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A Spy Called Sorge
Spy Sorge (2003)

A Spy Called Sorge

Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations Thomas Rimer speaks about the re-telling of the Sorge affair in Japanese film and theater.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

The Otto-Sorge case has fascinated the Japanese since the end of the war until now. It is a fascinating example of the way in which historical incidents do resonate in a culture and take on new, sometimes more complex meanings.

Faint lighting, a podium, and men in dark suits sneaking out of the room provided the backdrop for a discussion about a man named Richard Sorge—a soviet spy in Japan during World War II and member of the German Communist Party.

The Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) sponsored a lecture titled "Traitors and Patriots: the Sorge Affair in Postwar Japanese Culture," held on Feb. 12, 2007, in the UCLA Faculty Center's shadowy Hacienda Room. At the colloquium, the current holder of the Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations, Professor Thomas Rimer, discussed how the Sorge affair continues to resonate within Japanese culture. Before he concluded his talk, students—some of whom were dressed for their parts in suits—performed scenes from Junji Kinoshita's play Otto to iu Nihonjin (A Japanese Named Otto, 1962).

"The Otto-Sorge case has fascinated the Japanese since the end of the war until now," Rimer said. "It is a fascinating example of the way in which historical incidents do resonate in a culture and take on new, sometimes more complex meanings."

Under the cover of reporter, Sorge sought to collect information on Germany's war plans inside of Japan for the Soviet Union, and organized a spy network in the process. Japanese authorities eventually arrested Sorge and executed him.

Rimer is particularly interested in cinematic and literary treatments of Sorge. He talked briefly about a French film called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? (Who are you Mr. Sorge?, 1961) that raises questions about loyalty and patriotism, and a documentary by the Japanese public broadcaster NHK that takes viewers to the house where Sorge was born.

He talked a bit more about Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda's Spy Sorge (2003). In creating the film, Shinoda struggled to understand and explain the mentality of the Japanese people during World War II. Himself just a young child during the war, Shinoda wanted to understand why he once felt so much pride for his country and loyalty to its emperor, Rimer said.

Sorge on Stage

Led by UCLA Theater Professor Carol Sorgenfrei, a group of undergraduates acted out scenes from Kinoshita's famous work about the Sorge affair, widely considered one of the greatest plays in postwar Japan.

"It is a play about moral attitudes," Rimer said. "There is a sort of turning again and again over of these moral questions: Where do our loyalties lie? What does it mean to be a human being? That makes the play very gripping."

Rimer noted that Kinoshita said it was important for people who saw his play to realize that Japan was finally opening itself up to new ideas after being shut off from them during the war. Sorge's informant Hotsumi Ozaki, who also went by "Otto," fascinated Kinoshita because he resisted his own country and people. In his play, Kinoshita argues that people should admire Ozaki for transcending the crude nationalism of Japan's wartime government.

Sorgenfrei played the role of triple agent Agnes Smedley—who spied on the Soviets, Chinese Communists, and Indian Nationalists—in one of the scenes. She said it was the first time she had performed part of the play.

"It was…a wonderful opportunity to bring the actors here who basically know nothing about Japanese culture and Japanese theater," Sorgenfrei explained after the event. "They've learned a lot from it, and I hope it piques their interest about Japan."

At the close of the event, Professor Donald McCallum, acting director of CJS, tried to thank the student performers—only to discover that they had left early to go to class. "It was really the best colloquium that we've ever had," he said.