The Bootleg Files: Our Job in Japan

BOOTLEG FILES 766: “Our Job in Japan” (1946 U.S. Army propaganda film.).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube and Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In collections of U.S. World War II military films.

No copyright was ever filed on this film, so it can be duped endlessly.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A digital restoration for commercial home entertainment release is unlikely.

One of the most bizarre news stories of this year involved the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue the publication of six books by the beloved children’s author due to racially insensitive illustrations of Africans and Asians. The books in question were minor additions to the author’s canon and were never adapted into films or television productions, but for many people the idea that a Dr. Seuss book would be taken off the shelves due to political correctness was the epitome of cancel culture run amok.

However, this was hardly the first time Dr. Seuss was the victim of cancel culture. Back at the World War II when the author was Capt. Theodor S. Geisel in the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, he wrote a screenplay for a film that was nearly cancelled by no less a figure than Gen. Douglas MacArthur because it was perceived as being too sympathetic to the Japanese.

“Our Job in Japan” was a short documentary designed to be seen by U.S. troops heading to Japan as part of the postwar occupation. Prior to World War II, relatively few Americans had any understanding of Japanese culture – and, of course, during the war even less were interested in pursuing a more holistic consideration of Japan. Thus, the film needed to indoctrinate American occupation forces into understanding the people who were previously their enemy.

“Our Job in Japan” opens with footage of the Japanese surrender to Allied forces aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in September 1945. The film’s narrator bluntly states the Americans could achieve peace “if we could solve the problem of 70 million Japanese people.” From here, the film provides a skein of footage from Japanese newsreels that were seized by the American forces upon their arrival in the country. This footage, which was never seen by Americans during wartime, offered a rare glimpse of life in Japan during the conflict years.

The difficulty before the occupying forces, it seems, is understanding what they should do with the former soldiers and the families that supported them during the war – especially when they blindly followed their leaders’ orders to start a war that was “so disgusting, so revolting, so obscene that it turned the stomach of the entire civilized world.” These words were framed by images of children slain by the Japanese during their occupations of Asian nations.

The challenge, the viewer is told, exists “inside the brain in the Japanese head” – which leads to a brief animated sequence showing disembodied brains. This leads to a montage of Japanese babies and younger children, and the narrator’s observation that these youngsters were not born harboring evil ideas. “The Japanese brain, like our brain, can learn what it is taught.”

Alas, the Japanese brain was stifled by living in “an old, backward superstitious country” and corrupted by military leaders who were “smart enough to do tricks with the Japanese brain,” the narrator insists. The key to their strategy, the narrator adds, was the militarists’ use of the Shinto religion, which is dismissed as “out of date, harmless” – but a perfect vehicle for warlord propaganda.

“They filled up the Shinto religion with hokum and used it to sell Japanese people war,” the narrator said, adding that the warlords played up “the bloody fairy-tales and pagan superstitions” while excavating the “mumbo-jumbo” from “Japan’s murky past.” The result, the narrator intones, was the Japanese were told they could “rule like gods over all of the other peoples of the Earth.”

Still, the narrator states, the occupiers will make sure World War II will be Japan’s last war because the nation’s war machine will be dismantled. But it will be up the Japanese, the viewer is told, to recognize the errors of the previous thinking while the occupying force’s job is to ensure they do it.

At this point, another narrator’s voice is heard and he talks about how American soldiers are making in-roads with the Japanese, particularly with children. He highlights how the U.S. Army believes in giving “a fair break for everyone regardless of race or creed or color.” (That might have come as a surprise to the servicemembers forced to sit in the back of the bus or drink from a separate water fountain.) Then, the first narrator comes back to state, “We’re sticking around until they’ve shown us – convinced us – that they’ve got themselves under control.” The film closes with a grisly montage of dead American fighters floating in the water and the narrator reminds the viewer that “we’re not the type of people who forget things overnight … we’ve had enough of the bloody, barbaric business to last us from here on in.”

In retrospect, it is easy to see why MacArthur was apoplectic over “Our Job in Japan.” Geisel’s script put the entire blame for the war on the nation’s military leaders and gave the impression that the Japanese people were duped into going into a vicious war by a corrupted version of Shintoism. The general tried to prevent the film from being screened, but strangely his authority was not strong enough to censor “Our Job in Japan.”

In fact, the 17-minute “Our Job in Japan” would later be expanded upon to become the 48-minute 1947 release “Design for Death.” Geisel and Elmo Williams, who edited “Our Job in Japan,” worked on the longer film with director Richard Fleischer – RKO Pictures put the film in theaters and it won the Academy Award as Best Documentary. “Design for Death” was out of circulation for so many years that Geisel wondered if the film was lost – it still survives, but is not in commercial circulation.

“Our Job in Japan,” as with other U.S. military films made during World War II, were never copyright protected. As a result, the film has been duped endlessly. Some not-pristine versions can be found on YouTube and Internet Archive, offering a blurry reminder of what Dr. Seuss was making before he was putting a cat in a hat and saving Christmas from the Grinch.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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