This article examines a collection of documentary films produced by the South Manchurian Railway Company (Mantetsu) in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo as the first part of a broader study of films produced in and about Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. Taking up a common description of these cinematic images as maboroshi (illusory, dreamlike, lost) and historical studies of Manchukuo as an “imagined empire,” I propose to read these films as part of a phantasmagoria that had enchanted various utopian fantasies, that obscured and contributed to harsh realities, and that has recently resurfaced as haunting memories. As the economic pillar of Japan's colonial expansion in Manchuria, Mantetsu laid the foundations of modern infrastructure in cities and later scattered thousands of agrarian settlers throughout the land, a process both heralded and documented in its film productions. If cinema found its technological double in the railway as quintessential apparatuses of modernity that reshaped experiences of space and time, then Mantetsu documentaries bring together not only cinema and railway but also dreams and realities, the familiar and the exotic, the mythical and the scientific, the “authentic” and the theatrical. This article seeks to do justice to their complexity and to go beyond Manichaean condemnations of these films as blatant propaganda or apolitical rehabilitations as autonomous works of art.

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