Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

           Who fired?  Who didn’t?  Whose gun misfired?  Does that make them innocent, or still damned by their intent?  Are the rules truly different in war, the punishments?  During the conflict, when all of hell rages around you, inside you, is survival all that matters? Kenzo Okuzaki wants the answers to these and many, many more questions—and nothing is going to stop him, except maybe his own madness. 
            The film is the documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On/Yuki Yukite Shingun.  The director: Kazuo Hara, a man whose previous work (Extreme Private Eros, Goodbye CP) shows no restraint, no boundaries, and many have claimed, no ethics.  Not only does Mr. Hara allow those on the utmost fringes of society to tell their tales, he watches them as they writhe and bleed and destroy themselves without hindrance.  Films not for the faint of heart. 
            Naked Army, which many consider to be Hara’s magnum opus, however, though as gritty and verité as his previous works, does not force us to ask ourselves if what we are viewing is in fact pornography, in the truest sense of the word, if we are participating in a crime.  Yes, ghastly and tragic things lie beneath the film’s many veneers, but watching them become exposed, or wishing them so by the earnest, brazen, crass, violent, sociopathic Mr. Okuzaki, does not make us bad people—voyeurs, yes, but not fiends.  The world was made to be watched, to be recorded.  This is all the solace we’ll ever get from our travails: That others also move beside us just as gracelessly as we often do—even those with notions far nobler than the rest of ours tend to be.  But in addition to being sad and shocking, the film is at times genuinely hilarious.  Granted, in an uncomfortable mode that Larry David only wishes he could duplicate.  Or perhaps not.
            The film, released in 1987, follows the exploits of Mr. Okuzaki, who was a soldier during the Pacific War, stationed in New Guinea towards its end.  Things, to say the least, were not going well for the Japanese by that time. But more on that in a moment. 
            After the war, Okuzaki, an anti-emperor zealot, served a total of thirteen years in prison for, amongst many other forms of disobedience and crime, firing shots at the emperor himself; distributing salacious material depicting the emperor—whom Okuzaki blames for numerous horrors, including all of those in the Pacific—in compromised situations; and murdering a real estate agent.  He believes by serving his time for the murder, he has paid his debt to the divine for the lives he’d also taken during the war—and it’s now time for others to do the same.
            The thrust of the film is Okuzaki’s search for the truth regarding the fates of two others in his regiment, both sentenced to death by their commanders and executed by firing squad—several days after the war had ended.  In a harrowing game of round-robin, Okuzaki—sometimes accompanied by the two men’s siblings, later by those pretending to be them when his tactics become too much for the surviving kin—visits members of the deceased men’s platoon, now bent and exhausted from a lifetime of trying to forget.
            What follows is a lot of politeness, Old-World Japan in its most explicit and, to Westerners at least, contradictory form, as many deep bows, apologies, and gifts precede Okuzaki’s dryly mentioning that his interlocutor is a murdering sonofabitch and deserves God’s full wrath; or if the person is currently in a hospital, convalescing after an operation, Mr. Okuzaki will simply say, “This is what you deserve.” 
            More bowing.  Okuzaki, once again, will speak about himself in the third-person, list his crimes, the time he’s served, that he dared take a shot at the Emperor of Japan, even if it’s totally irrelevant to the discussion at hand.  Then the interviewee will mention something about how hard life in war is/was, that’s it’s best forgotten.  Okuzaki again calls the guy a demon, a scourge upon the earth, and then thanks his host’s wife for some tea she’s just handed him. 
            Sometimes the interviewees don’t want to talk about the past, at least not with this nut, or say they’re too ill and tired to recall the particulars.  Their dotage, despite what the film has thus far made us believe them accomplices to, can’t help but soften the viewer’s heart some.  While Okuzaki, in turn, attacks… physically.  Punches start flying, knees bleed, stitches pop.  It’s sad, surreal, pathetic, and often… well, funny (at least I’ve heard people giggle while watching these scenes: sometimes the body just needs to react).  All the while, standing docilely to the side, Japanese women and younger men suggest, “No violence.” 
            Afterward Okuzaki often calmly calls the police himself, who don’t arrest him but instead allow him to accompany his victim to the hospital, so as to continue the interrogation.  (One wonders how much the camera’s presence further queered these bizarre circumstances and interactions.  Though for those of you with already an overwhelming urge to smack the tyrannical Mr. Okuzaki in the face, there is a scene where he becomes outnumbered and then chastises the cameraman, presumably Hara, for not coming to his defense.)  
            Now, here’s the catch: as unacceptable (and hypocritical) as Okuzaki’s violence and other dishonest methods are, they, God help us, get results.  As on the next round of visits, the platoon members’ stories change.  What was an execution for desertion carried out a few days after the war’s end because communication was down is now something far more sinister.  Terms like “destitute,” “starvation,” and “pork (black and white, that is, native and non-native)” begin to become universally used by each separately interviewed man, as each continues to change his tale and shift the blame onto others.
            But these shocking revelations seem to almost go through Okuzaki, as he continues to demand more from the men—recollections of incidental conversations, religious stances, useless gory details, redundant confessions and tears—and when they fail to satisfy him, again he attacks.  He’s like an archeologist who, upon finding his long sought talisman, chucks it to the side and continues to dig deeper—disgusted with the ancient trinket for letting itself be found and sure that something juicier lies beneath.
            It’s at this point that we realize the truth about Okuzaki: Nothing will ever satisfy the man.  All he has is his need to pursue, to search out the most gruesome artifacts of a fading war.  It’s as if he’s still upset for having been an outsider all those years ago, jealous that the murderous captains and sergeants didn’t include him in their unholy machinations; and now he has taken up the most sacred of banner-dressed spears and plans to run it through the whole lot and parade their sins and offal to the world.
            A man wrapped in explosives.  A kid in a trench coat with a double-pump.  Here stands yet another causality and symptom of a society that fetishizes hierarchy and war.  As the film’s epilogue clearly illustrates.
           And we, the audience, shown all this evidence, though with little proved “definitively,” stretch while the credits role and, like Okuzaki, say, “It’s all very interesting, but I’m not sure I buy it.  What else have you got?” 

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