Monday, May 19, 2008

Hara's Naked Victims Mourn On.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987)

What was Kenzo Okuzaki? Was he a dismissible war veteran with little more than a senile axe to grind? Or an ageing yet dangerous element posing a real threat to civilized society? I believe he was both of these things and more. Okuzaki is a ghost, a murderous revenant of the regime that created him. As Jacques Derrida disclosed in Specters of Marx, ‘haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony’(1). For Okuzaki, the purported institutional betrayal by the Japanese Imperial army in an illegal execution of mutineers, after the Pacific War had already ended. Defined him as representative, avenger, spectre of the wronged dead in opposition to the passive hegemony of a society in silence, guilt and ignorance.

Kazuo Hara’s direct documentary film is a fascinating jaunt into contentious national historiography, documentary subjectivity/objectivity, the return of the repressed and the fragile limits of righteousness. What makes Okuzaki, as well as Hara’s film, so compelling is the ambivalence that persists in every one of these issues. Although Okuzaki is a ghost, and certainly Hara has ensured of his immortalization. Should he be regarded as a righteous ghost? Hara’s own anti-social credentials: ‘I make bitter films, I hate mainstream society(2), seem to erode any claims to the sanctity of objectivity in this film and consequently Okuzaki’s quest. Yet this outlook of bitterness could only detract from the potency of, exposing injustices as they are. On many occasions, the camera was self-reflexively pointed to as a weapon and presence of cinematic duress to which the subject should submit.

Okuzaki’s own claim to be representing “divine truth” is set about by dirtying his hands with intimidation, “I’ve beaten a lieutenant already I’m prepared to beat you”; actual violence – as a visiting menace, brutalizing ex-sergeant Yukio Seo before Seo’s bystanding wife and children and brazen deception – masquerading impostors (including his own wife) as the siblings of the deceased he purportedly crusades on behalf of. Okuzaki simultaneously proffers to know a truthful version of events, enough to self-warrant the beating of those that do not corroborate. Yet he cannot and never claims to have witnessed the actual events himself. His only sources of knowledge are also his victims and accused. The documentary is in this sense, a testimony of absurdity. The capture of nothing more than a succession of belligerent acts, engineered dishonesty and the unreliability of memory and confession. Considered by Okuzaki, we might assume, proportionate and justifiable to his own end(s). But should we as spectators be convinced?

What dawned upon me towards the latter part of the film is that the search of objectivity and truth should be abandoned, a project that myself as spectator no longer cared about. This film was certainly never going to find this most elusive of things, even, and especially, if Okuzaki had managed to coerce each ex-officer into a full tear strewn confession of carrying out obscene acts in the context of organized obscenity. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a film about catharsis and to some degree narcissism. It is clear that Okuzaki in his more tender moments mourns the dead, and his offer to substitute the filial role to the mother of a junior officer is a moving display. Yet I find it tempting to believe that he desired also to be the face of public mourning. Driven in this way to override several ex-officers, in their own private mourning in their own terms.

Derrida often spoke about the work of mourning in relation to a ‘narcissistic conversion’(3). Okuzaki’s restless preoccupation in mobilizing not only his own mourning but also the mourning of others exhibit precisely this narcissism. In fact, the harder Okuzaki campaigns the deeper he embroils himself in this conversion. In that his actions do ‘not eliminate the death and expropriation at the heart of the living; it calls one back to what always defers the work of mourning, mourning itself and narcissism’(4). Perhaps this is one of the few certainties or truths that the film can make claim to objectivity on. That the atrocities and madness of war makes those that participated, precipitates in peacetime, a heteroglossia of suffering and mourning. In Okuzaki’s case, a suffering and mourning that had mutated itself into an uncontrollable narcissism, not to mention homicidal desire. I found myself at the start, wanting to celebrate him but by the end ultimately pitying him.

Edwin Mak

- - - -

1 Derrida, Jacques. [1993] (2006) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. London: Routledge. (46)
2 Ruoff, Jeferrey. (1993) ‘Filming at the Margins: The Documentaries of Hara Kazuo’, Iris: A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound. No. 16 (Spring 1993), with Kenneth Ruoff, 115-126. [internet] Available at: [Accessed 19th May 2008]
3 Derrida (164)
4 ibid.

This review also appears at Faster Than Instant Noodles


girish said...

Hi Edwin -- Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

I haven't read "Specters of Marx" and wanted to ask you about this line: ‘haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony’. I'm curious: what exactly does Derrida mean here? and how is Okuzaki a ghost? Thanks.

Edwin Mak said...

Thanks Girish, I hope I don't come across too much as someone that is consumed by theory. Nonetheless, SOM is fresh in my mind as it featured heavily on a paper I recently completed.

The line comes from this passage:

'In proposing this title, Specters of Marx, I was initially thinking of all the forms of a certain haunting obsession that seems to me to organize the dominant influence on discourse today. At a time when a new world disorder is attempting to install its neo-capitalism and neo-liberalism, no disavowal has managed to red itself of all of Marx's ghosts. Hegemony still organizes the repression and thus the confirmation of a haunting. Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony. But I did not have in mind first of all the exordium of the Manifesto.' p.46

I see Okuzaki belonging to a native minority --those believing that Hirohito and his senior command were wrong-- in a post-war period. Okuzaki is haunting the silent majority, by refusing to conform to his hegemonizers. In this sense he is a ghost.

There are other interesting ways in which Derrida believes ghosts come into being. Relating more the discussions of documentary, photography and film as technology and media. Has anyone seen Ken McMullen's Ghost Dance (1983) ? Derrida makes a rather dapper cameo in it to explain this fascinating concept. A clip of which can be found here. Does this help?

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the Derrida cameo video, I liked it.

What does "narcissistic conversion" mean?
I don't see Okuzaki's narcissism as much as egocentricity and megalomania (although it is when he pretends to speak for the people of Japan or for God). I think he was traumatised by what happened to him during the war, and experienced a "narcissistic wound" that hit him on a personal level (outside the war context, in relation to his own childhood). This would explain why he takes all this so personally and is overreacting while everyone else around him (even victim's relatives who are more directly concerned than him) seem more fatalistic and reserved. It's his (shameful) narcissistic trauma that speaks here and the war crimes are only a convenient catalyst (for public display).

Though I'm not questioning the justness of his cause. It's just unusual that in a country ravaged by the war death toll and a defeat humiliation, his campaign would get so little support, that he would be the only victim ready to stand up. There doesn't seem to be a popular movement to back him up and call for public accountability.

Edwin Mak said...

Harry - I believe you have already hit the nail on the head. It is this trauma, that the narcissistic conversion appeals to, or converts from in mourning work. Derrida is quite the Freudian on this concept. I think Okuzaki is the most vivid example of this I have seen.

What is also interesting is how this kind of narcissism might relate to Brian's revealing post on "autoperformance". Can we assume that Okuzaki would autoperform without Hara's camera gaze? Historically, in light of Okuzaki's prolific protests, pre-filming, the gaze of the public is enough. Autoperfomative narcissism anyone?

HarryTuttle said...

There is an Oedipus conflict of nationwide dimension there, where Hirohito plays the surrogate father who must be killed...

Yes that's interesting how clever he is in incorporating cinema in his discourse. But I definitely think he would express his anger in public any which way. He obviously uses Hara more than Hara uses him. That's why I'm not really impressed by the film, Hara is prisoner of the control freak that is Okusaki.

girish said...

"I hope I don't come across too much as someone that is consumed by theory."

No, Edwin. See, this is exactly what I like about Chris' vision for this site: the opportunity for academics and cinephiles to start up a dialogue. So, thank you for your quotations and explanation--they were very helpful.

Harry, I like it that Hara and Okuzaki were both of use to each other in furthering their ends, they were deeply beneficial to each other's purposes. Without Okuzaki, the film wouldn't exist.