TOKYO — When Japanese troops conquered the then-capital of China in 1937, historians agree they slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians in an orgy of violence known since then as the Rape of Nanking.
A Japanese nationalist filmmaker announced on Wednesday he is working on a documentary with a very different message: the massacre never happened.
The film, to be called “The Truth about Nanking” and completed in August, will be based on testimony from Japanese veterans, archival footage and documents that proponents say prove accounts of the killing are nothing more than Chinese propaganda.
“This will be our first effort to correct the errors of history through a film,” director Satoru Mizushima said at a Tokyo hotel, joined by a group of conservative lawmakers and academics who support the project.
Mizushima, president of a rightwing Internet broadcaster “Channel Sakura,” said he hoped to enter the film in international festivals late in the year. He is aiming to raise about 300 million yen (US$2.47 million; €1.89 million) for the effort.
The film is part of a gathering wave in Japan of “massacre denial” projects, mostly books, that attempt to debunk a slaughter that historians say killed at least 150,000 civilians. China says the death toll was as many as 300,000.
The film was certain to rile audiences in China, and opponents say it would only cause embarrassment for Japan.
“They say the film will transmit the truth about Nanking, but they will be only spreading shame for Japan,” said Shinichiro Kumagai, a civil activist studying the massacre in Nanjing — the current name of the city — and supporting Chinese war victims.
“The move only reveals their inability to face Japan’s wartime past by looking the other way,” Kumagai said.
The film is based on the work of Japanese historian Shudo Higashinakano, whose work included two books in the late 1990s claiming the massacre was a hoax.
A Chinese court last year awarded a Nanjing Massacre survivor 1.6 million yuan (US$200,000; €156,100) in compensation after ruling against Higashinakano and another historian for claiming she fabricated her account of the atrocity.
The massacre, brought to a worldwide audience in English by Iris Chang’s book, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” is widely seen as a gruesome symbol of Japan’s bloody conquest of East Asia in most of the first half of the 1900s.
The massacre is a cause celebre of Japan’s increasingly active nationalist groups, which are pushing to cull references to it in public school textbooks and discredit accounts of the slaughter.
Japan’s rightists argue Nanking’s population was too small to have suffered such a huge massacre, and they claim doctored photographs and exaggerated witness accounts have created the false image of Japanese soldiers as craven and bloodthirsty.
Wednesday’s announcement coincides with this week’s showing of documentary “Nanking,” a study of the brutal Japanese occupation of the city, at Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Mizushima said his project was aimed at countering that film, among others planned this year marking the 70th anniversary of the disgraced past.
“Keeping silence to a film like this would allow anti-Japan propaganda to spread around the world as universal knowledge,” he said, adding that such works contribute to anti-Japanese sentiment by portraying his countrymen as “brutal barbarians.”