A while back I compiled a top 10 list of Japanese films which included Kazuo Hara’s 1987 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, and here is a longer piece I wrote about this fascinating film. Warning: this piece contains spoilers, so best to watch the film first before coming back to read!
Japan, the early 1980s. Kenzo Okuzaki, a veteran of WW2 now in his 60s, is a survivor of the Japanese army regiment who fought on New Guinea, Indonesia. Out of a battalion of 1000 men there, only 30 survived, including Okuzaki who ended the war as a POW. Following the war, Japan’s transformation into a capitalist economic miracle and American satellite state, while brushing most of its war memories under the carpet, was something Okuzaki never accepted. He felt the Emperor Hirohito and his generals should face accountability for the millions of deaths, an extremely sensitive issue since the Emperor, as emblem of the nation, was protected at all costs from bearing any shame post-war. Okuzaki’s passionate anger led, in the 1960s, to his attempt to shoot metal balls at the Emperor, the distribution of leaflets picturing pornographic caricatures of him, and the murder of a real estate agent (an event we learn little more about). For all these criminal acts, Okuzaki served a total of 13 years in jail, as he calmly narrates at the start of the film.
Thus we are introduced to this complex man and personality, and the film proceeds to follow him on a quixotic, obsessive quest to uncover the truth about the deaths of two Japanese privates on New Guinea, who died 23 days after the end of the war was declared, and which Okuzaki suspects to be executions. The film is structured in a sequence of interviews conducted by Okuzaki, with his former comrades and superiors, often in totally impromptu meetings, as he relentlessly tracks them all down around Japan. In an often uncomfortable fly on the wall style, and through painful authenticity and realness, the audience learn just as much about the events that took place between these men almost 40 years ago, as about the increasingly troubled and contradictory character of Okuzaki. The end result is simply one of the most incredible, memorable and insane documentaries ever made…
Cinema in Japan in the 1970s was very much in a period of renaissance, with the downfall of the traditional system in the previous decade revealing a new generation of independent, experimental filmmakers looking to explore new cinematic boundaries. Many of these veered towards the documentary form, motivated by a desire to ingrain a sense of reality in their films which they saw as lacking in the work of their predecessors. Different directors unveiled this deeper reality in different ways, and this new generation of documentarians can roughly be categorised into two general strands.
On one side were the staunchly socially and politically committed filmmakers, such as the Ogawa Pro collective (a group led by Shinsuke Ogawa) who sought to become one with whatever the subject of their film was, alternatingy diving (literally) head-first into student riots or living as farmers for several years. The other most famous exponent of this strand was Noriaki Tsuchimoto, famed for his acclaimed ‘Minamata’ series of haunting films on mercury poisoning and the disease it caused in the area around Minamata Bay. Tsuchimoto even travelled from village to village to arrange local screenings of his films in a bid to educate villagers of the dangers they were exposed to.
On the other side however, came those filmmakers making deeply personal films, the so-called self-nudes, often literally navel-gazing portraits of their day-to-day lives. Unlike the politically-minded presentations of socially relevant topics by Ogawa’s collective or Tsuchimoto, these were films based on the solitary work of a singular filmmaking subject involved in a self-conscious act of exhibitionism. Kazuo Hara established himself within this tradition with his breakthrough film Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, a painfully intimate examination of his own relationships with his ex-wife, and with his producer and wife-to-be Sachiko Kobayashi.
Between then and the release of his next film, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, glares a 13 year gap. That gap is testimony to how much of his life Hara gave to the project – the events in the film cover a timespan of 5 years, something which is hard to tell from the pace at which it moves from scene to scene. In fact the film’s genesis can be traced back to some years before, when by chance Hara’s mentor, the legendary director Shohei Imamura (who himself dabbled in the documentary format several times over the course of his long career), introduced him to Kenzo Okuzaki, a Pacific War veteran who had served a total of 13 years in jail for shooting metal balls with a sling at Emperor Hirohito, and for the murder of a real estate broker.
Imamura had himself wanted to make a TV documentary about Okuzaki in the late ‘70s. The TV production companies eventually rejected it for directly addressing thorny themes such as the Emperor’s responsibility for the war, and the project was scrapped, at least for the time being. Imamura passed it on to Hara, who had been his loyal assistant director for many documentaries, in order to make it as an independent production.
It wasn’t long before Hara, and his producer and now-wife Kobayashi, fully embarked on the project. And it is no wonder they were instantly drawn to Okuzaki, this extraordinary character determined to dig up truths in areas of memory where nobody wanted to stray. Before Extreme Private Eros, Hara and Kobayashi had made Goodbye CP ( 1972), charting the everyday lives of a group of young people with cerebral palsy, with frank intimacy and portrayed with a shaky handheld camera that got really close to its protagonists. Hara hence had a track record of uncompromisingly recording the lives of those on the outskirts of Japan’s notoriously conformist society.
Okuzaki, as a subject, seems at once a dream come true and a nightmare for a documentarian. A dream, because it is hard to imagine a more fascinating protagonist for an observational filmmaker to make a portrait of. Yet also a nightmare to work with, a volatile strong-minded obsessive who wanted to take control of the film’s direction and make it the film he, rather than Hara, wanted it to be. In fact, he co-financed it with Hara, and the pair had numerous arguments during its production, which at one point saw Okuzaki threaten to quit and burn the existing footage.
Thus Okuzaki’s mission becomes the film’s mission, with unrestricted access. And Okuzaki’s mission is to extract the truth from his former comrades about the killing of two lower rank Japanese soldiers in New Guinea, after the war had already ended. After repeated interviews in front of a rolling camera, punctuated by violent assaults from Okuzaki when he doesn’t like the tone of their answers, one by one they finally confess to their crimes.
Hara’s camera faithfully follows him on this quest, employing an unobtrusive stance reminiscent of the 1960s cinéma vérité style of the Maysles brothers or Frederick Wiseman. There is no voiceover narration, almost no background music, and Hara remains uninvolved even when events in front of the camera turn to violence. It’s clear Hara does not wish to bring attention to his authorial presence here, and instead wants the focus to be Okuzaki.
Yet the film is not made up of any stock footage, staged interviews or reconstructions, it is always recording “reality” live and unforeseeably. In that sense it is interacting with, and even performing, reality. Another documentarian famed for making films in this mould is Michael Moore, who serendipitously caught a screening of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On while on the editing stage of his own film Roger & Me. Moore was so taken aback by what he saw he would later go on to comment “It was as though I had this soul brother in Japan… I felt after watching that I had permission to make Roger & Me the way I was making it”. Despite this direct influence on one of the most prominent of documentary directors, it is useful to observe the differences between Hara’s style and Moore’s.
Where Moore himself instigates the interviews and participates (actively or through indirect manipulation) in the episodes he films, Hara transfers this responsibility directly to Okuzaki. It is Okuzaki who engineers all the events we see, tracking down his former comrades, he is the one who interviews them, he is leading the film on his obsessive pursuit, while Hara, perhaps just as obsessively, pursues him. Okuzaki even provides the filmed events with their own artifice, by using fake relatives of the deceased to accompany him after the real ones no longer want to be part of the project (Okuzaki describes them as not having the “commitment” to see it through). Such tactics of deception had been used by many actual directors before, in order to influence the “reality” they would film. Hence he can be seen effectively as the surrogate director.
This leads to the question, is it Okuzaki’s film or is it Hara’s film? Is the film’s message Okuzaki’s or Hara’s? And if it’s Hara’s, in what way? To answer these we must briefly analyse the relationship between director, subject and audience in a documentary film like this one. Usually in such a portrait of a complex, flawed character (for example Mr Death (Errol Morris, 1999) or Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)) there is room for the director to take a step back, break the univocal discourse of their protagonist, and convey the overall message they want to. There’s a knowing relationship between director and audience whereby the director makes their audience aware that the film isn’t fully on the subject’s side and acknowledges that subject’s flaws. This can be achieved most explicitly through narration, through the director interviewing the protagonist or through editing.
In The Emperor’s Naked Army…, where the distance between director and subject is so hard to distinguish, there is little space left for a relationship between the director and the audience. As already mentioned Hara refused to allow his directorial voice to be a presence during filming, so what can we discern from the editing or mise-en-scene choices he makes? For the most part Hara lets Okuzaki reveal his problematic, contradictory nature himself, through scenes which are often darkly comic. Yet he also adds his own ironic touches here and there too, for instance the deliberate choice to frame Okuzaki’s van in the shot while he visits the grave of an ex-comrade. Here is a man mourning the loss of a friend to brutal violence, yet he has a slogan calling for the murder of the Japanese prime minister painted on his van.
And of course there’s the rather puzzling title itself. Translated from the Japanese meaning roughly “Onwards, Imperial Japanese army”, it was chosen by Hara with more than a little irony. Here again Okuzaki’s van is referred to as it has the word for Japanese Imperial Army painted on its bonnet. The implication here is that Okuzaki himself has become an Emperor-like figure. His behaviour is fuelled by dubious principles of selfless honour, and a rigid belief in his own moral self-righteousness: thinking he is allowed violent means for his ends, often talking of divine punishment as if on a god-sent mission, and confidently claiming to be a “better human being” than his surviving comrades.
In this way Hara adds another layer to the film, on top of Okuzaki’s own message, in which a personality at once extremely articulate in his rhetoric yet violent and full of contradictions is allowed to emerge. It is then up to the audience to make its own mind up about Okuzaki. Interestingly, Okuzaki himself, who watched the film when it was screened as evidence at his subsequent trial, was said to have hated it and accused Hara of not making the film they had planned to.
Another noteworthy aspect of the film is its pace, editing footage that took place over a period of 5 years into 2 hours. Finding the addresses, visiting them, comparing answers, visiting them again, not to mention a trip to Indonesia which never made the final cut since the film was confiscated, all this took many years in real life although the film gives no suggestion of that time passing. Since Hara was working independently he had time, plenty of time to wait freely for events which would define his film. And come they did, Okuzaki’s forceful interrogations lead to the startling confessions of the executions, and of cannibalism under desperate, appalling conditions. And the final denouement, which irrevocably brought the project to an end, was still to come. We are informed right at the end, through a series of captions and newspaper clippings that Okuzaki went to kill his former captain Koshimizu as revenge, but, the old man not being at home, ended up shooting and severely injuring Koshimizu’s son.
It is now known Okuzaki had spoken to Hara about his intention to kill Koshimizu and even invited him to film it. Hara declined and went to seek legal advice, but Okuzaki went ahead alone in the meantime. This neatly brings us to the last but not least of the concerns the film raises, the ethical issues, which we can divide into two categories.
First are the moral questions which the content of the film, as “directed” by Okuzaki, bring up. To what extent can these, now elderly and sometimes frail, men be held responsible for actions committed in totally extraordinary circumstances 40 years ago? What is the best way for Japan to learn from the lessons of its past efficiently without just superficially trying to shield the Emperor of responsibility? When you listen to Okuzaki’s eloquent anti-war rhetoric, you regret that he could not instead have made a film about the role of the Emperor and his military advisors, those who really should be held accountable. But it is worth remembering the backlash even to this film, from right-wing nationalists in Japan, was severe and the film’s crew received many threats. Japan it seems was not ready to confront such issues yet, and hence Okuzaki, himself no doubt traumatised by his wartime and post-war experiences, trying to literally beat the truth out of any ex-soldiers he can find.
The second category of ethical issues is those it raises about this genre of film as a whole. Clearly there are many uncomfortable scenes here which push voyeurism to an uneasy edge, making the viewer feel guilt at passively participating through the act of watching. Okuzaki himself is clearly fine with being on film but what of the others, who are visited unexpectedly and interviewed under duress, without explicitly giving consent to being filmed whilst reliving memories they clearly would rather not relive… Hara would argue that the audience needed to feel a feeling of discomfort when watching a film about a challenging man and such challenging issues. And it must also be stated that whenever violence occurred in front of the camera, Hara, despite not intervening, did call for the police behind the scenes (as indeed Okuzaki himself does on camera).
Yet the very passivity of the film crew can be questioned. Is it really possible for a camera crew to be present in a situation without affecting it? Would everyone’s actions and answers be the same if it had not been there? The scene where one of the ex-soldiers offers to tell the truth to the (real) relatives of the deceased, as long as neither Okuzaki nor the camera are present, springs to mind; Okuzaki is the one who refuses despite the relatives agreeing and despite having no real valid reason as to why it should be in front of camera. This burning desire for truth is perhaps the trait shared by both Okuzaki and Hara, but the most pertinent question then becomes, can we be sure the mere fact of being followed by a camera crew (and perhaps the ego boost of having a film made about him) is not the motivating factor for Okuzaki pursuing his quest? A quest which ends in a man getting shot, let’s not forget.
This does place the film and Hara, despite him drawing the line when it came to filming Okuzaki on his final revenge mission, within some tricky moral dilemmas. It purports to film reality passively yet, simply through the act of the camera being there, cannot help but actively influence the reality it is trying to film. Nonetheless the film deserves praise for its audacity, especially in dealing with such a sensitive issue and offering a serious indictment of Japan’s failure to come to grips with its past, and for dealing with such a complex character in Okuzaki, who, whatever you think of him, goes down as one of the most fascinating documentary protagonists ever. Of course its influence on filmmakers in Japan and worldwide (not least Michael Moore) also adds to its significance. It remains a must-see film in the documentary genre.