By Sally Huang and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - When Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda arrives in China on Sunday, a new blockbuster movie will ensure that the foremost image of the Japanese in many Chinese people's minds will once again be of the country's brutal wartime misdeeds.
The story of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, around which Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" is set, is taught from a young age in China, and countless television serials, documentaries and books ensure the topic is never out of the public eye for long.
Since going on wide release last week, the film, which stars Hollywood actor Christian Bale, has played to sell-out audiences who weep openly during its more disturbing scenes, and has taken 200 million yuan ($31.6 million) at the box office to date.
The film has won top-level political support. Its opening night was held in a government building and it is China's Oscar entry for best foreign language film, though it has received rather tepid reviews in the United States.
And director Zhang, who once made edgy films that challenged conventions, has since gone mainstream. He is now firmly viewed as a national hero after orchestrating the dazzling opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"The Flowers of War", with its dark hints of necrophilia and male rape and scenes of graphic violence, resembles in parts Chinese government-made anti-Japanese propaganda films, and it is certainly having that effect on many in the audience.
"What horrible people the Japanese are," said student Zhao Lan, after going to a packed showing at a Beijing cinema. "How can they be that crazy and mad!"
"The Japanese soldiers are terrible, and I cannot understand why they still do not want to apologize for their wrongdoings," added a man who gave his surname as Sun.
China says invading Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 men, women and children in Nanjing, then known as Nanking. An Allied tribunal after World War Two put the death toll at about 142,000.
The film has also triggered a surge of anti-Japanese comments on China's popular Twitter-like microblogs.
"After watching that film, my hatred of Japan has suddenly deepened!" wrote "Ruruzh" on Sina's Weibo.
"We should take action now and boycott all Japanese products!" added "De Meigao".
Some web users suggested Noda see the film when he is in China on his two-day visit, his first since taking office in September.
"I suggest Premier Wen invite Noda to watch the film, and take history as a mirror," wrote "Chen YumoOOOOOO" on portal sina.com.
Both Zhang and Bale have said they did not intend to make a film to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment or hatred.
"I do not think people will be so narrow-minded as to hate someone just after watching a film," Zhang told Reuters this month. "Today's world is somewhere people all wish for peace, and want to live happily with others. Art is only art."
Bale, who landed himself in the government's bad books by trying to visit a detained rights lawyer before leaving China, said that if the film ended up promoting hate, "that would be the worst outcome for me".
"Any war movie that intended that, clearly should not be made. Any movie concerning war should have its aim to be the opposite of that -- it should be reconciliation, it should be understanding," he told Reuters.
Sino-Japanese ties have been shadowed for years by what Beijing says has been Tokyo's refusal to admit to atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the country between 1931 and 1945.
Some Japanese historians say the Nanjing Massacre has been exaggerated and some conservatives deny there was even a massacre at all, prompting howls of complaints from China.
($1 = 6.3387 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by Reuters Television; editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski)