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The X-Files – 731 (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

731 is a lot more substantial than Nisei.

This is most likely due to the episode’s production history. Frank Spotnitz had pitched the episode that would become 731 as a single standalone episode, but the production team discovered that the show was too large to fill a single forty-five minute block. So the show was extended into a two-parter. Given that Spotnitz was the credited writer on 731, it would seem that the second part retained most of the substance.

It's in the eye of the beholder...

It’s in the eye of the beholder…

This makes a great deal of sense, given that the two-parter eschews the stand format of a two-part X-Files episodes, featuring a frantic run-around in the first forty-five minutes and a tighter more intimate story in the second. Coupled with the fact that the episode is more about working through what we already know instead of heaping more information on top, and the two-parter seems a lot more substantial than most of the series’ big mythology shows.

Thoughtful, introspective, and unnerving, 731 is perhaps the highpoint of the show’s entire nine-season conspiracy arc.

Where the bodies are buried...

Where the bodies are buried…

It is worth pausing to talk about the Japanese focus of these two episodes. Paper Clip was named for the infamous operation that offered German scientists amnesty in the wake of the Holocaust, as part of the United States’ attempts to secure its global position after the dust settled. The retired Nazi scientist featured in Paper Clip, Victor Klemper, was an obvious stand-in for the real-life scientist Hubertus Strughold.

As such, it really isn’t a surprise that the show would choose to focus on the other Axis scientists granted immunity in the wake of the Second World War. Japanese wartime atrocities are less well known than those committed by their European contemporaries, at least in the United States. There are a variety of reasons for this. In the wake of the Second World War, while Allied troops documented the atrocities committed in Europe, Japan actively destroyed their own records of atrocities in the Pacific.

It's a very clean operation...

It’s a very clean operation…

While the Nuremberg Trials were conducted openly and fairly, the Tokyo Trials were somewhat more complicated, with those on trial less likely to accused of crimes against humanity or war crimes. While the Allies completely dismantled the German government, the Japanese Emperor was allowed to remain in power as a condition of surrender. While the Nazis responsible for human experimentation and human rights abuses were tried in public, the United States did not take a single member of the Japanese Unit 731 to trial.

Whatever the reason, Japan’s relationship with atrocities committed during the Second World War is complicated and conflicted. To this day, the country has difficulty acknowledging the violence committed against the euphemistically-named “comfort women” systemically abducted and raped by Imperial Japanese soldiers, adopting a legal position suggesting the statute of limitations on these crimes has passed – the equivalent of simply hoping the issue will go away if they wait long enough.

He holds all the cards...

He holds all the cards…

Denial is a frequent fall-back position. Naoki Hyakuta, a governor of Japan’s national broadcaster, recently insisted that the Rape of Nanking never happened. The Japanese government did not object to this statement. Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, apparently even told a delegation visiting from Nanjing that only “conventional acts of combat” had taken place. The massacre was also a thorny subject upon the translation of a history book written by New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Henry S. Stokes.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked controversy when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, drawing rebukes from China and South Korea, and even Barrack Obama. The controversy surrounds the various war criminals who are interred at the Yasukuni Shrine, including those involved in planning and executing some of the worst atrocities of the Imperial Japanese war effort. The administration itself will not consider removing the remains of these war criminals from the shrine.

It could never happen here...

It could never happen here…

All of this is to illustrate that it is worth focusing on Japanese war crimes and the way that Japan relates to its own history. One of the core themes of The X-Files is the idea that cover-ups and lies tend to enable corruption and betrayal. The ability to re-write history allows governments to continue systemic and institutional abuses. Only by exposing and confronting these past shames can we come to terms with what has been done. So focusing on Japan in particular gives Nisei and 731 some nice weight.

The third season of The X-Files began shortly after the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Considering the controversy that had been generated by the proposed Smithsonian exhibit questioning the morality of dropping the atomic bomb, offering such a subversive and critical exploration of the end of the war was a gutsy move. The traditional version of events portrays the United States as the unambiguous heroes of the conflict, glossing over the questionable actions that occurred during and after.

Just when things were looking up...

Just when things were looking up…

As the name implies, 731 is about the infamous Japanese Unit 731. As with the focus on German war criminals in Paper Clip, this was exploring contemporary concerns and debates. The United States’ decision to pardon those war criminals had become a subject of debate in early 1995, months before Spotnitz wrote the episode:

No one knows how many died in the “field testing.” It is becoming evident that the Japanese officers in charge of the program hoped to use their weapons against the United States. They proposed using balloon bombs to carry disease to America, and they had a plan in the summer of 1945 to use kamikaze pilots to dump plague-infected fleas on San Diego.

The research was kept secret after the end of the war in part because the United States Army granted immunity from war crimes prosecution to the doctors in exchange for their data. Japanese and American documents show that the United States helped cover up the human experimentation. Instead of putting the ringleaders on trial, it gave them stipends.

Estimates on the death toll of these amoral (and officially sanctioned) experiments suggests that 10,000 people were killed in laboratories, while 250,000 people were killed in field tests. Despite the fact that the American government never brought any of these people to trial, the Soviet Union actually managed to charge Unit 731 members at  Khabarovsk War Crime Trials.

More like National Insecurity Agency, am I right?

More like National Insecurity Agency, am I right?

The amnesty agreement negotiated with those war criminals was the kept secret.  Bert V.A. Roling, one of the judges at the Tokyo Trials, wrote that he had been kept in the dark about the decision. He also suggested that the American government was more concerned about what would happen if the public found out about the deal than they were with morality of these agreements:

Immunity from prosecution was granted in exchange for Japanese scientific findings concerning biological weapons, based on disgusting criminal research on human beings. We learn from these documents that it was considered a bargain: almost for nothing, information was obtained that had cost millions of dollars and thousands of human lives. The American authorities were worrying only about the prospect of the human outcry in the United States, which surely would have taken place if the American people had been informed about this ‘deal.’

This was not a particularly proud moment in American history, but it is one that tends to get glossed over in discussing the aftermath of the Second World War. The X-Files is anchored in the secret legacy of that conflict, observing that these past ethical compromises come with a heavy cost.

A different type of colony...

A different type of colony…

In Nisei, Senator Matheson had pointed Mulder towards the members of Unit 731, describing it as “monsters begetting monsters.” He alludes to how “past deeds which may illuminate present treacheries.” There is a sense that his words are just as applicable to the government that made those deals as the scientists who signed them. The X-Files is a show about history and legacy, about lingering spectres that cast long shadows stretching from the forties into the nineties.

It is clear that the writers working on The X-Files have done their research into the methods and practices of these war criminals. 731 suggests that a former member of the eponymous organisation was conducting cruel medical experiments on the residents of a leper colony. In reality, the Japanese army did experiment upon lepers at Sorok Island in South Korea during the Second World War. The method of experimentation and amputation used by the Russians in Tunguska and Terma reflects standard operating procedure for Unit 731.

Interrupting Mulder's train of thought...

Interrupting Mulder’s train of thought…

It is also worth noting that Nisei and 731 are not the only point at which the experiments done by Unit 731 have been linked with American UFO folklore. In 2005, Nick Redfern’s Body Snatchers in the Desert suggested that the “aliens” recovered at Roswell may have been bodies from a Unit 731 experiment. Japan had built balloons designed to carry bombs and biological weapons into the United States. Some were even built by school children. One of these bombs killed a picnicking family in Oregon in June 1945, the only recorded casualties of war on the American mainland.

As much as Nisei and 731 are built on the legacy of the Second World War, they also offer a glimpse at contemporary anxieties and concerns. They are not just about the shady deals made in 1945, but the uncertainties and insecurities that existed in 1995. It could be argued that Nisei and 731 reflect a changing attitude towards Japan in the American popular culture of the mid-nineties. During the seventies and eighties, America had been enthusiastically receptive of Japan. In the nineties, it seemed that the country was a bit more skeptical.

Teaching the guy how to conduct himself...

Teaching the guy how to conduct himself…

Joe Moore acknowledging this shifting perception in his introduction to The Other Japan:

Japan in the nineties appears to the world to be tarnished, perhaps badly flawed. For a decade or more the treatment of Japan in news spots, articles, and books has become more critical, even harsh, with pundits, politicians, management gurus, and academics switching from urging upon the West wholesale borrowing of Japanese ways to pointing with alarm at the unfairness of Japanese captialism’s way of doing business abroad and at home. The reevaluation of Japan has been driven by changes in the global economic and political situation since the mid 1970s, the most obvious have been Japan’s rise to global economic power in counterpoint to the U.S. economic decline, the emergence of China as the coming capitalism miracle, the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the ending of the Cold War, and, most recently, Japanese economic stagnation in the nineties.

All of a sudden, the Japanese were no longer staunch and necessary allies in Asia, but instead potential economic rivals to the United States.

There's enough here to occupy even the most ardent X-Files fan...

There’s enough here to occupy even the most ardent X-Files fan…

There was a sense of anxiety around Japan in the nineties. “The Japanese are very secretive about their espionage capabilities, and extremely careful with their intelligence data,” Frohike tells Mulder in Nisei, and he’s quite correct. In War By Other Means, published in 1999, John J. Fialka noted that a lack of an official intelligence network did not mean Japan lacked espionage capabilities:

Economic espionage in the United States breaks down into three major styles. Agents from China, Taiwan, and South Korea are aggressively targeting “present and former nationals working for U.S. companies and research institutions.” The second category is headed by France, said to prefer “classic Cold War recruitment and technical operations,” which generally include bribery, discreet thefts, combing through other people’s garbage, and aggressive wiretapping. Russia and Israel carry out similar spying “with varying degrees of government sponsorship.” Germany is described as planning to increase the number of its Federal Intelligence Service (BND) agents in Washington to improve its collection capabilities. Japan, which does not have a formal intelligence agency but sometimes collectively resembles one, falls in the third category. It uses Japanese industry and private organizations to gather “economic intelligence, occasionally including classified proprietary documents and data.” The result is an exceptionally efficient spy network that is described as “not fully understood” by the United States.

With the end of the Cold War, it seemed that economic and industrial espionage was the future of the spy game, with most of the international trade in secrets concerning companies and patents rather than military secrets or weapons. This, it seems, was “the future of intelligence.”

And here, I thought we were X-friends...

And here, I thought we were X-friends…

It turns out that Japan was particularly effective at this approach to spying. Although by no means the only perpetrators of this sort of intelligence-gathering, there were a number of high-profile incidents in the eighties and nineties where Japanese companies were caught conducting acts of industrial espionage. Eighteen executives at Hitachi and Mitsubishi were implicated in a 1982 investigation into theft of IBM information. Ronald J. Hoffman was arrested in 1990 for selling industrial information to Japanese businesses, earning more than $700,000.

Although the theft and attempted defection that drives Nisei and 731 is political in nature, Shiro Zama’s attempt to smuggle his hybrid back to Japan feels like a piece of industrial espionage. The use of trains to move people around like freight, the description of subjects as “merchandise” and the way that the conspiracy reduces these individuals to objects, it’s no wonder that Zama might as well be stealing a top-of-the-line piece of technology rather than a human being who has been subjected to horrific experimentation and abuse.

Well, that's one way to avoid paying the ticket fare...

Well, that’s one way to avoid paying the ticket fare…

Again, 731 isn’t doing anything too radical or novel here. The idea of alien-human hybrids was so heavily implied by the Well-Manicured Man in Paper Clip that Mulder just came out and said it. 731 just takes a bit of time to explore the idea. The human genome had become an object of public fascination in the nineties. The Office for Human Genome Research had been founded in 1988 and was later rebranded as the National Center for Human Genome Research in 1990.

The idea that mankind would be able to fully explore its genetic makeup was fascinating and terrifying. The potential to expand scientific frontiers was enormous, and the implications could be frightening. Mankind would fully understand the building blocks of life, but what would we do with that knowledge? In the context of the other biological concerns of the nineties – genetically-modified food, cloning – the human genome project suggested deep unease about scientific advancement during the decade.

Now there's a man you can trust...

Now there’s a man you can trust…

How would exploration of the human genome intersect with other concerns? As early as 1987, people were trying to figure out important questions about ownership and copyright of human genetic information – an issue which remains controversial and on-going today. The idea that people – or the essential building blocks of people – can be owned and controlled through copyright law has given a lot of people pause.

More than that, it was hard not to worry about the potential harm of splitting the human genome in a world where biological warfare was a growing concern. While early generations had lived in the shadow of the atomic bomb, the nineties raised the possibility of biological warfare. It is estimated that – between the late eighties and early nineties – approximately 60,000 people were involved in the research and development of biological weaponry in the Soviet Union. There were concerns in the nineties that Korea was developing biological weapons.

Branching out...

Branching out…

This was not an entirely new issue, it was something of which governments had been aware for decades. The report of War Bureau of Consultants, convened in response to fears about German biological warfare during the Second World War, had made it clear that biological weapons could be a large part of the future of organised warfare. The report was declassified in 1988:

The value of biological warfare will be a debatable question until it has been clearly proven or disproven by experience. The wide assumption is that any method which appears to offer advantages to a nation at war will be vigorously employed by that nation. There is but one logical course to pursue, namely, to study the possibilities of such warfare from every angle, make every preparation for reducing its effectiveness, and thereby reduce the likelihood of its use.

Advances in genetics only made these threats seem more real and more palatable. When comic book writers Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis were asked to reimagine Marvel’s superheroes in the early years of the twenty-first century, they built this anxiety into their stories – suggesting that superheroes were a product of a genetics arms race.

Grave crimes...

Grave crimes…

The X-Files also taps into this fear, suggesting that these advances in genetics are being used to create something horrific and unsettling, treating humanity as little more than spare parts or raw materials to be harvested. Frankenstein is a massively influential text on The X-Files; Mary Shelley’s novel is repeatedly referenced by Carter over the show’s nine-year run. Attempts to create alien-human hybrid tie that back into the mythology, while creating a nice inversion of the typical alien invasion story.

More than that, the fixation on alien-human hybrids is an elegant double metaphor, at once evoking the inhumanity and dehumanisation at the heart of the conspiracy. It suggests both man’s inhumanity towards man and also the way that society tends to “dehumanise” victims of oppression. For the powerful members of the international conspiracy, hybridisation represents a literal transcendence – something that separates them from their fellow man, the ultimate expression of their inhumanity. For the subjects of these experiments, it provides a literal dehumanisation.

Deeper underground...

Deeper underground…

This transformation of research subjects into alien-humans hybrids allows the conspirators to rob them of human agency and identity. “They just… dump the bodies on top of each other… like they were garbage,” the survivor of the leper colony tells Scully. As Linda Badley notes in her essay The Rebirth of the Clinic:

Reversing the alien invasion scenario, the alien body comes to stand metonymically for all marginalisation and commodification of human bodies: the holocaust Japanese internment camps, a leper colony in North Carolina, Native American survivors, and implanted female abductees. The alien adbuction and the alien autopsy are reverse mirror images proclaiming the same thing, that aliens R US.

This idea of humanity-as-alien would continue to play a role in the show’s mythology until the end of the series. However, it works much better in this context than it does in something like Biogenesis.

This is going to go down to the wire...

This is going to go down to the wire…

731 is perhaps notable because it takes pains to provide Scully with enough evidence to back up a rational explanation for what has happened. This is important, because The X-Files frequently runs the risk of leaving Scully behind. In Ascension, she was abducted by aliens; in End Game, she was kidnapped by an alien in the form of Mulder. It is very easy for the show to make Scully look ridiculous or absurd. Her logic makes sense in the real world, but three seasons have provided ample evidence that her logic does not hold within the world of The X-Files.

Nisei acknowledged this by having Mulder draw attention to the crazy stuff Scully has seen, and by pointing out how absurd it is for her to remain skeptical. The two-parter does a number of very clever things to help balance the scales between Mulder and Scully. Most obviously, Scully responds to Mulder’s questioning by suggesting that her position is much more difficult than his own. “Believing’s the easy part, Mulder. I just need more than you, I need proof.” For Scully, science is a tool to help with understanding the world rather than a philosophy of itself.

At this point, Mulder's theories are a lock...

At this point, Mulder’s theories are a lock…

More than that, though, Nisei and 731 provides Scully with an explanation that is reasonably plausible. Scully makes the point that conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs make for an effective smokescreen distracting from the very real mistakes and errors that the government has made. The fact that Mulder is tying the amnesty offered to Nazi and Imperial Japanese war criminals into theories about aliens and human hybrids makes it easier to discredit him.

“Don’t you see, Mulder?” Scully protests. “You’re doing their work for them. You’re chasing aliens that aren’t there, helping them to create a story to cover the shameful truth… and what they can’t cover, they apologize for. Apology has become policy.” Scully’s position is all the more plausible because of contemporary events. Shortly before Frank Spotnitz wrote 731, Bill Clinton formally apologised for illegal radiation tests conducted on American citizens. Just because Scully is less willing to embrace aliens than Mulder doesn’t make her blind.

Eye to eye...

Eye to eye…

Nisei and 731 rather cleverly splits up Mulder and Scully, allowing each to embark on a journey that vindicates and affirms their beliefs. One of the best sequences of 731 has Mulder and Scully talking on the phone from inside two identical train carriages. It’s a nice mirroring – Mulder and Scully can be standing in the same space as each other, despite being separated by hundreds of miles and despite the fact that they are seeing two very different realities. Director Rob Bowman reinforces this with several closeups on Mulder’s eye, as if to reinforce that this is Mulder’s perception – what he is seeing.

The script even juxtaposes their viewpoint. “I know what I saw on that train car,” Mulder insists to Scully over the phone. “It wasn’t a leper and it wasn’t human.” Scully doesn’t back down, instead drawing on her own experiences to mount a counter argument. “And I know what I saw at that research facility,” she tells Mulder. “It was barely recognizable as human.” The show has perhaps gone too far by this point to have Scully be correct, but 731 makes it more plausible than it has been for a while.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

The structuring of Nisei and 731 is beautiful. As with the inhuman/dehuman doubling of the hybridisation process and the mirroring of alien abduction/hybridisation, Mulder and Scully both embark on journeys that ultimately bring them to a place that is the same, but different. They both wind up standing in a train car, confronting two very different versions of the truth. Coupled with the way that Nisei and 731 invert the the structure of the traditional X-Files two-parter, the episode is put together phenomenally well.

With 731, Frank Spotnitz demonstrates that he is probably the show’s strongest mythology writer. He has a keen understanding of structuring an episode while measuring the information provided. Nisei and 731 reveal very little of substance about the conspiracy – at least as compared to what was already unveiled by shows like Paper Clip – but they feel substantial. Spotnitz also manages to temper all this larger-than-life fate-of-the-world stuff with smaller personal moments.

So much for inter-departmental cooperation...

So much for inter-departmental cooperation…

Despite everything going on, Nisei and 731 still finds time for Agent Pendell’s adorable crush on Agent Scully. (“Keep it up yourself… what a doof!”) Similarly, the script manages to slip a castration threat past Broadcast Standards and Practices. “As an employee of the National Security Agency, you should know that a gunshot wound to the stomach is probably the most painful and the slowest way to die,” Mulder advises the assassin sharing the train car with him, “but I’m not a very good shot and when I miss, I tend to miss low.”

Perhaps most interesting is Stephen McHattie’s anonymous government assassin – identified as Malcolm Gerlach in DVD notes. The third season has taken steps to humanise the members of the conspiracy. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip allowed us to see that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was not an infallible all-knowing embodiment of authority, but a man who could make very substantial screw-ups. The Well-Manicured Man demonstrated a friendlier and less thuggish face of the international group.

"Can we hurry this up, tonight's my bowling night?"

“Can we hurry this up, tonight’s my bowling night?”

However, the most developed members of the conspiracy tend to move in the higher circles – Deep Throat is much more developed than Mr. X, for example. Characters like the Crew-Cut Man and Quiet Willy seldom got any character development. Krycek might have offered a glimpse into the lower rungs of the massive multinational conspiracy, but he went rogue rather quickly – becoming a mercenary operating outside the conspiracy as much as a participating member.

Malcolm Gerlach is hardly the most developed of characters. He is mostly a sinister government assassin who conducts his work using a piano wire garrotte. As an interesting aside, the garotte has been included in many American army field manuals, including the “V-5” manual for the Second World War. However, 731 gives the assassin just the slightest bit of character. He doesn’t seem like a robotic automaton, feeling quite distinct from the alien bounty hunter with his singular purpose.

Mulder's investigation is derailed...

Mulder’s investigation is derailed…

There are some wonderful touches, from the way that Gerlach fixes his hair after strangling a Japanese defector towards the end of Nisei through to the small moment he takes to adjust his tie after losing his temper at the conductor in 731. Gerlach is a smug and aggressive individual, patronisingly and condescendingly referring to Mulder as “friend.” He doesn’t seem like a man simply doing a job he has been trained to do; he seems like somebody who takes a great deal of pride in his work.

Nisei and 731 benefit from the fact that they are brought to the screen by two of the defining directors from the first three seasons of The X-Files. Nisei was directed by David Nutter, and 731 was directed by Rob Bowman. Both are phenomenal television directors, and both helped to pioneer the cinematic style that made The X-Files such compelling viewing. Nisei and 731 both have a very widescreen quality to them, seeming very large for two episodes of television.

"Wow, doesn't anybody clean these restrooms?"

“Wow, doesn’t anybody clean these restrooms?”

In particular, the duo incorporate a lovely visual motif of peering and glimpsing through doors left slightly ajar. Mulder peers into bathroom where Zama’s body was found. Gerlach peers into ceiling duct where the bomb is hidden. In the teaser, the Hanson’s Disease sufferers peer through trapdoor and the trees to witness what is going on. Repeatedly through the episode, characters peer into the cell located at the end of the train car through a tiny hole.

It is a very effective visual representation of where The X-Files is at this point in its life cycle. The conspiracy has a new form and purpose since the events of Anasazi, but Mulder has only caught a glimpse of it. He has only seen a few scattered images out of context. He has no idea how it all fits together. Nisei and 731 is very much a show about Mulder and Scully trying to figure out what they are looking at, without any real frame of reference.

He's the bomb...

He’s the bomb…

Throughout the run of The X-Files, the writing staff tended to adopt an expansive approach. There was always something new to be revealed or added on, some new evil to be uncovered or some new hook to be revealed. There were details piled upon details, creating a very convoluted and somewhat clunky mythology that eventually overwhelmed the show. Nisei and 731 resist the urge to push the mythology outwards like Paper Clip or End Game or Duane Barry did.

Instead, the two-parter gives the audience a bit more information about things they already know. The result is perhaps the most satisfying mythology two-parter from the show’s entire run. Nisei and 731 is a masterpiece, ranking with some of the best stuff the show ever did. In keeping with the broad creative theme of the third season, it is built on stuff that worked in the first two seasons and hones those elements to the point where it is a well-oiled machine.

X appeal...

X appeal…

731 is a season and a series highlight, and a reminder of why audiences fell so deeply in love with the show’s conspiracy storyline.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

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