Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tombo Times: Richard Sorge

And-Yet- another- Tombo- Times- article.

Back in July I proposed doing an article about the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. It was at the same time I wrote this blog post, and the issue was then weighing heavily on my mind.

It was of course an issue that had nothing to do with Japan (at least not directly.) In the past I had gotten away with Tombo Times articles that were completely unrelated to Japan, and I was hoping this one would also slip through, but for the magazine is apparently under stricter control now, and the editor couldn't get the article approved by the powers that be.

(For better or for worse, after a couple weeks in July the issue of civilian deaths in Iraq was no longer on the front of my mind and is reduced to floating around in the back of my mind with everything else and only being thought about occassionally. It's something I occassionally feel guilty about for not thinking about more, but if you thought all the time about these things, you'd be paralyzed with inaction and the sense of your own impotence. I guess I'm not the first liberal who finds it easier to blog about the problems of the world than actually do anything about them).

Anyway, that option failing, I once again decided to turn to the archives in this blog to see if there was anything of interest I could dig up and canabalize for an article. And I remembered a review I did a couple years back on the Japanese movie "Spy Sorge". I asked to start a feature called "History Corner" and do an article both on Richard Sorge the man, and his portrayal in Japanese pop culture. (I did all this way back in August, but submissions to the Tombo Times were back up and it didn't appear in print until just now).

The story of Richard Sorge is even more interesting than my little article indicates, and there was definately the temptation to make it much longer and go into much more detail. But I held back, especially because I was doing most of my research on the internet, and I figured there was no point in me simply reprinting what anyone could look up on the internet for themselves. But if you're a fellow history geek, consider this your invitation to go to your favorite internet search engine and find out more about this story.

In preperation for this article I re-rented the Japanese movie "Spy Sorge" and watched it a couple more times. Shoko, who usually stays clear of my various geek-related interests, surprisingly got quite sucked into the story and continued reading up on it on her own. Since there is a lot more infomation on Richard Sorge in Japanese than in English, it wasn't long before she knew more than I did, and some of the info in this article comes from Shoko.

(It's always nice to have similar interests. Unfortunately I found myself often being compared to Richard Sorge by Shoko, and all the great things he did with his life being stacked up against me and my struggle to get out of bed and out the door everyday. Needless to say I didn't fair well in the comparison).

But enough set up. Without further introduction, here is the article (which can also be found on-line, complete with the rest of the Tombo Times articles, here)

History Corner: Richard Sorge

Who was the greatest spy of all time? Most historians will answer Richard Sorge. He has been called the world’s greatest spy by such diverse people as Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Carl Bernstein, and Douglas MacArthur. British writer Frederick Forsyth has said: "The spies in history who can say from their graves, the information I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group."

Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy disguised as a Nazi party member in Japan from 1933 until he was caught and executed in 1944. In addition to gaining information from the German embassy in Japan, Sorge was also the head of a small spy ring of sympathetic Japanese leftists.

From his post in the German embassy Sorge was able to send the Soviet Union information about the Anti-Comintern Pact, the German-Japanese Pact and even warned of the Pearl Harbor attack. But his biggest scoop was when he learned in advance of Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union. Sorge sent this information to Moscow, but unfortunately Stalin chose not to believe it, and the advance warning was in vain.

However as the war progressed, Sorge was able to send information to Moscow indicating that Japan did not plan to invade the Soviet Union. This allowed the Soviet Union to take most of their troops away from the Eastern boarder and concentrate everything against Hitler. It has been argued that this one piece of information by Richard Sorge changed the whole course of the war and prevented a Nazi victory in Europe.

Sorge was eventually captured by the Japanese secret police, tortured, and executed on November 7, 1944.

Richard Sorge in Japanese Pop Culture

Despite the fact that Richard Sorge was a spy against Japan, he is often treated sympathetically in Japanese media. Even Mitsuda Yoshikawa, the chief prosecutor who obtained Sorge’s death sentence, remarked, “In my whole life, I have never met anyone as great as he was.”  Sorge’s Japanese mistress Hanako Ishii wrote a book about her relationship with Sorge in an effort to preserve his human side and demystify Sorge’s larger than life legend. She called the book “Ningen Sorge”.

While I was writing this article, a Japanese friend cautioned me that Richard Sorge is far from a household name in present-day Japan, and most Japanese people don’t even know who he is. However on the internet there is a large community of amateur Japanese Sorge historians. Many detailed Japanese web pages have been produced on Sorge and his spy ring, and one amateur Japanese web historian even talks about the dangers of “Sorge byo” (Sorge fever), the disease in which the sufferer becomes more and more obsessed with the story behind Richard Sorge and the greatest act of espionage history.

Richard Sorge and his Japanese spy ring also pops up from time to time in Japanese fiction.

The best example of this is Tezuka Osamu’s story “Adolf” which deals with the world of espionage during World War II. One of the sub-plots of the story concerns the son of a Japanese officer who disapproves of the war, and eventually becomes involved in Sorge’s spy ring. Tezuka Osamu is by far the most famous manga artist in Japan, so this story should be available at almost any bookstore. “Adolf” is also available in English translation.

In 1961 a French movie “Who are you Mr. Sorge” was filmed in collaboration with Japan. Supposedly it was very popular, but I’ve never been able to find a copy at my video store.

More recently in 2003 the Japanese film “Spy Sorge” was released. And this film should be readily avaible at any decent sized video rental shop in Japan.

The film follows the story of both Richard Sorge and also his informant Hotsumi Ozaki, who worked as a journalist at the Asahi Shinbun and later as a member of the prime minister’s inner circle. Hotsumi Ozaki was the only Japanese person to be hanged for treason during the war.

The heavy use of English in this film (even when portraying Germans or Russians) indicates the producers were probably hoping for an international release. Instead the film opened to poor reviews in Japan, and a botched marketing campaign further added to the film’s domestic box office failure, and it never got a wide foreign release.

Admittedly some of the acting in this film (particularly by the foreign actors) is a bit bad. And because the film keeps doubling back between the story of Ozaki and Sorge, it was accused of losing its narrative forward momentum. But I actually enjoyed it. The film is painstakingly historically accurate, and has a fascinating story to tell.

I’ve not had much luck finding a subtitled version of this film, but all the parts containing foreign actors are in English, so for 75% of the film the language barrier is no issue. (As for the other 25%, just consider it more Japanese practice).

Video Version


moorlag-jejej said...

since i was 10 years of age spies have had my interest; today at 60 years of age i accidently saw a ( part) japanese movie on the russia tv about the same person and his spy ring. i would be interested in getting the fiml on dvd or otherwise; who can help me to saisfy my boyish hunger for spy stories and in thsi case richard, my old time friend.

ジョエル said...

someone who knows their way around the internet might be able to answer this better than me, but my first thought is just to order it off Amazon. Japanese site here. Hope this helps

Anonymous said...

Sorge has never been tortured by the Japanese after his capture.

Anonymous said...

i saw "Who are you Richard Sorge" in san jose, costa rica in the summer of 1961 and fell in love with the
character. like others who have posted here, i've
always liked spy stories, the more convoluted and
preposterous, the better. how could i possible get
a DVD of this movie which was originally made in
french, "qui est vous richard sorge?" strange what
memory does. i could have sworn i heard the movie
in german with spanish sub-titles all those years ago,
rather than in it's original french. has anyone here every seen the film?