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Film / Men Behind the Sun

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One of the most disturbing films to ever come out of Eastern Asia.

Released in 1988, Men Behind the Sun (Hei tai yang 731, The Black Sun Unit 731 in native Hong Kong) is a film about the Imperial Japanese Army's Unit 731, which during World War II conducted medical research and biological/chemical weapon experiments on captive human subjects. The film details many of the experiments carried out by the unit, and also follows a group of recruits to the unit's Youth Corps.

Men Behind the Sun is supposed to be a rather horrifyingly accurate depiction of Unit 731's activities in real life. However, the director based it on a fictional novel serialized in a Japanese Communist Party newspaper of questionable quality, to which can be traced the origins of many dubious facts regarding the Unit, as well as confusing the activities of Unit 100 with Unit 731. Whether the film is a cheap and horrific Exploitation Film or a valid commentary on the behavior of the Imperial Japanese Army is debated. Either way, it's guaranteed to utterly ruin your day.

This film provides examples of:

  • Atrocity Montage: Pretty much the entire film. In fact, this film would arguably make Call of Duty: World at War look like the Care Bears by comparison.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Just to prove a point about the efficacy of his bio-weapons program, Ishii throws a live cat into a chamber full of rats and watches them kill each other, the rats overwhelming and devouring the cat after several minutes of struggling. A dove is also killed alongside a mother and child during a chemical weapons experiment and the Unit's lab rats are all set on fire at the end of the film.
  • Based on a True Story: Most or all of the experiments depicted actually took place, as did most of the historical background.
  • Big Bad: Dr. Shiro Ishii, Lieutenant General of Unit 731.
  • Body Horror: The film features electrocutions, bloody beatings, dismemberment, rotting corpses, frozen limbs being broken off, severe frostbite, gassings, disembowelment, burning corpses, and to top it all off an autopsy on a real child's cadaver.
  • Child Soldiers: The Youth Corps members serve as assistants to the brutal researchers and doctors, since much of Japan's manpower has been sent off to all the various fronts of World War Two.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: One of the marutas scrawls a condemnation of his captors on the wall of his cell in his own blood when they're all gassed to death.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Far too many to count, but the guy in the pressure chamber is a standout example.
  • Cyanide Pill: In a bottle this time, given to all the important personnel to use if they were captured.
  • Dehumanization: The guards and scientists refer to the inmates as marutas, which translates as logs from Japanese.
  • The Dead Have Names: The film lists the name of every victim that's known to have one, standing in sharp contrast to Unit 731 calling all test subjects marutas (logs).
  • Deadly Gas: One of Unit 731's specialties, alongside bio-weapons.
  • Downer Ending: After Japan is defeated, Ishii orders the prisoners gassed and the experiments destroyed. He then swears the rest of the unit to secrecy under pain of death. Ishii is captured by the Americans, and works for them, introducing biological weapons to The Korean War. While Ishii dies free, the rest of Unit 731 live lives of drudgery due to their education not being acknowledged by society.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: A survivor of Unit 731's atrocities attempts to don a Japanese soldier's uniform to escape. It fails, and he attempts to kill Ishii in his last moments.
  • Driven to Suicide: While Ishii is narrowly talked out of ordering the entire Unit to commit mass suicide, the wife of one of the soldiers does take her own life.
  • Evil Is Hammy: Shiro Ishii, especially when he demonstrates his idea for a new bacterial bomb.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: In a particularly disturbing example, Ishii attempting to physically and sexually abuse a geisha causes a ceramic pot to break, leading him to realize that ceramic bombs could be used to distribute fleas carrying deadly pathogens.
  • Exploitation Film: Unintentional, but is regarded as such by some.
  • Faking the Dead: A lone survivor of the Unit's atrocities plays dead to avoid detection, until donning a disguise later. See Dressing as the Enemy.
  • Fiery Cover Up: Quite literally; Ishii orders all documents, building, and test subjects to be destroyed, and seriously contemplates ordering the entire Unit the commit suicide alongside their families to cover-up their crimes.
  • For the Evulz: Despite chastising his subordinates for killing too many marutas since they're needed for bio-weapons testing, Ishii authorizes many pointlessly cruel experiments that seem to have been conceived purely as ways to kill and torture people in creative ways.
  • For Science!: War or not, this was the justification for many researchers.
  • Foreshadowing: In the beginning of the film, a mother's three month old baby is buried in the snow out of sheer sadism and gets left to die. Later on the mother becomes the subject of an experiment to show the effects of severe hypothermia.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: Many soldiers wear these when dealing with the prisoners or hazardous materials.
  • Gorn: Of all kinds, including a real child's cadaver cut open on film.
  • Great Escape: Subverted. The marutas try several times to try and escape, to no avail. One teenager fakes his death and dresses as a Japanese soldier is built up to be a Sole Survivor, but he's discovered and killed.
  • Harmless Freezing: Averted. One woman's arms are slowly frozen by having cold water poured over them while outside in freezing temperatures only to have them soaked in warm water, allowing the skin to be pulled right off down to the bone.
    • Another man had his arms put in a flash freeze chamber and had his frozen fingers beaten off with a pipe.
  • Hazmat Suit: Worn by almost everyone while around the lab and the many hazardous materials and diseases they were working on.
  • Hell Hole Prison: The inmates inside the facility were kept alive and healthy enough to be beaten, poisoned, infected, blown up, shot, frozen, burned, or subjected to whatever other horrors the researchers came up with.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Almost unbelievably, the actual crimes of Unit 731 were more gruesome and torturous than were actually presented in the film, and included actions such as rape, deliberately infecting people with syphilis, and testing flamethrowers on live test subjects. The field tests of Unit 731's bio-weapons, which killed up to half a million Chinese civilians, are also left out of the film.
  • It Gets Easier: The movie skates between this trope and It Never Gets Any Easier. Sadistic, indifferent, or ultra-nationalistic doctors and guards have a much easier time coping with the horrors committed in Unit 731 than new arrivals.
  • Karma Houdini: As the film points out, Ishii and most of his men escaped judgment after the war.
  • Kick the Dog: Every single experiment.
  • Kill It with Fire: Unit 731's rat colony is disposed of with fire at the end. The live rats were actually set on fire for this scene.
  • Leave No Survivors: When Japan surrenders and Unit 731 is ordered to disband they kill all the marutas in the prison.
  • Life/Death Juxtaposition: In the film's climax, a wife of one of the Unit's members goes into labor and gives birth while the last surviving maruta is being killed. Just to add emphasis on this point, the mother commits suicide via cyanide capsule after delivering her child.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: At one point, the cadets stationed at Unit-731 assemble a large amount of artillery shells in the middle of a field, around a large number of marutas. The aftermath of the experiment shows what happens to anyone caught in the middle of an artillery barrage.
  • Mad Doctor: All the medical professionals there due to the sheer level of atrocities they commit in the name of research.
  • Mad Scientist: The ultimate goal of Unit 731 and Ishii was to create a version of the Bubonic Plague that could turn the tide of the war. Of course things quickly give away to just torturing people under the guise of research.
  • Medical Horror: The Movie.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Morally Ambiguous is putting it lightly since the scientists are all more or less glorified Torture Technicians.
  • Motive Decay: The scientists goals are ostensibly to weaponinze an improved form of the bubonic plague but, unless freezing people’s arms to peel their skin off or putting people in pressure chambers somehow have a connection to the Plague, things quickly turn into torturing people For Science!.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The movie draws parallels between the crimes of Unit 731 and the Holocaust using imagery of detainees arriving in cattle cars, inmates getting gassed and machine-gunned, and large, constantly burning crematoria. Justified, since this takes place during World War II, and Japan was a part of the Axis Powers.
  • Plaguemaster: Shiro Ishii and his disciples are focused most on creating a bio-weapon that will ensure Japan's dominance in the world. To this end they kill thousands testing different viruses and end up creating the strain of Black Death that's sixty times stronger than the original.
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: Invoked word-for-word by a mother who was being locked in a gas chamber with her daughter.
  • Prison Riot: The marutas stage two rebellions, since the war is drawing to a close on terms unfavorable to Japan. Both attempts fail to stop the atrocities, but several Japanese soldiers are killed and Ishii's bio-weapons research is critically delayed.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: When Ishii discovers the officer who attempted to get him dismissed from Unit 731, he ensures that the man is sent to fight in the southern front against US soldiers, almost certainly condemning the man to die.
  • Rule of Symbolism: One scene at the end in which someone attacks Ishii and the other 731 leaders for their crimes. The attacker is stabbed with a flag pole. This unlikely weapon is used primarily so that we can see the Japanese flag soiled with blood.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: On several levels. Ishii's bioweapons research is made moot since the war ends with Japan defeated before he can deploy his pathogens in force. The marutas are all killed off, the last one trying and failing to kill Ishii himself. The epilogue notes Ishii never faces prosecution for his crimes and gets to supervise the usage of bioweapons in the Korean War.
  • Slow Clap: When Ishii demonstrates his low-temperature bacterial bomb, although it quickly turns into loud applause.
  • The Sociopath: Dr. Shiro Ishii, who has wormed his way back into commanding Unit 731 despite being demoted for corruption prior. After taking command, he turns the unit into a nightmarish group of torturers, conducting medical experiments for his own advancement. And it is solely for his own advancement, as his sending subordinates to die because they know of his prior corruption shows.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: Subverted as the child willingly got on the table because he was completely clueless to what they were going to do. Eventually he was knocked out before the surgery began so he wasn't able to resist.
  • The Speechless: A mute child serves as an excellent dog for kicking.
  • Together in Death: The gas chamber experiment featuring a mother begging for her child not to be harmed as they're both gassed to death.
  • Torture Technician: The scientists are all this, just under the guise of research.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: A horrified orderly dashes out of a lab and vomits in horror and disgust. The man's friend tells Ishii he's been doing this for a month straight and hasn't gotten used to their hellish working conditions yet.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Several are killed brutally over the course of the film (as a matter of fact, the first onscreen death is a three month old that's buried in snow). The soldiers seem to go out of their way to do it.