Donato Totaro , email@example.com
January 4, 1999
Interview conducted by Donato Totaro, Mitch Davis, and Jason J. Slater in Montreal, Canada during the 1999 Fantasia Film Festival. Photos taken by King-Wai Chou.
How did you start your film career?
I learned my trade in Taiwan at The National Taiwan Film Arts School in the film department. I didn't take too many classes because at that time I was an assistant director on a Chinese propaganda film called Give Back My Country . Therefore, I was rarely seen in school, and also the teachers there didn't know that much about film-making (laughs).
Whilst you were studying, were there any teachers that inspired you as a film director?
No. All the teachers at the school had never made a film. I mean, how could they teach us? At that time, Taiwan was very poor, not like today, and the school had absolutely no film equipment - nothing. They didn't even have an 8mm camera to shoot on.
So you were solely being taught on film theory?
Yes, it wasn't much in the way of fun. We could only learn by watching films at the cinema and discuss them. We would buy one ticket, take our lunch boxes and watch the same film about eight times in a day. Then, in the evening, we would buy the projectionist a pack of cigarettes and ask him if we could borrow a copy of the film. He would probably lend us one reel and we would hold the film to the light and study it frame by frame. This is how we learn to edit and time film, but remember, we had no editing equipment. By the end, I could tell professors of film how many edit cuts a movie would have by sheer memory. Most editors then would count cuts by using matches! I would watch a film more than 30 times if I felt it was necessary.
I'd like to discuss the screening of Man Behind the Sun which was extremely harrowing on the big screen. Unfortunately, a small percentage of the audience found the film to be amusing, something that is hard to believe since the film is based on human experimentation - in fact, certain scenes in your film used human corpses for shock value. We are an image conscious society that has grown accustomed to seeing death and destruction every day. I wouldn't say that the audience found Man Behind the Sun to be a laugh riot, they were simply unable to deal with the film and subject matter in that way. However, if the film was shot in a more realistic documentary fashion with narration, I don't thing the audience would have laughed.
Yes. At first, I read all the documents and materials I could find on the Japanese atrocities. My first impressions were to make the film as a serious documentary, but I later found that it was impossible as the Japanese Army had destroyed most of the damning evidence. Therefore, it was impossible to make a documentary as there was no material to use [note: The Japanese scientists filmed the human experiments and the footage was shipped back to Japan for medical study. It is doubtful if this footage is still in existence]. Also, no one wanted to give me money to produce the film as they found the subject matter to be a political hot potato.
Since a minority found the film to be amusing, what has been the response to the film in sensitive territories such as China?
One of shock. When the film ends, the audience sit there in silence for a few minutes. At the premiere people collapsed in their seats. The film was screened in '97 and once again, people feinted and walked out of the cinema as if they were attending a funeral. In China, 16 people died of heart attacks in various cinemas! When they screened the film, the Chinese authorities gave no warning to the audience. Also, there was no advertising campaign - no posters, the film itself had no credits. People have no idea what they are about to see. They just walk into the cinema and see a film - they were very shocked. In China, they are not used to seeing films like Man Behind the Sun . They have been brought up on kung fu and propaganda.
You wanted to produce Man Behind the Sun by yourself. When asking would-be investors for money, how did you convince them considering the film's difficult content, especially at that time?
I didn't have to convince them. I did everything by myself as I knew nobody would want to inject money into the film. So I thought I would forget them and call my contacts in China because they invited me to make movies there in 1982 - I was the first foreigner to make films in that country. I said to investors that the film was very important to me as I didn't care if I lost money. I prepared everything and was packing my equipment so that I could film in China and Manchuria. Suddenly, a Chinese producer called me to say he was interested in helping me make the film. I tried to convince him that he'd probably lose money but I couldn't talk him out of it! I sent him the script and he read it while in America and called me back three days later. He invited me for coffee and said that he'd support the film. 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'I don't need your money. I can do the film all by myself.' The producer then tried to convince me so that he could give me money. I told him that the film was a big risk and that he could lose everything that he invested. He replied by saying he worked for a huge company and could survive if Man Behind the Sun flopped. Actually, this guy was very smart and knew what he was doing. I thought it over and decided that he could produce as I didn't really want to lose all my money. I invested 36% of the production, but my conditions as director was to tell him not to bother me on the shoot. You know, don't ask me any questions and orders. Just give me the money!
Do you think the producer was interested in the social document where the film would reveal the terrible atrocities by the Japanese, or was it simply a moneymaking venture?
I think he produced the film due to personal reasons. He grew up in Northern China and the Japanese experiments were well known in that country.
How did you go about making the film?
I started researching for the film in 1982 and had ideally finished in '86. In four years, I had completed the research, wrote the script and had got the go-ahead from the Chinese Government. It was interesting because the lower levels of the government said that we could not make such a film, and so I went right to the top and asked the general secretary who gave me the green light. The other officials were outraged saying that we could not make Man Behind the Sun in China because it would damage political relations with the Japanese. They were very worried about losing money and electronic goods from Japan as well as hurting China's relationship with her neighbouring country. There were all kind of reasons but I couldn't care less about China's friendship with Japan. I wanted to talk about the past.
That would explain why the film starts with the narration 'Friendship is friendship. History is history.'
Yes, that's right. People would come up to me and ask why the film starts with that quote - that is the sole reason. I wrote a huge report for the Chinese Government to study stating why I wanted to make the movie. I printed the report in large bold letters and a friend asked me why. I replied that the men in the government were old and could not see too clearly (laughs). At the end of my report, I state that if I was not given permission to make the film, you are all traitors to your country! They didn't know what to say to that and I said 'You guys want to talk about friendship. I want to talk about history.' Finally, they said 'Mr Mous wants to talk about the past, but we shall talk about the present.'
Once the Chinese Government agreed that you could make Man Behind the Sun , did they issue orders that had to be followed?
No. I had complete control on the film and was not told what to cut. Of course, once principal cinematography was completed, they cut a lot of footage (laughs).
On seeing how provocative the film is, did you upset any friends or family when the film was originally released?
Absolutely not. My wife was very supportive and could understand and relate to the reasons why I wanted to make Man Behind the Sun . She is an anthropologist who used to teach at the Hong Kong university but is now based in New York.
If the majority of historic footage was lost and destroyed after the fall of Japan in World War 2, how was it possible to base a film on fact and not fiction?
Fortunately I was able to gain access to documents from Russia. Once the Japanese had fled Camp 731 and the surrounding area, the Russian Army captured some of its members. They were sent to trial and the information gained from court was supplied for the film. Also, we found valuable material from Japan and the National Archive in America. At the time, I wasn't an American citizen and the archive refused to let me see the information they had on Camp 731. Thankfully, my wife is an American citizen and was able to call the archive and let me read what they had. At the time, the documents were classed as top secret as they had not been released to the public for over 40 years. I then travelled to Manchuria so that I could interview the local people. Of course, no one there knows exact details of the camp. All they could remember were the Japanese troops, some shootings, bodies and the runway outside the camp that is reconstructed in the film. Once the Russian Army were approaching, the Japanese were in a hurry to leave as soon as possible. All remaining prisoners in the camp were killed and experimentation bodies destroyed. In their panic, a human corpse was accidentally left behind and the locals could see what had happened to this person. But no one had an idea what really happened in Camp 731.
Why did the American Intelligence keep the Camp 731 atrocities secret from the public? At the end of the film, the credits mention that the Japanese knowledge on germ warfare based on the human experiments of Camp 731 were used by the Americans during the Korean War.
Yes, that is why. After the war, the American's captured General Isshi (the man behind Camp 731) but the Russians were after him too. You see, everyone wanted to get their hands on the material and data that the Japanese had gained through human experimentation. The Russians asked the Americans if they knew where Isshi was hiding. Naturally, the Americans had the general and told the Russians that they were still actively looking for Isshi. Actually, Isshi was escorted by the British to Maryland in the US where he worked in a bacteriological and chemical weapons laboratory. Isshi worked for two years so that the Americans could perfect their biological warfare and was granted his freedom. During the outbreak of the Korean War, the Americans sent Isshi to Korea. However, there is no proof that he helped the Americans in their biological campaign, but Isshi was in Korea for sure, as I have seen the archive documents. After the Korean War, chemical bombs were found used by the United Nations and I am sure that Isshi was involved. Unfortunately, I couldn't state the obvious on the film's credits as the whole world would sue me (laughs).
What was the Japanese reaction to Man Behind the Sun ? Surely the film was never released in Japan?
The Japanese actually bought the copyright for their territory and screened the film only once. The distributors received a phone call from a right-wing party saying that if they played the film one more time, we will burn down all your cinemas. When I was there in Tokyo, they said to me that I had to leave Japan immediately or I would be shot! After that, I stayed with friends. I screened Man Behind the Sun for students in the Tokyo university. All the students at the cinema understood what they were about to see. When the film had finished, certain students cried, but most were completely shocked and sat there in silence. Five minutes later, people came up to me and said that the facts behind the film could not be true. Others said that the Japanese would never do something like that and another country must have been behind the human experiments. All the students were in their 20s. On a second screening, I invited old members of Camp 731 to come along and see the film at the university with the students present. After the film, one of the old guys stood on stage and said that Man Behind the Sun was the truth and he was there during the war as a Japanese soldier. He then said that they did more terrible things to people than the film documented.
How did the old members of Camp 731 react to you as director?
I met several members of Camp 731 who were employed in the Youth Corps who can be seen in the film as young boys. Of course, they are old now and fully regret what they did and say that Japan went way too far. I couldn't personally meet the generals who survived as they are now top people in the government. The Japanese press interviewed them and most had nothing to say or were not sorry as to what had happened in Camp 731. A general one rank lower than Isshi was interviewed and asked if he was involved in the Japanese human experimentation programme. He replied that he was fully aware of what was happening and asked the press as to what was wrong with the experiments.
What was wrong with it?!
He thought that they could have gone further with the experiments. His basic argument was that it was war. He was then asked that even during war, civilians deserve to be treated with fair and just conditions. His reply was that the press were young, expected the nice things in life and had not been involved in a conflict such as World War 2. Quite simply, war is terrible and desperate as seen in Man Behind the Sun . They had no regret for the atrocities at all. For some reason, the higher levels of authority in Japanese culture will not apologise for what they did during the Second World War. The Japanese excuse for invading China was that they were liberating them from the white man.
Recently, the Japanese Emperor visited England. During a drive through the capital, old soldiers who were held as prisoners by the Japanese made sure that the Emperor could see them. These veterans were badly treated and starved of food by the Japanese during the terrible construction of railway track in Burma. As the Emperor passed in his car, the soldiers turned their backs on him in disgust. All they want is an official apology and compensation by the Japanese government for what they endured by their captives.
In Germany, it's a different case as their government is not the same as it was at the end of the war. A new generation with new opinions now run Germany and have officially apologised for the war and the crimes against the Jews who were gassed and experimented upon in the concentration camps. They say 'Sorry, we know Germany did wrong but what can we do?' In Japan, they still have the same government with politicians who had something to do with the war. These people don't want to apologise for what Japan did. Also, every generation in Japan is taught in school that the dreadful atrocities in Camp 731 never took place and are told not to believe otherwise. This is why the young Japanese who saw Man Behind the Sun in the university didn't know a thing about their past. This is so sad and is a problem. If a country does something that it regrets, they should apologise and make sure that it never happens again.
Man Behind the Sun is an extremely unpleasant and graphic film. What else happened during the human experimentation that you didn't shoot for the film?
The Japanese cut unborn babies out of women who were still alive and used the foetus for experiments. I also saw specimens of female virgin genitalia that had been cut out of women and preserved. In China, you can see this. I believe that the Japanese experiments in Camp 731 got out of control and had nothing to do with scientific research. I have read books that state that victims were cut open for examination without anaesthetic. However, I don't think that can be true as the doctors could not work on a fully conscious human as they would be moving. I believe that the victims were put to sleep and then cut up. The Japanese did this to a lot of people in Camp 731.
There is a scene in the film where the young boys of the Youth Corps beat their master with large wooden clubs. Did such an event take place in Camp 731? Did you include the scene as to make the younger Japanese appear more human and feel pity towards the 'maruta'.
No, that particular sequence was fiction. I honestly think that those children suffered from what they saw in the camp. I believe that they were innocent and I filmed that scene as to say that they were innocent of the crimes. I really think it's true as it is the old men of the Youth Corps who apologise for Camp 731, not the military brass! These old men said that before they left Japan for Manchuria, they had no idea what was in store for them. They were promised good food which was an obvious attraction as basic luxuries were becoming rare in Japan towards the war's end. All the children in the film are Koreans who live in China. I used these children because their faces bare the same similarities to that of a Chinese boy of the 40s - the Chinese boy's face of the 90s has evolved and looks different.
Were any of the children on set subjected to any of the horrors that we see in Man Behind the Sun ? As actors, were they sheltered from watching scenes using real human corpses, entrails, body parts and blood.
Yes, sometimes they had to witness these scenes. The children and the film crew took such sequences very seriously. The majority of the cast were non-actors with a few amateurs and a select stage actors who took the lead roles. I decided to cast these people as I didn't want to have star names in the movie. The producer pleaded with me to have a big Hong Kong actor such as Chow-Yun Fat and give the film an identity.
How did you shoot the decompression chamber scene where the victim's anus and internal organs explode?
At that time in China, we didn't have access to fancy special effects which was a big problem when I wanted to make Man Behind the Sun . We tried to shoot the decompression chamber scene in three days. All the film crew attempted various special effects in the studio until we found success. We used two people, one actor would 'die', fall to the floor and the overhead camera would zoom out of focus. The position of the first actor was marked on the floor. Then, we zoomed back to another actor who played one of Isshi's top men, one of the larger guys who was shot in the head at the end of the film. It didn't matter who played this scene as you couldn't see their face (laughs). Finally, we brushed his body with baby oil so that it would appear sweaty.
So how did you achieve the sickening special effect where his entrails spew forth from the man's anus? It is widely believed that this was a real human cadaver.
We dug a hole beneath the actor's torso and tried to pump the animal entrails through the pipe so that it would appear realistic. But no pump would do the job so we found a big guy who was willing to blow down this pipe (laughs). It was a very difficult special effect to film considering it took three days to construct.
For years, stories have been circulating that the autopsy of the mute boy in certain close-up shots was a human corpse. If so, was the corpse a body of a small child?
That particular scene consists of five different parts and took two months to construct. Yes, it's true, we used a real corpse of a young boy. We asked the police at a nearby station if they knew of a boy who had died of an accident or fatal disease. We waited for two months and we had no news from the police. Then one day, the police called me and said that they had a body. They said that if I wanted the body of the boy, we had to collect it in less than an hour. I asked why they had imposed a one hour deadline and they said that doctors were going to prepare an autopsy and see what caused this boy to die. Shooting on Man Behind the Sun was stopped and I went to see the parents of the dead child. I explained to them that I needed to film the police autopsy and what the film was about. The parents replied that although their son was dead, they were happy to have him cut apart in the film as it was their way of doing something positive for the Chinese people.
How old was the boy and what did he actually die from?
I don't know. We shot that scene and we ran back to the studio without asking questions. We received permission from the police and asked the doctors to wear the actor's costumes during the autopsy. You can see from the footage in the film that the doctors were professionals, it wasn't a Mickey Mouse autopsy. They worked fast and cut clean.
The body that is used in the autopsy bares an uncanny resemblance to the boy actor.
Not only was the body the same age as the actor, it was the same size, build and even had the same haircut. We didn't cut the hair. Everything was just perfect for us. It was strange to film this scene because the corpse looked like the actor. It was as if it was the same person. Of course, we didn't use the footage were the boy's face is cut open and pulled down - that would have been way too much!
It's a difficult scene to take because the autopsy footage is edited with an actor whose face appears very peaceful.
Yes, we filmed shots of the boy's face splattered with blood and then cut to the doctors working on the corpse.
I guess for the police autopsy sequence the film crew was minimal.
There was a film crew of four: make-up, the cameraman and his assistant and myself.