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A powerful, emotional and relevant reminder of the heartbreaking toll war takes on the innocent, Nanking tells the story of the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. As part of a campaign to conquer all of China, the Japanese subjected Nanking – which was then China’s capital – to months of aerial bombardment, and when the city fell, the Japanese army unleashed murder and rape on a horrifying scale. In the midst of the rampage, a small group of Westerners banded together to establish a Safety Zone where over 200,000 Chinese found refuge. Unarmed, these missionaries, university professors, doctors and businessmen – including a Nazi named John Rabe – bore witness to the events, while risking their own lives to protect civilians from slaughter.

The story is told through deeply moving interviews with Chinese survivors, chilling archival footage and photos of the events, and testimonies of former Japanese soldiers. At the heart of Nanking is a filmed stage reading of the Westerners’ letters and diaries, featuring Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and Jurgen Prochnow. Through its interweave of archival images, testimonies of survivors, and readings of first hand accounts, the film puts the viewer on the streets of Nanking and brings the forgotten past to startling life.

Nanking is a testament to the courage and conviction of individuals who were determined to act in the face of evil and a powerful tribute to the resilience of the Chinese people – a gripping account of light in the darkest of times.


Japan had a presence in mainland Asia since 1931, when the annexed Manchuria and established Manchuoko, a puppet Japanese state. In August 1937, Japan began a full-scale invasion of China. The Japanese army fought a series of fierce ground battles in Shanghai and launched a massive air raid campaign against Nanking, then China’s capital. By November 12th, Shanghai had fallen and by December 13th, the Japanese had defeated the defending Chinese army and invaded the city of Nanking.

The events now known as ‘the rape of Nanking’ lasted approximately six weeks. The city was looted and burned, and marauding Japanese soldiers unleashed a staggering wave of violence on Nanking’s population. According to the summary judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – also known as the Tokyo Trials, “estimates indicate that the total number of civilians and prisoners of war murdered in Nanking and its vicinity during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation was over 200,000. Approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the city during the first month of the occupation.”

Prior to the fall of the city, many Chinese fled the approaching troops and all foreign citizens were ordered to evacuate. A group of 22 European and American expatriates, however, refused to leave. Despite devastating air strikes and the threat of an oncoming army, these Westerners – including John Rabe, a Nazi businessman; Bob Wilson, an American surgeon; and Minni Vautrin, the American headmistress of a missionary college – remained behind in order to set up a Safety Zone to protect civilians. Some two hundred thousand refugees crowded into the Zone, which spanned two square miles. During the brutal occupation, Safety Zone committee members vehemently protested the army’s actions to the Japanese authorities, but the carnage continued. Every day John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, and the others fought to keep the Safety Zone’s boundaries intact and the refugees safe.

By March, the worst of the violence had subsided and the army moved on, leaving behind an occupying force. The refugee camps in the Safety Zone were disbanded, though intensive relief efforts continued. The Japanese set up a puppet government that ruled Nanking until the end of the war. In 1948, the Tokyo Tribunal convicted Iwane Matsui, commander of Japanese forces in central China, of war crimes and sentenced him to death. Emperor Hirohito and his uncle Prince Asaka, who commanded the troops that actually occupied Nanking during the massacre, were spared.

Today, Many Japanese know little about the wartime atrocities their country committed throughout Asia. Seventy years later, the invasion of Nanking remains a divisive issue. Some Japanese ultra-conservatives deny or minimize the massacre; to this day, many Japanese believe stories of atrocities in Nanking are exaggerations and lies. Soon after producer Ted Leonsis decided to create a documentary about Nanking, mass protests broke out in China over Japanese approval of textbooks that called the Nanking massacre an ‘incident.’ The protests made headlines around the world. Many in Asia are also outraged by the former Japanese prime minister’s annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Along with millions of soldiers who died for the Japanese Emperor, Yasukuni – which translates as ‘peaceful nation’ – enshrines the souls of 14 class A war criminals.

In advance of December 2007, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Nanking, the Chinese and Japanese governments have convened a joint committee of historians in an attempt to agree upon a common version of the history of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including what happened in Nanking.