Like any good social drama, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On opens with a wedding and ends with a crime. In between, Kenzo Okuzaki, a man in his 60s, travels across Japan, first in a van covered with hand-written signs, then by train and ferry, confronting veterans about atrocities committed by Japan against its soldiers during World War II. Thin, wiry, with a finger missing on his right hand, he has the bearing of a wild dog. He's got the kind of vitality than only comes with age; his anger is the spirit of a man fighting time. The passiveness of the people he confronts is the kind that comes from accepting infirmity. "Everyone has the right to live in peace," says an incontinent veteran. A few minutes earlier, Okuzaki had kicked him to the ground.
Director and cameraman Kazuo Hara is Okuzaki's accomplice and Okuzaki is Hara's. Okuzaki's actions are motivated by the presence of a camera crew. He coerces people into confessions not for the sake of confessing, but for the sake of capturing them on audio tape and film. He's uninterested in "stories everyone knows." He wants to make private burdens public. Things must be said not to be said, but so that others can hear them. When a man offers to tell a soldier's relatives about war atrocities in private, Okuzaki angrily refuses with the authority of a director asking an actor for another take.
But Hara has the upper hand. He may may be giving the real-life Okuzaki authority, but the filmed Okuzaki is a character in Hara's movie. And the movie's intentions are quite different from Okuzaki's. It's after a secret, morally complicated history, and finds the perfect vehicle by presenting a man who openly sees the world in black-and-white. The film's Okuzaki is the lie that tells the truth. His aggressive, mannered personality is like a pane of polished glass, completely transparent and reflective of everything around it.
Watching films, we become astronomers, who detect the locations of planets and stars through calculations and hypotheses instead of images. No one needs to tell us that the real-life Okuzaki is tolerated as a crank, because the filmed Okuzaki's confrontations are always bookended with his polite arrival and equally polite departure. His "victims" are rarely apologetic about their wartime actions but always apologetic about the house being a mess or not having anything for tea. No one needs to tell us that the past is something muddled and impossible to understand--more opaque than the future, even--because Okuzaki is so hell-bent on simplifying it, on having everyone stick to one story. A receptive interviewer would only mirror his subjects. A passive one would only reveal his motivations. But here he is, replacing a soldier's grieving relatives with actors (his wife, a friend and a like-minded anarchist) who ask less questions and project more dread. And by showing us a false simplicity, Hara shows us how complicated truth can be.