalism. This conclusion is stated by the outside observer, the Japanese, and his impartial position is supposed to increase the validity of this judgment. Given the timing of the film’s release, 1992 – the year of the destruction of world socialism – the message was well-timed. It fit quite well with the general mood of North Korean mass culture at the beginning of the 1990s in which leitmotif was formulated in the popular song “I love my country the best.”
The other message of the film, the universal wisdom of the North Korean leader, is common for all narrations about “good foreigners.” In a typical story or film of this type, a foreign character comes to appreciation of the moral virtue of North Korean leader after a long way of doubts and moral searching. In a short story by Kim Myong Jin, “Will” (Uiji) (2010), a personal encounter with Kim Il Sung forces an old Ecuadorian Korea enthusiast, Umberto, to discard his lifelong belief in the Sun God and come to the conclusion that the real Sun God of our age is Kim Il Sung. In Song Pyong Jun’s short story “Secret of White Snow” (Paeksolui pimil) (1988) an English biologist, John Haw, after much deliberation over the reasons for the ecological bliss of the DPRK, comes to understand that North Koreans have their own unique “sun” which allows nature to thrive in the DPRK – their leader.
The above-mentioned film The Country I Saw expresses this idea even clearer. The protagonist, the professional journalist who is known by his notoriously acidic cynicism and rebellion against all possible authorities of the Japanese society, after long watching of North Korea “through his own eyes” willingly submits to the authority of the Great Leader of our times, Kim Il Sung.
INERASABLE SINS AND REPENTANCE
At first glance, the numerous images of the Japanese as the supporters of Juche Korea seems to signify an end of the previous practice of unconditional vilification of the Japanese in the works of North Korean mass culture. However, this impression is not entirely right. Unlike the other “good foreigners,” the good Japanese characters of North Korean mass culture, no matter how good, always bear the inerasable taint on their conscientiousness related either to past colonialism or contemporary communication with Korean nationals in Japan.
In Story of a Blooming Flower Simozawa is tormented by the feeling of guilt before a teenaged Korean girl Yong Mi (Eimi in Japanese) who used to work in his garden many years ago. Due to his mindless actions this poor girl had become a cripple (Shimozawa once shouted at Yong Mi by mistake; the frightened girl ran away and was hit by the running car). Despite the fact that the repentant Shimozawa was ready to pay for her hospital charges, the Japanese doctors failed to cure the girl who soon after this accident returned to Pyongyang. Simozawa meets Yong Mi many years later in the DPRK; she is a prosperous doctor of biology, happy and totally cured by the perfect medical system of North Korea. The Japanese kneels before her in apology, and she forgives him.
The same motif of the innate guilt of the good Japanese before Koreans is reproduced in another movie, The Country I Saw. Takahashi Minoru, a progressive Japanese journalist, feels guilty because his actions in the past unwittingly resulted in the torture and persecution of a Korean patriot who dared to object false information which Takahashi mistakenly published in his newspaper. The Korean patriot preaches the Japanese about the correct principles of journalism, and Takahashi humbly takes this lesson.Another accidental victim of Takahashi is a talented Korean pottery-maker. During the colonial period the journalist once visited famous Hoeryong pottery factory, accompanied by Japanese officers. On the bottom of the beautiful pottery the journalist spots a sign in Korean (Korea, Hoeryong) which enrages the Japanese attendants. Despite Takahashi’s attempts to interfere on his behalf, the patriotic pottery maker is arrested and his works ruined.
Like in Story of a Blooming Flower, the hapless journalist meets with his victims many years after in Pyongyang, and lowers his head before them; again the Koreans mercifully forgive him.
Given the fact that for the decades the Japanese have played central role of the vicious “other” in the construction of the national identity of North Koreans, there is little surprise that North Korean propaganda is uneager to discard the idea of the innate criminality of the Japanese as a nation. Propaganda can sacrifice crooked teeth and devilish mustache but not the concept of inner guilt of the Japanese before the Koreans. This enemy has been too meticulously crafted to be instantly destroyed.
Main image: Story of a Blooming Flower still
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