Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Okuzaki's Shtick

Following Rick Olson's "Prophetic Performance and the Documentary Gaze", I find that I'm fixated on Okuzaki Kenzo's shtick, on his performance of himself before Hara's camera, on what performance studies types like me might call Otuzaki's "autoperformance" (click here for an apt elaboration of the premise within a performance art context).

As we see throughout the film, Okuzaki is an adept improviser, capable of calibrating his autoperformance to provoke or to calm his audience in a flash second. Yet, like the most skilled improvisers, Okuzaki also relies upon some well-rehearsed stock pieces, familiar bits of business easily deployed at a moment's notice depending on the audience's shifting needs. Hara's camera captures most of Okuzaki's shtick repeatedly. Indeed, by the end of the film, the viewer has perhaps unknowingly become something of an expert on Okuzaki's distinctive "act."

To illustrate, Okuzaki deploys different items in his repertoire toward distinct effects. Some redirect the action of the scene when things threaten to spin out of his control ("I'll call the cops for you"). Others utilize ostensibly factual declaratives to verbally reassert Okuzaki's authority ("I went to prison for 13 years and 9 months" or "You were my commander but I'm a better man than you"). Still others are mostly non-verbal as when -- in each of his three filmed assaults on his interviewees -- he pauses, while poised in a position of dominance, to politely request his victim's assent. Hara's film fully documents these performative aspects of Okuzaki's ambush interview style. In so doing, Hara's camera forcefully illustrates that, as much as each encounter is its own "real" event occurring in its own "real" time, Okuzaki has the benefit of ample rehearsal for his part in each performance.

Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of Okuzaki's shtick comes in his brief collaboration with the surviving siblings of the two murdered privates. As these grieving individuals get into the swing of Okuzaki's act, they too begin to improvise, demanding their own answers from the interviews as distinct from Okuzaki's own interrogatives. The siblings' privileged status as visibly grieving survivors inspires the sustained attention and respect of the interviewees (which Okuzaki is quick to exploit as he forwards his own, by now familiar, claims). But these grieving siblings also upstage Okuzaki, as the interviewees increasingly direct their communication to the family members and ignore Okuzaki. Little surprise then, when the siblings -- for reasons that not made clear by either Hara or Okuzaki -- choose not accompany Okuzaki on future outings, that Okuzaki folds "their" presence into his own shtick by "casting" his wife and friends in the roles "originated" by the actual siblings, directing them to "act well but let me do the talking."

Okuzaki understands the circuit of performance -- recall his instruction to the grieving mother to "start over" when she "messed up" her vocal lament for her lost son -- but the fact that he's performing doesn't make his actions any less "real." Consider his savvy expression of his alibis, his "reasons" for doing what he's doing. I caught three, usually presented in the same sequence and using the same inflection. The first ("to console the souls" of the dead) assuages the spirit, while the second ("to tell the truth about war" so as to prevent future conflicts) addresses the conscience. Okuzaki seems to intuit that these first two make sense to most people. This might be why Okuzaki keeps the lid on his third and arguably most imperative reason ("to reveal Hirohito as a war criminal") the only one of his alibis to directly address the intellect -- for it outs Okuzaki as something of a crackpot and is especially vulnerable to what becomes a familiar rebuke, "That's your opinion." (Indeed, the statement "that's your opinion" seems to work like kryptonite for Okuzaki, requiring that he immediately reboot his performance with a distinctly different bit of business.)

Yet as much as Okuzaki is a skilled performer, I suspect he's most interesting for his adept use of the performative. Okuzaki's "act" -- through careful verbal and embodied repetion -- does help to instantiate the evidentiary reality of the counternarrative he seeks. The "truth" is revealed through Okuzaki's shticky fakery. All of which opens yet another angle on the question that everyone seems to have about this film: would Okuzaki's autonomous, adept performance shtick have done the work we see it do without the ratifying audience provided by Hara's lens?

-- Brian Herrera AKA StinkyLulu
(see also my unedited ramblings on the film here)


HarryTuttle said...

Great analysis of the staging in the film. This is what the film is all about, Okuzaki's performance. However, even if Okuzaki appears to be self-conscious about his screen presence and the influence of the camera on people's behaviour, I wouldn't say this is as much a consciously planned theatrical performance as you put it. I think it's something natural to him, something unconscious.
Let's remember this guy spent 12 years in prison prior to this film. And he probably spent all this isolated time ruminating his agenda in his head, over and over, convincing himself of his righteousness, of his mission, of his criminal goals...
This guy was bold enough before prison to assault the emperor himself! That's not only regular courage, it's a taboo move in Japanese society. It was not a blow at the commender in chief, it was a blow at a god. He has reasons to feel like a very special Japanese citizen there, and to brag about it to warn about what he's capable of to his interviewees. Okuzaki's rage is totally legit and spontaneous.

You're right to say that it looks like well rehearsed routines. But I would rather attribute this incredible sense of performance to his intelligence and his reckless obsession. This guy has nothing to lose, nothing can stop him. He's ready to taunt the police, he's ready to go back in jail, he's ready to beat up anybody (even his wife), he's ready to kill someone, and never feels sorry about it because it serves his cause thus is entirely justified.
This enormous confidence makes his behaviour so much more in control than his interviewees who are on the defensive and have everything to lose, push out of their comfort zone in the very cocoon of their private home.

And there is obviously no other way to get the truth out of the closet. In a very shy and reserved society like Japan, you could ask politely for justice and they will work they way out by declining politely (not to mention they are protected by an unspoken governmental immunity).

HarryTuttle said...

The scene at the grave where a mother sings for her lost son is quite telling about Okuzaki's performance indeed. He's acting like a movie director, he's taking Hara's role there.
And when the medic fights back and hold him down on the floor, he addresses the camera asking to stop the shooting because he's being beaten up! He's conscious about his image on film, about what looks good and what might play against him.

But overall I would say he's ready to do whatever he has to do, and wants to use the media at his advantage. He's seeking to spread his message to the mass, and cinema is a convenient way to do so. He's not an attention-seeking wannabe-TV-star. I honestly don't think he's doing this for fame, he really believes in what he's doing, and even if what drives him to do it is an unconscious repressed conflict, he's sincere in supporting this cause. He's not cunning in consciously using this national grief to make himself an important character (either in this film or in Japan).

So the tricks you astutely noticed in his performance are to me totally natural to his own paranoid tendency.

(sorry for the long comments that are forbidden on this blog)

StinkyLulu said...


By explicating Okuzaki's autoperformance, I do not intend any claims that his self-presentation is theatre, or that his use of the theatrical reveals him as a cynical huckster/manipulator.

Rather, I only mean to say his shtik operates as an important part of the art of his personality, a key component of his protest strategy, and an essential feature of why he's so fascinating a subject. Not every crackpot is as instrumental as Okuzaki.

Your comments, though, raise another aspect of Okuzaki's attraction to the performative that I find interesting: he violates social taboos to make his point. Not to garner media attention, or even to raise consciousness, but as a conscious act of meaningful intervention. (Indeed, as best as I can tell, he sees his violent outbursts as interventions into the falsities of the polite/conventional narrative.)

And another point of clarification: I don't think that Okuzaki set out to rehearse his shtick (as an actor might prior to the audience's arrival). Rather, I do mean to highlight the ways in which his repertoire of strategies and techniques seem to have been fortified and refined through his tenacious repetition.

HarryTuttle said...

We agree.

girish said...

A terrific post, Brian.

"another aspect of Okuzaki's attraction to the performative that I find interesting: he violates social taboos to make his point."

I was doing some background reading, and found this interesting: the 'official' Japanese position on the role of the Emperor during the war took a few years after the end of the war to be installed. e.g. Around 1950 or so, a member of Parliament raised questions about the exact role of the Emperor and whether he should claim responsibility publicly (which he had not done). These questions were never reported in the press at the time. In time, the 'official' position became: the Emperor is a pacifist who was swayed by militarists, and it is they who are to blame for Japan's entry into the war. Any views that questioned this position became taboo.

I found it interesting that criticizing the Emperor for the Japanese role in the war was not always quite so taboo, and there was a small window after the war when things were in flux and some small attempts at dissent did occur in certain pockets before it all closed down entirely.

HarryTuttle said...

weepingsam wrote at his blog : "Okuzaki tracks down this mystery, interviewing all the surviving witnesses - but he does it like a detective - he doesn't just seek the truth about what happened 40 odd years before, he seeks to inflict justice in the present as well. (And yes, "inflict" seems to be the right word there.)"

and it convokes in my memory the scene from Pulp Fiction, where Jules Winnfield patronizes the young guys before his heavenly revelation. Okuzaki possess this feeling of being the arm of justice, a divine justice (Jules recites the Bible to justify his assassinations!).