Staged Public

A Japanese Film on the Lytton Commission in 1932

The website is currently under construction; please do not cite without permission of the authors.

In the run-up towards the Second World War in Asia, perhaps one of the most striking episodes is the Sino-Japanese dispute over Manchuria. In September 1931 bilateral tensions between China and Japan escalated in what became known as the Manchuarian Incident, representing a major challenge for those trying to manage the international system and strive for global peace. In an attempt to investigate the situation, the League of Nations sent the so-called Lytton Commission to Manchuaria early in 1932.

This website presents an introduction to the efforts of the League of Nations to investigate in the Sino-Japanese conflict about Manchuria. Our starting point is a Japanese silent propaganda film from the early 1930s about the work of the so-called Lytton Commission of the League of Nations, which visualises events of international politics for a global public.

Students of Heidelberg University’s History Department and scholars of the Cluster Asia-Europe have examined this film by using a film annotations database (originally developed and used for the pad.ma project and has in the meantime been updated to its succesor pan.do/ra). Exploring the potential of new technological tools, our project seeks to combine established models of historical interpretation with new opportunities provided by digital humanities and is committed to collaborative research.

While there have been several film versions of nowadays varying quality of preservation and accessibility, our focus is on one version entitled Investigation of the Lord Lytton Mission into the Manchurian Incident, which seems to have been designed for an international audience.

This film raises numerous questions: How is the situation in Manchuria portrayed? What is the film's attitude towards the Commission? Did Japanese propaganda try to instrumentalise the Lytton Commission to make it part of a founding myth of the puppet state of Manchukuo? And what new dimensions does including the film into a historical analysis offer?

In the pursuit to shed light on this issue, we analyse how the film portrays the situation in Manchuria and the work of the Commission, what it tries to achieve and therefore what the implications are.

In doing so, we face a number of challenges. Methodologically we have to incorporate the specific demands of analysing a film into a broader historical analysis. Regarding perspective we are aware that we are dealing with a number of frictional topics that cannot easily, if at all, be woven into a single, unambiguous narrative. For instance, we argue that the League of Nations was being used for Japanese propaganda purposes, but at the same time it had power of its own, which it used in ambivalent ways. Exposing the film as a piece of propaganda does not automatically result in a positive narrative about the League. We do not aim to neaten or gloss over any ambiguities, contrasts or contradictions but offer a juxtaposition of data, hypotheses and perspectives in the hope that they prove useful and interesting to our readers.

For an annotated version of the film please visit the Cluster's installation of the video annotation database